Syrian refugees facing insoluble dilemma in Lebanon

Syrian refugees in Lebanon have never enjoyed easy accommodation and favourable working conditions but their situation is more difficult and more in jeopardy than before.
Saturday 13/07/2019
Surrounded by uncertainties. Syrian refugee children play on rubble of dismantled concrete huts at a makeshift Syrian refugee camp in Arsal, Lebanon, July 4. (Reuters)
Surrounded by uncertainties. Syrian refugee children play on rubble of dismantled concrete huts at a makeshift Syrian refugee camp in Arsal, Lebanon, July 4. (Reuters)

Since the Syrian civil war began, and as millions were internally displaced or fled the country, Lebanon has felt the effect.

Approximately 1.5 million Syrians reside in Lebanon, which has a population of 6 million. The situation is the responsibility of Lebanon’s government, one it does not relish, and a reminder to the Lebanese of the conflict in the country on their border and the uncertain times in which they live.

As in other countries that have taken in refugees from Syria’s war and the broader Mediterranean migration crisis, popular opinion has not been uniform and it has not been positive.

No country could have hosted a refugee population as large or comprising as great a proportion of its inhabitants as Lebanon has without popular disquiet. In Lebanon’s case, after eight years of war, not only is generosity of spirit towards Syrian refugees less in evidence but rhetoric by the public and politicians has become less kind. Policies pursued by Lebanon’s leaders are putting the future of Lebanon’s refugee population in jeopardy.

At the beginning of July, an arbitrary deadline began to be enforced. In eastern Lebanon, to make Syrian refugees’ ability to stay less permanent, officials restricted materials they could use to build temporary homes. Those built of concrete were not allowed and would, after July 1, be demolished.

Many refugees, in compliance with this ruling, had already demolished their own homes, replacing them with plastic or wooden structures, which have been permitted.

However, many concrete buildings remained and, to enforce the ruling, Lebanon’s military set about demolishing 20 homes the day after the deadline passed. Troops moved into camps around Arsal at 4.30am July 1, rights groups said, and used bulldozers to raze houses.

As before, Syrian refugees were reported to be responsible for disposing of the rubble the demolition of their homes created.

This was likely intended as a warning rather than the beginning of mass eviction but is a demonstration that the Lebanese state desires to be seen to mean business. Another point of pressure facing Syrian refugees in Lebanon is employment. There, too, the Lebanese government is exerting force on Syrians in the country.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil insisted the increasing restrictions are primarily carried out using existing laws and enforcing those that had fallen into disuse amid the chaos of a refugee exodus. Human Rights Watch, however, considers the demolition of shelters and the order prompting it “one of many recent actions to crank up pressure on Syrian refugees to go back.”

Another point of pressure is that of employment. Of the more than 1 million Syrians in Lebanon, many are forced to take work that is often not only unpleasant and insecure but technically illegal. Refugees registered with the United Nations — just less than 1 million of the total in Lebanon — are not legally allowed to work but, to support themselves and their families, many nonetheless do.

Approximately 500,000 of the Syrians in Lebanon are registered workers rather than refugees. They have sponsorship from employers and generally labour in protected significant industries, such as agriculture.

The Lebanese Ministry of Labour has raided businesses that employ Syrians, levying fines on those that did and forcing closures of some Syrian-owned businesses.

As in housing, the justification offered by Lebanese ministers for this active policy is legalistic. Lebanese Labour Minister Kamil Abu Suleiman suggested Lebanon was “applying the law in a courteous, calm and dignified but strict manner” and that those who were likely to await the end of this period of raids and fines should not expect a return to leniency.

“Employers must pay a fine of 1.5 million Lebanese pounds ($1,000) for every violation. If a shop is not licensed, it will be closed until the owner regulates his situation,” Suleiman said.

Syrian refugees in Lebanon have never enjoyed easy accommodation and favourable working conditions but their situation is more difficult and more in jeopardy than before. With Lebanese politicians and public increasingly concerned by the presence of refugees and with goodwill worn down after eight years of conflict in their neighbour state, the refugees’ cause is not a popular one.

As the regime of Bashar Assad, for now secure in Damascus, makes increasing efforts to gain both international recognition and goodwill, it has begun a dual approach to refugees: appealing to countries with large refugee populations by suggesting that those refugees can return to a Syria at peace under Assad; and appealing to wealthy countries for financial aid with the justification of reconstructing Syria so its refugees might return.

Amid this effort and with very little international opposition, Syrian refugees are facing a shortage of goodwill and increasingly sustained efforts to make their lives uncomfortable and force them from what have become their countries of residence — residence that ought to be, as Lebanese authorities seem keen to make clear, possible only on a temporary basis.

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