Hate speech against Syrian refugees rises again in Lebanon

Sunday 20/08/2017

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.”