Syrian refugees caught in Lebanon's uprising face a difficult choice

Syrian refugees caught in Lebanon's uprising face a difficult choice
Comment: Syrians in Lebanon are often subject to discrimination and prejudice. While some are supportive of the protests, others are steering clear, writes Adèle Surprenant.
7 min read
06 Dec, 2019
PM Hariri announced his resignation on 29 November, but protests continue [Getty]
"I am pleased to see the Lebanese people are proud of their identity. It is something which could ultimately make me want to remain in this country" Majd*, 24, tells us in confidence.

We met this young Syrian from Damascus at a demonstration. He has been in Beirut for a little over a year, waiting to go on to Germany where he hopes to resume his studies.

According to the authorities, there are still around a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon from among those who fled here eight years ago at the start of the hostilities in their country.

Majd was able to obtain a resident's certificate and a work permit, whereas two thirds of his fellow refugees are undocumented and illegally employed. "I'm well aware that I have an easier life than most of the Syrians who have settled here," the young man explains, "It's partly for their sake that I'm in the streets today."

Since mid-October, street protests of almost unprecedented dimensions have mobilised Lebanese from every walk of life, and in every part of the country.

Tamirace Fakhoury, a college professor and director of The Institute for Social Justice and Conflict Resolution at the Lebanese American University (LAU), is of the opinion that "Lebanese citizens have succeeded in repositioning themselves as a people demanding that their aspirations be taken into account by the political elites, after decades of being ignored, marginalised and disadvantaged."

The protestors accuse the political class of corruption and the mismanagement of public funds which have led to the major financial crisis currently afflicting Lebanon.

'Welcome, refugees!'

In reply to these accusations, the government claims that the economic stalemate is due to the war in Syria and the ensuing population displacements which have made Lebanon host to the largest number of refugees per capita in the world.

"Sheer propaganda," Khadija shouts indignantly into the microphone. She's a nurse in her fifties from Tyr, in South-Lebanon, come to take part in the Beirut protests.

'It isn't the people who have a racist attitude towards the Syrians in Lebanon, it's the state'

Not far from the lorry on which Khadija and others take turns addressing the compact crowd gathered on avenue Riad el-Solh in the centre of the capital, a group of protestors are chanting "The warlords have poisoned the sea, destroyed the mountains and made people hate you. The warlords have stolen our jobs and our homeland and blame it on the refugees."

To the beat of the drums and clapping hands, these protestors take a firmer and more controversial line:

"Welcome, refugees!" Yet while several opinion polls have shown that a majority of Lebanese are in favour of sending the refugees home, Tamirace Fakhoury insists that there is "a state of relatively peaceful coexistence with the host communities".

Although he has been the object of racist and xenophobic attacks, Majd agrees with her. "It isn't the people who have a racist attitude towards the Syrians in Lebanon, it's the state," he maintains, though he does understand that certain workers with precarious job situations see Syrians as a threat.

With around 25 percent of the active population out of work, many bosses prefer to hire Syrians who are prepared to accept lower wages and inferior working conditions.

"The status of Syrian refugees in Lebanon has varied enormously", Tamirace Fakhouri points out, referring to a plan to combat clandestine employment among foreigners, set up by Labour minister, Kamil Abousleiman in June 2019.

Since then, employers have been reluctant to hire Syrian workers without a work permit, for fear of having to pay a fine which can amount to as much as 2.5 million Lebanese pounds ($1,660) in case of an inspection.

She has also observed a tightening of border controls on Syrians seeking entry to Lebanon. Since 2014, the Lebanese authorities have put an end to their "open door" policy, restricting the admission and registration of new refugees by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

This restrictive tendency was accelerated with a series of measures adopted since 2018 by Gebran Bassil, minister of foreign affairs and immigration, who is also President Michel Aoun's son-in-law, who favours sending the Syrian refugees home.

Read more: Suicide epidemic sweeps Lebanon amid economic downturn

Even before the protests began, Bassil was criticised for declarations that were considered racist, and is now the target of several slogans heard during the demonstrations. 

He is regularly in the headlines for his controversial bills and public statements, such as the assertion he made in October 2017, when he tweeted that "foreigners present on our territory against our will are an occupying force, no matter where they come from."

A deep-rooted distrust

Lebanese reservations about the presence of Syrians also have an historical origin, as until 2005 "the land of the Cedar-tree" was occupied by the Syrian army. The withdrawal of Syrian troops was in fact prompted by the vast popular demonstrations after the death of Premier Rafik Hariri on 14 February 2004, an assassination blamed on Syria though the matter never came to court.

"What is happening in Syria today is reminiscent of what happened in Lebanon after the civil war when foreign powers implemented the Taif Agreement, settling the country's future without consulting the Lebanese."

'I came to Lebanon after seven years of war in Syria and now the same thing is happening all over again.'

So speaks Mahmoud, a Syrian from the suburbs of Aleppo who went into exile in 2012 after serving a prison sentence for opposing Bashar al-Assad's regime.

As a political activist, he says he is glad to be able to "support the Lebanese people in their struggle against those who have destroyed their country while pretending to rebuild it."

What if things get worse?

It is impossible to say how many Syrians were in the crowds during protests in recent weeks. Sarah tells us she hasn't left her home since the beginning of the movement. "I came to Lebanon after seven years of war in Syria and now the same thing is happening all over again." Her tone is indignant. "Where can I run to if things get worse here?"

She is not the only one to fear the worst: One waiter in a restaurant which has been closed since the protests began no longer harbours any hope. He doesn't understand why the Syrians should stand up for the rights of the Lebanese "when we have no rights in this country, when the Syrians who weren't slaughtered like dogs are treated in Lebanon like rats".

This is a 
situation which Tamirace Fakhoury hopes might change for the better, if "the protest movement achieves its goals, then Syrians and Lebanese could come to be regarded as subjects of equal rights and treated according to the principles of international law."

However, she warns against another possible scenario, in light of Michel Aoun's 31 October speech, in which he mentioned twice that sending Syrian refugees home was a major issue for Lebanon.

Many bosses prefer to hire Syrians who are prepared to accept lower wages and inferior working conditions

However, this policy was challenged by some members of the international community, upon whom the Lebanese government depends to firm up its legitimacy in the midst of a blatant political and economic crisis.

Moreover, Professor Fakhoury believes that "it is not in the government's interest to oblige the Syrians to leave the country, which is why it favours 'voluntary' departures, which complicate the lives of Syrian refugees, pushing them to seek new horizons."

The Turkish offensive in North-Eastern Syria, launched on 9 October produced over 100,000 displaced people in less than a fortnight, so for Syrians who have found refuge in the land of the cedar tree, their future is as unpredictable as that of their host country.

*For security reasons, the names of the Syrians interviewed for this article have been changed.

Adèle Surprenant is a freelance journalist based in Beirut, who is interested in workers' rights and women in North Africa and the Middle East.

This article was originally by our partners at OrientXXI.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.