In Lebanon's bread crisis, anti-Syrian refugee racism flares

Illustration - Analysis - Syrian refugees Lebanon
7 min read
10 August, 2022
In-depth: As living conditions worsen in cash-strapped Lebanon a new wave of anti-refugee sentiment has swept the country, with Syrian refugees blamed for the country's problems amid growing calls for their repatriation.

Bread, a staple of Lebanese cuisine, is a perfect accompaniment to many dishes. Affordable and accessible, it also holds huge cultural significance in the country.

But in a long list of compounded crises, this too is now under threat.

One week before the two-year anniversary of the Beirut port explosion, long lines for bread began forming in front of bakeries. Despairing and impatient, people competed for the limited quantity available.

As the crisis grew worse, more bread was rationed, and tensions flared between Lebanese and Syrian nationals.

On 28 July, a group of men attacked a young Syrian boy in the Beirut neighbourhood of Burj Hammoud for carrying a bundle of bread.

The next day, two queues were formed, as Lebanese and Syrians stood apart in an attempt to curtail the violence at some bakeries.

"A popular narrative has emerged online accusing Syrian refugees of generating many of Lebanon's woes. The bread shortage was no exception"

Meanwhile, a social media campaign propagating anti-refugee sentiment was launched online with two trending hashtags; #ارضنا_مش_للنازح_السوري (our land is not for the displaced Syrian) and #لا_للسوري_في_لبنان (no to the Syrian in Lebanon).

"We must…boys and girls… Whenever we spot a Syrian at a bakery, kick him out and tell him that he's not welcome here and to immediately return to his country. We'd also take the bread away so that they [the refugees] can clearly understand. I'll start doing that tomorrow, who's in?" One viral tweet read.

A popular narrative has emerged online accusing Syrian refugees of generating many of Lebanon's woes. The bread shortage was no exception.

The general public is split between those defending refugees, noting that they are the new scapegoat, and others warning against the dangers of keeping them in the country and demanding their immediate repatriation.

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How did we get here?

Lebanon hosts the largest number of refugees per capita in the world, with around 1.5 million Syrians residing in the country.

Nine out of ten of these refugees still live in extreme poverty, according to a 2021 Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon. The vast majority rely on begging, borrowing money, taking their children out of school, or reducing medical expenses.

According to the UNHCR, 60 percent of Syrian refugee families live in hazardous or overcrowded shelters.

Lebanese officials have claimed that refugees cost the country billions of dollars and have damaged its infrastructure.

A solution presented by the government, therefore, was to repatriate 15,000 Syrian refugees a month.

Long lines form early on 27 July 2022 outside a bakery in north Lebanon's port city of Tripoli where people sometimes have to wait for hours for a bag of subsidised bread. [Getty]

“This is a humane, honourable, patriotic, and economic plan that is necessary for Lebanon,” Issam Charafeddine, Lebanon’s caretaker Minister of the Displaced, told The Associated Press in July.

Officials have said that the refugees will be placed in areas that are "entirely safe" with the help of the Syrian government.

Although the Syrian regime has recaptured much of the country, refugees are still at risk of human rights abuses such as arbitrary arrests, kidnappings, killings, and sexual assault, just to name a few.

"Repatriating refugees is not up to Syria and Lebanon to decide randomly. It's a decision larger than both countries and needs UN intervention,” Wadih Asmar, President of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, told The New Arab.

“There's a lot at stake for the refugees and we're not certain if Lebanese officials have the means to transport 15,000 Syrians a month."

For this reason, Lebanon has recently requested assistance from the European Union "to lay down a roadmap" to deport refugees to war-torn Syria.

"Unfortunately, Syrian refugees are the latest scapegoats employed by politicians to deter attention from their role in exacerbating the crisis"

Two victims, two opinions

Studies exploring the impact of Syrian refugees on Lebanon’s economy and social security are scarce. However, posts circulating online allege that refugees are a socio-economic burden that the Lebanese should do away with.

A study by the World Refugee and Migration Council refutes these claims. The 2021 findings show that refugees did not negatively impact the economy or decrease job market opportunities for Lebanese citizens.

A worsening trade deficit, diminished private investment, and a downturn in the real estate and tourism sectors were the key factors in compounding Lebanon’s economic collapse.

Lebanese banks also profited from the flow of humanitarian aid by swallowing at least $250m in UN aid since the outset of the crisis in 2019.

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Everyone interviewed by The New Arab acknowledged that Syrians, like the Lebanese, were victims of the 2019 economic collapse. However, proposed solutions for both nationals differed greatly.

Political activist Michel Ghneim, for instance, supports repatriating Syrian refugees that he believes are posing a threat to shrinking employment opportunities.

"They are cheap labour that employers can exploit," Ghneim told The New Arab. "Although responsibility falls on the employers and the authorities to better regulate the job market so that the Lebanese remain a priority, it is still a reality that we must deal with. They must go."

'The country can't take it anymore'

According to Ghneim, some of the refugees were receiving aid in fresh dollars - a luxury in cash-strapped Lebanon where access is reserved for a privileged minority.

The UNHCR, however, asserts that the financial aid allocated to families is in Lebanese Lira and not in US dollars. The amount per family is around £26 monthly.

"A preferential exchange rate for cash transfers was accorded by Financial Service Provider to UN agencies and has been regularly adjusted closer to the parallel market rate in recent months," Paula Esteban, Lebanon Senior Communications Officer, told The New Arab.

Esteban adds that with the current budget, the UNHCR's scope of assistance is restricted to 55 percent of severely vulnerable Syrian refugee families.

A young boy watches out of his makeshift accommodation in Lebanon's Bekaa valley, where thousands of Syrian refugees live in precarious conditions. [Getty]

Primary healthcare services such as free childhood vaccinations, subsidised consultations for acute illnesses, reproductive health, non-communicable diseases, and mental health are also provided.

"There is a growing frustration within the Lebanese community where people are starting to feel increasingly abandoned. The government brought people to a deep pit of despair where witnessing non-residents receiving aid turned triggering," Jamila Khodor, an activist who works with Syrian refugees, told The New Arab.

This does not justify violent behaviour, Khodor stresses. However, it marks an alarming precedent of uncontrolled violence that might spiral out of control in the weeks to come.

"Refugees tell me that they feel hated and looked down upon by the Lebanese," Khodor added. "Their situation in Lebanon is deteriorating and it's important for the international community to turn its attention back to the Syrian refugees."

"This type of rhetoric sparked the civil war when Palestinians were said to be causing a demographic change"

Fear and a lack of solutions

A widespread fear in the Lebanese psyche is the loss of national identity due to demographic changes.

"Lebanese people are immigrating and having fewer children. Refugees, on the other hand, are doing the opposite. They're going to outnumber us one day," Ghneim said.

A study published by the opposition party Citizens in a State echoes these claims. Although party members were not involved in the research, their Secretary General, Charbel Nahas, was the one conducting it.

According to the party's political commissioner Elissar Samaha, they were only permitted to publish the results.

The findings claim that in fifteen years, Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon will outnumber Lebanese nationals.

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"This wasn't a call to incite racism. We aim to shed a light on an inevitable reality that the government has been ignoring,” Samaha told The New Arab.

"Syrian refugees are growing up with minimal access to education and the government must understand the impact of such a phenomenon on the upcoming generation and future labour conditions," she adds.

Their dire economic situation must be considered when implementing education or healthcare policies, Samaha affirms.

However, critics found their stance problematic.

More problems in the future

Asmar argues that this rhetoric gives leeway for racist misinterpretation and aggravates negative sentiments against refugees.

"Their data is false and I wish they'd reveal their sources. This type of rhetoric sparked the civil war when Palestinians were said to be causing a demographic change, pitting the Sunnis against the Christians," Asmar said. "The claims they're making should not be taken lightly."

Asmar says the bread crisis was spawned by bakeries taking advantage of subsidised flour to produce profitable baked goods such as croissants and ka’ak.

"Refugees tell me that they feel hated and looked down upon by the Lebanese"

"Unfortunately, Syrian refugees are the latest scapegoats employed by politicians to deter attention from their role in exacerbating the crisis," Asmar said.

The director adds that Lebanon is predisposed to sectarian, classist, and racist conflicts. But it takes people in power to either inflame or de-escalate the situation.

As Lebanon sinks into a worsening crisis, the country is becoming increasingly inhabitable for both its citizens and refugees.

"Lebanon can barely respond to the demands of its own people, how does the international community expect refugees to live here? Western countries are a better fit for refugees, yet their borders are closed. This is not fair," Khodor said.

Dana Hourany is a multimedia journalist based in Beirut.

Follow her on Twitter: @DanaHourany