Hate speech against Syrian refugees rises again in Lebanon
Beirut - Anti-Syrian refugee rhetoric spiked in Lebanon following an incident involving the Lebanese Army and terror suspects allegedly hiding in refugee camps in Arsal on the Lebanese- Syrian border.
The incident, in which troops were injured, touched off calls to repatriate refugees and a campaign against them on social media. At the same time, other people cautioned against rising racist speech.
Tensions exacerbated after the death of four Syrian detainees in military custody, further polarising opinions. Some accused the army of torturing them to death but others expressed solidarity with the troops in their fight against terrorism.
“We are very concerned about increasing discrimination and racism against Syrians in Lebanon,” said Bassam Khawaja, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW). “There have been several cases of Syrians being beaten and insulted in the last few weeks and it is happening in the context in which politicians are calling for Syrians to return back to Syria.
“It is not helpful to have statements blaming Syrians for issues of the Lebanese economy, unemployment, insecurity and extremism in Lebanon without any evidence or factual basis.”
A video circulating on social media showed at least three Lebanese punching, kicking and insulting an unarmed Syrian refugee. It stirred an outcry from human rights activists and the suspected perpetrators were arrested.
High-ranking politicians also sounded anti-refugee rhetoric. Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian political party, called on the United Nations to return the refugees and warned that Lebanon “will not tolerate them anymore.”
Approximately 1.1 million Syrian refugees are registered by the UNHCR in Lebanon but their number is believed to exceed 1.5 million. They live in homes and informal camps, putting pressure on limited resources and ageing infrastructure available to Lebanon’s 4 million citizens.
“In Lebanon, we have for years seen problems with the economy, the government, garbage disposal and health care, etc... This is truly not a thing that started with the influx of Syrian refugees though their presence has put a strain on infrastructure. Scapegoating them as the root of these problems without any evidence is very problematic,” Khawaja said.
Human rights expert and member of the parliament committee on human rights Ghassan Moukheiber described tensions between the Lebanese and Syrians as an “expression of hatred.”
“It is not about racism that has to do with being aloof or considering the Syrian nationality as a lower grade nationality,” he said. “It is a combination of security and economic fears. It is worse than racism. It is close to hatred.
“Unfortunately, that was expected from day one. We have seen such sentiments in Europe, except that in Europe they have fewer numbers than the Syrian refugees in Lebanon, who have exceeded one-third of the Lebanese population. The ugly rhetoric and the vilifying of refugees are the symptoms of a much deeper problem.”
“We need to address the root causes including the security fears and economic competition. A policy for their (refugees’) safe return is one that would definitely seek to address these causes,” Moukheiber said.
“The long-term solution for the refugee crisis is peace in Syria,” he said. “The other step while waiting for peace and stability in Syria, is assuring their safe return wherever possible to areas in Syria that are stable and secure. A third option would be limiting their contact with Lebanese and assuring they do not constitute a security threat, as is the case now in Arsal.”
As tempers against Syrians fray, Lebanese political parties appear to be united in seeking a repatriation plan but they differ on how to proceed.
“Hezbollah (an ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad) wants repatriation to be coordinated with Damascus,” said journalist Amin Kammourieh. “They are trying to re-establish the relationship between Lebanon and Damascus through the file of the refugees, by pressuring the government to negotiate their return with the Syrian regime.”
Anti-Syria politicians, including Prime Minister Saad Hariri, want the repatriation to be part of a UN plan.
Anti-refugee sentiments have been brewing for years with Lebanese viewing the long-term presence of Syrians as a burden, even an imposition. A string of suicide attacks on the border village of Qaa in July 2016 prompted discrimination against Syrians. Some municipalities have imposed curfews on refugees, ordering night raids on homes and even evicting them.
With the experience of hosting Palestinian refugees for decades, many Lebanese fear that many Syrians may never leave the country.
“Clearly people are scared and sensitive,” Khawaja said, “but discriminating against the Syrians will not make this country any safer.”