Syrian refugees in Lebanon being told to 'go home'
Human Rights Watch on Friday criticised Lebanese municipalities for what it called the unjustifiable expulsion of hundreds of Syrians from their homes since 2016, as sentiment against refugees simmers.
"At least 13 municipalities in Lebanon have forcibly evicted at least 3,664 Syrian refugees from their homes and expelled them from the municipalities, apparently because of their nationality or religion," from the start of 2016 through to the end of March this year, the rights group said.
Almost one million Syrians are registered as refugees in Lebanon, though many expect the real number is much higher.
The Mediterranean country's population stood at just four million before neighbouring Syria's war broke out in 2011, sending tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing across the border in search of safety.
Several politicians have blamed a flurry of social and economic woes in Lebanon on Syrian refugees, and calls for them to return have increased in the run-up to the country's first parliamentary elections in nearly a decade on May 6.
"Municipalities have no legitimate justification for forcibly evicting Syrian refugees if it amounts to nationality-based or religious discrimination," said Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch.
"Lebanese leaders should curb rhetoric that encourages or condones forced evictions, expulsions, and other discriminatory and harassing treatment of refugees in Lebanon," Frelick said.
Some politicians have been reiterating calls for Syrians to "go home."
The Lebanese army also took a hand in forcibly evicting Syrian refugees. According to the report, refugees interviewed by Human Rights Watch were constant in their description of the municipal police as rude and aggressive.
|Since 2016, Lebanese municipalities have been forcibly removing Syrian refugees from their localities, as politicians have been reiterating calls for Syrians to 'go home'|
Scapegoating and collective punishment
Syrian refugees living in the Mizyara district north of Lebanon at the time said they had lived amicably with their Lebanese counterparts for many years before an incident in which a Lebanese woman was raped and killed in September.
A Syrian man was convicted of the rape and murder of 26-year-old Raya Chidiac, which led to serious animosity between the local Lebanese population and Syrian refugees.
Iyad, 23, said he was living in Mizyara since 2012 without facing discrimination or other kinds of problems. He told HRW that on the fourth day after the incident, after the Syrian national was accused of the crime, he received a call from someone working in the Mizyara municipality.
The caller warned him that there were people raiding houses to find and beat up Syrians.
"That night cars were driving around and people were cursing Syrians on a megaphone. They had shotguns, sticks, and were hanging out the windows. Nine of them came right outside my house," Iyad said.
"They came just to our house since there aren’t other Syrians living on our block. They weren’t local people from Mizyara. They stayed until about 4am and we stayed inside. We were too afraid to sleep, thinking they would burst inside."
|That night cars were driving around and people were cursing Syrians on a megaphone. They had shotguns, sticks, and were hanging out the windows|
The tragic incident of Chidiac spread across other Lebanese provinces, collectively punishing Syrians.
A notice "issued by the Municipality of Bcharre, its priests and mukhtars" which said "our homes are not for strangers" was circulated, advocating yet more punishment.
"No one may impose on us settlements or emergency housing for newcomers at the expense of our people," the notice added.
Syrians were blamed for the "organised crime," and advocated restrictions for the displaced refugees. The restrictions included a ban on Syrians gathering in public spaces, a 6pm curfew, regular police inspections and a ban on renting homes to Syrian families.
Syrian children being deprived of education
The increased institutionalised racism has affected Syrian children and their ability to acquire an education. Cases of bullying, suspensions and rejecting Syrian children were noted in the report.
"No one told me directly to go back to Syria, but when I took my girls to school where they have been going for the past five years, they didn’t accept them and said they wouldn’t accept any Syrians," said a father interviewed by Human Rights Watch.
"It’s a public school and I begged the director to allow at least one of them to go to school, but he refused and told me to take it up with the Ministry of Education," he added.
Children were also verbally harassed when they were sent home from school because of their Syrian nationality.
"My kids used to go to school in Bcharre, but this year when I took them to school to register them, they stopped us and wouldn’t allow us to bring our children to school," Sham, 34, a single mother of five told Human Rights Watch.
"They sent our kids home on the first day of school with harassing words. It is a public school and it was the municipality of Bcharre that kept my kids from school. It happened to all of my children and all the Syrian refugee children."
|When I took my girls to school where they have been going for the past five years, they didn’t accept them and said they wouldn’t accept any Syrians|
Lack of protection
As attacks from local institutions and the Lebanese population persisted, politicians and police did little to protect Syrians. Anti-Syrian rhetoric has been a feature of election campaigns and policemen have been passive with helping Syrians after being attacked.
The report describes how Lebanese locals have been able to attack Syrians with impunity, traumatising the refugee population.
A particular incident from 2016 in Hrajel, located in the Keserwen District was recalled in the report. A group of 10-15 armed men in Jeeps wearing civilian clothing arrived at a building in which only refugees lived and began attacking the residents as police watched through their cars, and in some cases attacking the refugees.
One victim, Majid, told Human Rights Watch: "We were injured badly. I was hit by a tire iron and my head was bleeding."
"But when the municipal police finally came they just asked for our papers. One of the police threatened to hit one of the other bleeding guys because he wasn’t giving his papers fast enough. The police did not offer to take anyone to the hospital. They didn’t arrest any of the men who attacked us."
With no foreseeable end to the hostility, the report called on the Lebanese local and national authorities to put an end to the attacks to the refugees and to launch investigations into the recorded assaults.