July 23, 2017

Making Syrian refugees feel unwelcome in Lebanon

Under watchful eyes. Hezbollah members escort a convoy of Syrian refugees at the border town of Arsal, on July. (Reuters)

Beirut- Hezbollah is on a collision course with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, surprisingly, over the fate of the 1.5 million Syrian refugees who have been liv­ing in Lebanon since 2011.
The Shia party argues that many of the refugees are secret affiliates of radical jihadis Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State (ISIS) and sees them as a security threat to Leba­non.
Hezbollah claims that at least 43% of the refugees are from Syrian towns and cities that are now safe, as they are included in the de-con­flict zones that were agreed upon at the latest round of ceasefire talks in Astana. Hariri insists on keeping the refugees in Lebanon on humanitar­ian grounds, arguing that arrest or death awaits them if they cross the border, as many fall broadly within the anti-regime camp in Syria or are related to the armed opposition.
A series of unfortunate and report­edly deliberate events disrupted the ruined lives of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon, making them feel very un­wanted. In early July, back-to-back fires broke out at a refugee camp in the Bekaa Valley, destroying more than 20 tents and killing one child. Many Syrians said the fire was sabo­tage by Lebanese associates of the Damascus regime.
Simultaneously, the Lebanese Army raided the town of Arsal in north-eastern Lebanon, a hub for Syrian refugees. Four Syrians set off explosives, killing themselves, dur­ing battles with the Lebanese Army and four others were arrested. On July 4, the Lebanese military issued a statement saying that all of the Syrians involved had died in custo­dy due to “poor health conditions.” On July 14, Human Rights Watch claimed that a fifth Syrian detainee had died in prison.
The following day, the Lebanese Army said that 356 Syrians were in custody, 56 for prosecution and 257 for lack of proper residency papers. Photos went viral on social media of Syrian refugees squatting with hands behind their heads and backs, being maltreated by Lebanese mili­tary personnel.
Angry Syrian refugees teamed up, preparing to stage a loud demon­stration against the Lebanese Army, a protest halted by Interior Minister Nihad Machnouk. This infuriated Lebanese public opinion. Activ­ists accused the Syrians wanting to demonstrate of being ungrateful and of insulting the official military institution of the Lebanese republic. Some Syrians condemned the move, saying that, as guests, it was not their right to criticise any form of of­ficial Lebanon.
A similar situation emerged in Egypt in 2013 when Syrians took to the streets in support of the toppled regime of President Muhammad Morsi, prompting Egyptian authori­ties to have them locked up and de­ported.

Speaking to MTV Lebanon, Minis­ter of State for Refugee Affairs Muin al-Murebi said: “Syrian intelligence are behind the suspicious call for a demonstration against the Lebanese Army.”
On July 18, a video depicting two Lebanese beating a Syrian refu­gee and cursing him for wanting to demonstrate against the Lebanese Army went viral. The Lebanese are shown insulting the refugee, accus­ing him of being an agent for the Is­lamic State (ISIS). The video further enflamed emotions on both sides of the spectrum.
All this went hand in hand with a systematic online campaign in the Beirut media, especially in pro- Hezbollah outlets, accusing refu­gees of draining the economy and of “stealing food from the mouth of the Lebanese.” Lengthy articles were published showing how much of a security threat the refugees had become and how depleted the Leba­nese economy was becoming, as it provided Syrian refugees with shel­ter, schools, water and electricity.
Hezbollah figures accused the Hariri team of lobbying for the refu­gees’ stay because they attract huge economic assistance from abroad, money that is often illegally pock­eted by profiteers and merchants of the Syrian refugee crisis.

Earlier in the year, for example, Lebanon officially requested $11.5 billion-$13.8 billion from the Euro­pean Union for humanitarian assis­tance for Syrian refugees. The Eu­ropean Union has already allocated $634.6 million.
Hezbollah claims that very little of that money ended up in the Syrian camps. The influential Beirut daily An-Nahar reported that the Syrian refugees have become “the goose that has the golden egg,” unleashing a “fountain of corruption” in Leba­non.
Members of the Saudi-backed Hariri camp argue that Hezbollah wants them out because it doesn’t see them as 1.5 million souls but, rather, as “1.5 million Sunnis” who challenge Hezbollah’s demograph­ic superiority in Lebanon. They strongly deny accusations of profi­teering at the expense of the Syrian refugees.
Hezbollah has been trying to push the Syrians back into Syria at least since early 2015. Strict regulations were imposed by the Hezbollah-backed Directorate of General Secu­rity, forcing refugees to obtain a resi­dency permit that cost up to $1,000, which is more than what ordinary refugee households can afford. Only 21% of them stayed behind and paid the amount, compared to 58% in 2015-16.

Additionally, many were insulted and maltreated on the borders, and measures were imposed prevent­ing the arrival of new refugees. Any Syrian wanting to cross the Syrian- Lebanese border under Hezbollah’s watchful eye had to prove financial independence by presenting au­thorities with a valid hotel reserva­tion or plane ticket, proving that he was a tourist or passer-by rather than a refugee-in-the-making, and to show a valid bank account or $1,000 in cash.
If these measures are not enough to convince the refugees to pack up and leave, then more intimidation is likely to follow, ranging from arrests and curfews on Syrians to expel­ling them from schools and making them feel more and more unwel­come in Lebanon.

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