Lebanese digital neighbourhood watch app accused of anti-Syrian bias

Lebanese digital neighbourhood watch app accused of anti-Syrian bias
A Beirut MP launched an application which allows residents to report "suspicious" activities, prompting accusations that the app was meant to target Syrians.
3 min read
19 January, 2024
Lebanon hosts around 1.6 million Syrian refugees and has the highest number of refugees per capita in the world. [Getty]

A Lebanese member of parliament, Ghassan Hasbani, launched a digital application on Monday for members of Beirut's Achrafieh neighbourhood to report suspected crimes to law enforcement services.

The app, launched with a campaign entitled "Every Citizen is a Sentinel," aims to combat what Hasbani called "increasing lawbreaking activities" in the Christian neighbourhood of Achrafieh.

"We've been experiencing a lot of illegal activities, either illegal occupation of property or illegal rentals … Also, workers with no papers working illegally," Hasbani told The New Arab.

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Residents of Achrafieh can report individuals they suspect of residing or working illegally in Lebanon, taking a picture to document the activity they think is illegal. The complaint is then forwarded to the relevant agency.

Since its launch, the app has been downloaded more than 2,000 times, and 40 complaints have been forwarded to the Lebanese government.

Hasbani explained that the app is meant to foster a sort of digital neighbourhood watch to support Lebanese law enforcement, which has suffered severe budget cuts since the start of Lebanon's economic crisis in 2019.

The application garnered controversy on its launch, however, with critics saying it was anti-Syrian and that its focus on residency and work-permit issues was meant to single out lawbreaking activities committed by Syrians rather than Lebanese.

At the launching ceremony, Hasbani said the app was launched "in the light of the increase in the number of illegal people in the areas of Achrafieh," and citing security incidents committed by Syrians.

A security source told TNA that 50 per cent of cases of theft and a little under 30 per cent of violent crimes were committed by Syrians last year.

Hasbani denied that the app was targeting Syrians, saying that half of all complaints on the app thus far have concerned Lebanese offenders.

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Lebanon hosts around 1.6 million Syrians, the majority of whom came after the outbreak of Syria's civil war in 2011. In recent years, there has been increasing xenophobia against Syrians in the country, particularly after Lebanon's economic crisis.

Lebanon's leaders have claimed that Syrians are the primary driver of criminality and that they are an economic burden on the country.

In April 2022, Lebanon's security services started deporting Syrian en-masse, notifying the international community that it would seek the return of Syrians residing in Lebanon without a valid residency permit.

According to Euromed Rights Monitor, "the [Lebanese] government is using Syrian refugees as scapegoats … reinforcing discriminatory rhetoric and hate speech."

The government announced in July that it would start deporting 15,000 Syrian refugees a month – a plan that did not come to fruition.

The deportation spree alarmed rights groups, which said that Syria is still not safe for returns, pointing to an organized pattern of torture, sexual violence and disappearance committed by Syrian security forces against returnees.

Lebanese officials have dismissed these claims, with Lebanon's Foreign Minister Dr Abdullah Bouhabib saying on 18 January that "95 per cent of displaced Syrians migrate for economic reasons."

Syrians living in Lebanon have been among the hardest hit by the country's economic crisis, with 90 per cent of Syrian refugees living below the poverty line.

Lebanon has become a major departure point for Syrians who are seeking to reach Europe, with smugglers supplying Syrians with boats to Italy, Cyprus and Malta.

Cyprus has asked for increased EU funding for Lebanon, saying in September that Lebanon was a "barrier" that prevented refugees from entering Europe.