Syrian refugees feeling increasingly unwelcome in Lebanon

Mirroring the rise of anti-migrant sentiment around the world, some Lebanese officials are making their most aggressive campaign yet for refugees to return to Syria.
Sunday 23/06/2019
Syrian refugees outside their tents, in the Bekaa Valley town of Saadnayel, east Lebanon. (AP)
Dire conditions. Syrian refugees outside their tents, in the Bekaa Valley town of Saadnayel, east Lebanon. (AP)

BEIRUT - While the number of refugees globally swelled to a record 70 million in 2018, Lebanon has struggled to have more than 1 million Syrians repatriated 8 years after they fled the devastating conflict in their home country.

Pressures, hate speech and anti-Syrian sentiment have increased as Lebanon faced austerity measures and a weakened economy. Many Lebanese politicians and groups say Lebanon can no longer bear the burden of hosting the refugees, calling for them to go home as the fighting there is winding down.

For many Lebanese, the Syrians have no reason to stay any longer in Lebanon. Two incidents in June demonstrated growing public and official intolerance caused by the protracted refugee situation in the country of nearly 5 million that has the highest concentration of refugees per capita.

More than 600 refugees were evicted from their shelters in Deir al-Ahmar in the Bekaa Valley following an altercation with locals. In the border town of Arsal, where 60,000 refugees live in informal camps, Syrians had to tear down concrete structures after a Lebanese Army ultimatum to remove any wall taller than waist high.

Mirroring the rise of anti-migrant sentiment around the world, some Lebanese officials are making their most aggressive campaign yet for refugees to return to Syria.

The Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) led by Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who is also the son-in-law of Lebanese President Michel Aoun, has been the most outspoken. During an FPM rally under the slogan of “Employ a Lebanese,” protesters chanted: “Syria get out.” Some attempted to storm a shop run by a Syrian, sparking a scuffle. Posters have appeared in streets and online calling on residents to report any Syrian working without a permit.

FPM allies in the government have begun enforcing laws that were previously overlooked, shutting down shops owned by or employing Syrians without permits and ordering the demolition of anything in refugee camps that could be a permanent home.

Nasser Yassin, a professor at the American University of Beirut and director of research at Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy, said the anti-refugee campaign could be politically motivated.

“The refugees can be used by politicians to serve their political ambitions and to divert public attention from current hot issues like the economy and bad services. These people (refugees) are easy to victimise. You can easily single them out and blame them for the country’s economic and social woes,” Yassin said.

“What’s happening is an exaggeration about the impact of refugees on the economy, unemployment and crime rate. It can only lead to fuel tensions between Syrians and the Lebanese.”

Despite relative security in many parts of Syria, Yassin argued that conditions are not right for refugees’ return, with no political settlement or guarantees for their safety.

“It is beyond just the security of the place. These people want to go back to their own towns and neighbourhoods but many cannot because of destruction or fear of intimidation and forced conscription in the army. Things are not that simple as politicians here are saying,” Yassin said.

While 30% of homes in Syria are destroyed or heavily damaged, no reconstruction is happening to facilitate the return of refugees, Yassin noted.

“You need the support of donor countries, which are not interested in funding any reconstruction with the current regime and in the absence of a political settlement. I don’t think the regime is willing to do any reforms and consequently we are stuck in a vicious circle,” Yassin added.

Many Lebanese complain that, despite $6 billion of foreign aid investment to support Lebanon, the flood of refugees has overwhelmed schools and the debilitated infrastructure, increased rent and forced Lebanese to compete with cheap Syrian labour.

However, some analysts said at the root of the issue is a profound and historic fear that the continued presence of Syrian refugees will disrupt Lebanon’s precarious demographic balance.

It has become a de facto policy to keep refugees in a state of discomfort to dissuade them from staying permanently. Evictions and army raids on refugee camps are on the rise; towns have introduced curfews specifically for Syrians.

Lebanese authorities estimate that more than 170,000 Syrians returned to their country from December 2017-March 2019, many through government-organised bus trips.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ “Global Trends” report stated that more than two-thirds of refugees worldwide were from Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia. Syria had a considerably higher number than any other country with 6.7 million, followed by Afghanistan with 2.7 million.

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