'Undo the damage': How a new ad campaign in Lebanon is fuelling violence against Syrian refugees

Ad campaign - Cian Ward
6 min read
23 April, 2024

'Undo the damage, before it’s too late'. This is the tagline of a controversial new ad campaign underway in Lebanon, fuelling a surge in violence targeting Syrian refugees.

New billboards began popping up nationwide in March, with TV spots airing on MTV, carrying a rallying call that “the Syrian displaced issue needs immediate action”.

Leaning heavily on xenophobic messaging, the campaign is further instigating a generalised climate of hostility towards refugees, a climate that has led to an increase in violent attacks that have erupted in recent weeks following the death of prominent Christian politician, Pascal Sleiman, in north Lebanon.

As of December 2023, Lebanon holds, by the government’s estimation, around 1.5 million Syrian refugees. This represents the largest number of refugees per capita and per square kilometre of any country on earth.

"Leaning heavily on xenophobic messaging, the campaign is further instigating a generalised climate of hostility towards Syrian refugees"

The new campaign was launched by an NGO World House of Lebanon, in partnership with MTV Lebanon, and the Chamber of Commerce Industry and Agriculture. No organisation involved responded to The New Arab’s request for comment.

Lebanon remains in a deep economic crisis. Political deadlock has impeded much-needed structural reform, and in December the World Bank assessed that, due to the war in Gaza, Lebanon has re-entered recession.

The messaging of the campaign, built around the slogan ‘Undo the Damage’, frames Syrian refugees as responsible. A position frequently echoed by Lebanese politicians yet contested by many experts.

“Most of the deterioration of Lebanon's economic indicators happened before the 2011 Syrian crisis,” Dr Ali Fakih, Professor of Economics at the Lebanese American University (LAU), told The New Arab.

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“[Lebanon’s] economic structure has suffered from bad public policy since the 1990s … the fundamental economic mismanagement, the dominance of the financial and banking sectors, the high interest rates … these have no relationship with the presence of refugees.”

Alongside the billboard campaign, MTV is running a series of TV ads that heavily utilise xenophobic tropes. In one advert, Ibrahim, a Syrian refugee living in a tent camp, introduces his seven children, and his wife, pregnant with an eighth.

The messaging plays on fears that Lebanon's fragile sectarian balance will be overturned by the influx of Syrian refugees, living in squalid conditions. An investigation by L’Orient Today revealed that images of supposed Lebanese tent camps were actually taken in Turkey and Jordan.

In another advert, a voiceover narrates; “Lebanon’s population is split in half: The first is made up of Syrian refugees, and the second is of Lebanese wanting to emigrate”. The implication is that as more Lebanese emigrate, Syrian demographic dominance will be inevitable.

There are around 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. [Getty/File]

According to Lama Abou Kharroub, an analyst familiar with Syrian issues, these demographic fears sit at the core of the Lebanese identity. “The question of demography is nonsense, the government doesn't want them, they will not give them citizenship,” she told TNA.

In 2020 a bill was proposed that would prevent all stateless people born in Lebanon after 2011, the year of the Syrian crisis, from obtaining citizenship.

Kharroub told The New Arab that “violence became very harsh in the last year, after the government issued a full campaign [against Syrians] … that is designed to shift anger towards Syrians and away from their failure to run the country”.

"The messaging of the campaign, launched by NGO World House of Lebanon and MTV Lebanon, plays on fears that Lebanon's fragile sectarian balance will be overturned by the influx of Syrian refugees"

Under threat from the state

Syrian refugees are frequently targeted by the Lebanese state. According to UNHCR, 83% don’t hold legal residency, largely due to barriers put in place by the government, which human rights organisations have criticised as designed to pressure refugees to return to Syria.

UNHCR estimates that 90% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in abject poverty. Without legal residency, Syrian refugees are unable to rent property or work legally. Reliant on aid or irregular work, refugees are at significant risk of exploitation.

According to The Access Centre for Human Rights, the state regularly violates their human rights through arbitrary security measures including indiscriminate detention, the destruction of property, and physical violence.

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Lebanon has also summarily deported thousands of Syrians. Lebanese politicians have sought to claim that Syria represents a safe country, although this is fiercely disputed by human rights organisations. In recent weeks, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati unveiled plans to comprehensively survey Syrians and deport those who don't meet the status of displaced.

Mahmoud - whose name has been changed - fled Syria in 2012. Having lived in Lebanon for twelve years, Mahmoud was stopped by the police in February, near his home in Beirut. He was arrested and quickly deported. In Syria, he was given seven days to report for military duty, but fearing for his life, he quickly made plans to get away. Mahmoud paid a trafficker $300 to be smuggled back to Lebanon, where he remains, living in fear.

He told The New Arab, “I am scared because if I get caught again, in Syria they won’t release me, they will send me directly to the military … before I felt free [in Lebanon] but now I have to calculate when I can travel, to make sure that no one will catch me”.

Hatred against Syrian refugees has been quietly simmering for a while, intermittently erupting into violence earlier this year. [Getty]

Xenophobic anger is becoming violent

Racism towards Syrians is widespread in Lebanon. The New Arab spoke to Fadi, a Syrian who came to Lebanon two years ago after his Dad was killed. “I am responsible for my mum and four sisters, I pay for their living … but I have no papers, I can’t get accommodation here, [and when] they know I am Syrian, they reduce my salary, or they ask me to stop working,” he said.

This hatred has been quietly simmering for a while, intermittently erupting into violence. In February, street fights erupted between Syrian and Lebanese youth in Beirut, following the stabbing of a Lebanese man by a Syrian national. This followed an incident in October, which required army intervention to stop violence between Syrians and Lebanese in Beirut's Doura district.

Tensions boiled over in recent weeks following the killing of Lebanese Forces politician Pascal Sleiman, reportedly at the hands of a Syrian gang. As his supporters gathered in Byblos to express their dismay, videos circulated on social media reportedly showing Syrians being beaten in the street by groups of men. Cars carrying Syrian number plates and Syrian-owned businesses have also been attacked.

"Fuelled by campaigns like 'Undo the Damage', fanned by the rhetoric of politicians, and exacerbated by the exclusionary policies of the Lebanese state, anger is now being unleashed against Syrian refugees in uncontrolled ways"

In towns across Lebanon, Christians have warned Syrians to vacate their homes and businesses under the threat of violence. Meanwhile, reports have emerged of checkpoints being set up by vigilantes hoping to catch and assault Syrians.

Khalil, a Syrian refugee living in Lebanon, was one of those targeted. “I was in Jnah when some Lebanese guys came and put a knife to my throat, someone took my phone and started insulting me for being Syrian,” he told TNA.

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“Some regions in Lebanon don’t want Syrians, like in Bourj Hammoud, I won't go to problem neighbourhoods, I don't want problems, I just want to work.”

Several municipalities have put in place curfews prohibiting the movement of Syrian refugees, and bylaws mandating the closure of Syrian-owned establishments. Leading politicians have urged for calm, whilst simultaneously denouncing the presence of Syrian refugees.

This rage, fuelled by campaigns like ‘Undo the Damage’, fanned by the rhetoric of politicians, and exacerbated by the exclusionary policies of the Lebanese state, is now being unleashed in uncontrolled ways, putting Lebanon’s most vulnerable at risk.

Cian Ward is a Beirut-based journalist with an interest in migration and asylum-related issues