Mounting discrimination against Syrians in Lebanon
Beirut - Economic depression, unemployment, bombing attacks linked to the Syrian conflict and pressure on a flimsy infrastructure have exacerbated public and official resentment towards Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
Incidents in which refugees have been beaten by vigilante groups, arrested for not holding legal residence permits or evicted from villages in reaction to security incidents are increasingly being reported.
After five years of hosting more than 1 million Syrian refugees, Lebanon is obviously strained and people’s tolerance is running thin. Many blame the Syrians for Lebanon’s many woes in what rights groups say amounts to racism.
“In the beginning, we were welcomed and well-treated but for more than a year now we started to face harassment, restrictions on our movement and a kind of racist practices,” said Mohamad, a 55-year-old Syrian refugee from Homs who asked to be identified only by his first name.
“Every time there is a security incident we are singled out as suspects. Even my children are being harassed by Lebanese students at school who blame Syrians for Lebanon’s instability and rising criminality. My 16-year-old daughter asked me to leave Lebanon for a country that respects the human being but we have no choice except to stay here and put up with this situation,” he added.
Intolerance for refugees is “understandable” but “not justified”, according to Georges Ghali of Lebanese rights group Act for Human Rights (ALEF).
“The problems that the Lebanese currently face, although they increased exponentially with the refugee crisis, have always persisted, including unemployment, poor infrastructure and services,” Ghali said. “The government never had a proper employment or labour protection policy in the first place to now blame it on the Syrian refugees.”
“What we are facing now is a top-to-bottom and bottom-to-top racism towards Syrian refugees in the sense that resentment from the citizens is justified by the political class and (discriminatory) policies by the government, the police and municipalities are vindicated by the public,” Ghali added.
Following a series of suicide explosions that hit the Christian village of al-Qaa near the Syrian border in late June, police stepped up raids on refugee camps, rounding up hundreds of refugees for not possessing legal papers. Vigilante-style attacks on Syrian construction workers occurred in retaliation to the bombings.
Municipalities in many villages hosting refugees imposed night-time curfews, making it harder for Syrians, who already fear arbitrary arrest, to move around or work. In one instance, a municipality in northern Lebanon forced Syrian refugees to clean the village on Sundays without being paid.
According to Nadim Houry, director of Lebanon’s Human Rights Watch (HRW) bureau, the curfews are illegal and unjustified as they are not enforced by relevant security authorities for valid security reasons.
“Municipalities are neither equipped nor trained to enforce curfews or conduct arrests. If there is a real security threat, it should not be left to municipal police and young vigilantes to handle that but to the pertinent security forces… Some municipalities are also confiscating refugees’ IDs… It is all happening in a very chaotic and unregulated way that ultimately leads to the violation of basic rights,” Houry said.
He argued that lack of guidance and support from the central government placed municipalities in a difficult situation as they struggled to deal with the refugee crisis. “We have overwhelming challenges with underwhelming authorities who are basically outsourcing the problem in many ways to the municipalities,” he said, “but at the same time we cannot give municipalities a blank cheque to do whatever they want.”
HRW and ALEF have been monitoring discrimination incidents against Syrian refugees but many abuses are not reported.
“We know about them by word of mouth,” Houry said. “Refugees are afraid to go to police because they would be arrested for illegal stay in the country and they basically don’t trust police will protect them or defend them against any potential reprisals if they complain.”
Many refugees are illegally staying in Lebanon because they cannot afford a $200 annual residency fee, even if they are registered with the UN refugee agency.
Though rights activists staged anti-racism marches to protest growing xenophobia, the popular mood is turning hostile towards the Syrians.
Khaled Maksoud, a Lebanese car mechanic, said he has good reason to resent Syrians. “I have been unemployed for four years. My former boss replaced me with two Syrian workers for the same pay I was getting. We simply can’t work anymore,” he said, adding that the government is to blame for failing to regulate the work of foreigners.
“There is no doubt that after five years of the refugee crisis, Lebanese tolerance and solidarity is wearing down and what is needed now is to have smart policies to reduce tensions and minimise the problem,” Houry observed.