Syrians make easy scapegoats in Lebanon

Tom Rollins

IRIN Contributor

The Baalbek International Festival is in town. Under silvery bunting, telltale tourists drift around in shorts in the sleepy mid-afternoon heat.

But it’s less of a lark for more than 130,000 Syrian refugees who live in the wider governorate of Baalbek-Hermel, in eastern Lebanon.

Days before the first note was sung, the governor, Bashir Khodr, was reported to have tightened the existing curfew for Syrians, requiring them to stay inside between 6pm and 6am. He later denied the change, but in a sense it didn’t really matter – they would just face the usual 8pm to 6am restrictions instead.

On opening night, 19-year-old Abdu, originally from Homs in Syria, decided to ignore the curfew and go down to Baalbek’s ancient ruins, where he found crowds and people eating ice cream.

But he also found a man with endless questions: Was he Syrian? Why was he there? Didn't he know about the curfew?

"It makes you feel like you’re… not welcome here,” Abdu told IRIN, referring to both his encounter and the curfew. “But I don’t see why I should be imprisoned in my house.”

Why such antipathy?

One month ago, on 27 June, multiple suicide attacks hit al-Qaa, a predominantly Christian village some 30 kilometres north of Baalbek. Five civilians were killed and several more injured.

The authorities have made no connection between the attack and the more than one million registered Syrians in Lebanon, but that didn’t stop the finger of suspicion falling on them anyway.

Lebanon’s army, intelligence agencies and security forces have detained several hundred Syrians. Refugees residing in mountainous, rural communities have experienced scattered reprisal attacks by civilians and even local police.

Towns and villages up and down the country have meanwhile doubled down on existing curfews, imposing new restrictions on refugees’ freedom to move and ability to work.

The reprisals

It was only 24 hours after the al-Qaa incident when the first reprisal attack happened.

High up in the mountains above Beirut sits Hrajel. The predominantly Maronite Christian village is one of the last settlements along the mountain road before it climbs up into the dusty brown peaks and drops down into the Bekaa Valley, home to around one third of the country’s registered Syrian refugees.

Ahmad, a Syrian-Kurd originally from north Aleppo’s Sheikh Maqsoud neighbourhood, was one of six Syrians badly beaten in the village that night.

He lives in a shabby block of flats with other refugee families, separated from the rest of the village by a bumpy dirt road.

“It was about 10.30pm. The electricity was cut (a regular occurrence in Lebanon) and some of the families were sleeping in the building,” he recalled.

“Three or four cars came outside, and we heard shouting. They were using really bad words, and ordering the men to come down.”

Ahmad said he and the others went downstairs, while their families looked on from the balconies above.

“They made us kneel like this (he put his hands behind his back) and started beating each of us, in groups of three or four, with wrenches and knives.”

Fathi, from Jisr al-Shughour in northern Syria, was also hurt that night. “We were humiliated in front of our wives and children, and the feelings of fear that we experienced back in Syria started to come back,” he told IRIN.

Hrajel’s mayor, Tony Zugheib, said there had been “fighting” on the evening in question between locals and Syrians but that it was born of one refugee’s earlier refusal to produce identification. No arrests were made, but Zugheib said the perpetrators were given a warning.

Ahmad believes the attack took place with the full knowledge of the authorities, but Zugheib insisted that his municipality treats Syrians “with the utmost humanity”.

"We feel that our only duty is to keep the village secure and safe,” Zugheib said. "[But] of course we respect humanity and individual freedoms.”

In the days that followed, Lebanon’s security services moved in on Syrian refugees across the country.

According to a tally of arrests announced on the Lebanese army’s official Twitter account, at least 600 Syrian nationals were arrested in the first three days after al-Qaa. Raids and arrests have continued and the number has reportedly topped 700.

In mid-July, several police officers in Amchit, about 40 kilometres up the coast from Beirut, were investigated (and released) after images appeared online showing up to 30 Syrian men kneeling over with their hands on their necks, uniformed men hovering over them.

The incident prompted accusations of racism, and, later, condemnation from Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk.

"Lately, there has been a rise in the abuses committed by members of the police in several municipalities concerning Syrian refugees," Machnouk said, warning that officers abusing their power would face “disciplinary measures”.

Vicious cycle

But for many Syrian refugees in Lebanon, increased raids, arrests and ID checks are simply confirmation of longstanding grievances.

It is difficult and expensive to renew the residency papers that Lebanon has required since 2014, and invalid papers leave refugees vulnerable to arrest. Arrest leaves them open to fines or re-arrest. The circle continues. An estimated two thirds of Syrian refugees in Lebanon lack the proper papers.

Related: Lebanese law forces Syrian refugees underground

Seventeen-year-old Mustafa was at home in Baalbek when the army turned up a week ago.

He rushed to the balcony and hid there, terrified, while the officers took away his father for not having valid papers.

Although Mustafa’s father was released the same day, his family said they were told to get their papers in order in 20 days or face either re-arrest or deportation back to Syria.

Mustafa’s father can’t find regular work or a Lebanese person willing to sponsor his visa, let alone afford the costs of renewing residency papers. The family is stuck.  

“We still have two weeks left, but the documents require a lot of money… so we haven’t done anything,” Mustafa said. “I’ve been here for about four years, and I haven’t been able to renew my documents for the last two.”

Makeshift refugee homes in Lebanon's Beka'a Valley. (Nov 2012)
Issam Abdallah/IRIN
Lebanon has no formal Syrian refugee camps, but plenty of informal settlements like this one in the Bekaa Valley

Lisa Abu Khaled, spokeswoman for the UN’s agency for refugees, UNHCR, told IRIN that most of those detained in the past month had been released a day or two later and that threats of deportation weren’t yet being enforced.

“No Syrian refugee who was arrested for not having legal residency has been forced to return to Syria,” she said.

But not all of those arrested have been released.

George Ghali, programmes manager at ALEF, a Lebanese NGO that monitors arbitrary detention, told IRIN that more than 400 individuals are still locked up.

The authorities are reluctant to discuss the matter. The Internal Security Forces, the army, and the General Security intelligence agency all declined to comment.

Monitoring the situation has been difficult, said Ghali. “We have no information on charges or indictments being issued… and actually we doubt that until now anyone has been before a court.”

Because many of the raids were conducted by the army or the intelligence services, “there's a problem with accessing legal aid or even knowing [refugees'] whereabouts”, he added.

Jobs and security

Lebanon is a country of only four million, so the addition of another million-plus Syrian refugees has been the subject of much debate since the war in its neighbour began more than five years ago.

There are concerns that the economy can’t cope with the influx, and some blame Syrian refugees for Lebanon’s high unemployment and widespread poverty

In Hrajel, where the first reprisal attack happened, mayor Zugheib said his village had been generous to Syrians, to the point that half the population is now made up of foreigners. But there has been real pressure on waste management services, schools and the local economy.

“There is competition for jobs,” he said, adding that his municipality needs support “in the same way that displaced people get it from [aid] organisations”.

Another Hrajel local told IRIN that Syrians take on informal work at lower wages, shutting out Lebanese from many already low-paying jobs.

There are also fears that militant Islamists are amongst the refugees, fuelled by the occasional arrests of suspected extremists and seizures of weapons from inside informal Syrian camps.

For the first few years of the Syrian war, the eastern border with Lebanon was a fairly fluid way for those fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad to transport weapons and fighters.

For Assad, against Assad

There’s politics at play here too.

Lebanon’s two major political camps are broadly divided on Assad. One side, which includes Machnouk, the interior minister who spoke out against the crackdown, is opposed. The other, which includes Hezbollah (itself fighting inside Syria), has stood with the regime. Foreign Minister Jebran Bassil, a member of this bloc, has become something of a poster-boy for what critics see as a particularly politicised, pernicious form of anti-Syrian incitement.

The day before al-Qaa, Bassil called for mayors from his Free Patriotic Movement party to clear out the “existence” of Syrian refugees from their towns and villages.

“The existence of camps and gatherings of Syrian refugees in the hearts of our towns is unacceptable,” Bassil said.

The day after the suicide attacks, his party lauded its leader for having “voiced responsible remarks and (for) anticipating the threats”.

Protestors hold a banner
Hasan Shaaban/IRIN
Protestors take a stand against racism and xenophobia at a Beirut protest

This type of language doesn’t sit well with some Lebanese.

On 18 July, activists organised a silent march from the Ministry of Foreign of Affairs to the Interior Ministry, a couple of miles’ walk through central Beirut, in protest against racism, xenophobia, and punitive regulations against Syrian refugees. At least 200 people joined.

Gilbert Doumit, who helped organise the march, condemned the “racist discourse” spreading through Lebanese society that blames Syrian refugees “for the crisis that Lebanon is suffering from, whether economically, socially, or in terms of security”.

“The narrative of politicians is that Syrian refugees are responsible, so we, as a group of Lebanese citizens, are saying: ‘No, actually it’s the policymakers who are the reason behind the problem’.”

More of the same?

While activists decry a crackdown, Maja Janmyr, researcher at the University of Bergen and the American University in Beirut, argues that al-Qaa has not led to a significant expansion in restrictions.

"Curfews have more or less been in place for years," she told IRIN. 

They began gaining ground in 2014, mostly after intense clashes between the Lebanese Army and Islamist militants in Arsal, close to the Syrian border.

At the time, Human Rights Watch reported that more than 45 local municipalities had imposed the restrictions, and pointed out that they appeared to be illegal under Lebanese law (not to mention international human rights law).

Janmyr argues that what has changed since al-Qaa is renewed enforcement of the rules.

“A defining feature of Lebanon’s approach to Syrians since 2014 has… been to create rules and regulations such as curfews, tacitly allow for their widespread violations, and then occasionally enforce them,” she explained.

This means that the picture differs around the country. Syrians in urban, Sunni neighbourhoods of Baalbek, for example, say they can go outside at night after curfew. But in pro-Hezbollah areas of the city, the situation is quite different.

This jives with what Umm Mohamed, a middle-aged refugee from Homs, has seen, living now in Baalbek.

“Laws in Lebanon are not really that well enforced in general anyway, so people still come and go easily. Because the Lebanese and Syrians look alike, it’s only really when people speak that they recognise them as Syrians,” Umm Mohamed told IRIN.

“If someone gets arrested, then sure there’ll have problems,” she said. “But people still go out.”

However, in isolated, rural settlements or communities like Hrajel, refugees appear to self-police themselves more.

“We finish work at 4 or 5pm, buy everything we need and then just stay at home,” explained Ahmad. “Bread, cigarettes, water, everything. We can’t go out after 8pm.”

Abdu, who defied the curfew in Baalbek, remains frustrated but stubborn.

“Every time I get home, I get the same thing from my mother: ‘Why are you going out late [after curfew]? This isn’t your country. You have to respect their laws.'”

“But I’m not afraid and I don’t care about these rules,” he said, with a hint of a smile. “Syrian people are dying and I just feel like I should live my life.”

Names of Syrian refugees in Baalbek were changed to protect their identities.

With additional reporting by Layal Hamze and Hiba Hussein

(TOP PHOTO: A Beirut protest against racism. One sign reads: "We are all refugees, we are all residents, and we all stand in solidarity against racism." Hasan Shaaban/IRIN)

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