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Joey Ayoub

Lebanese politicians are scapegoating Syrian refugees

A Syrian refugee peers from her makeshift home in a slum north of Beirut [AFP]

Date of publication: 13 April, 2017

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Comment: The Lebanese government is using Syrian refugees as scapegoats in order to divert attention away from its own unpopularity and extensive failures, writes Joey Ayoub.

On Monday 10 April 2017, the UNHCR announced that the Lebanese army had ordered the eviction of 10,000 refugees living in the Bekaa Valley in informal settlements. Citing "security reasons", the army told the refugees living close to the Rayak Military Air Base that they would have to relocate.

These refugees have already started packing and moving to nearby plots of land in what is by now a familiar scenario: The Lebanese government makes a decision for refugees and refugees are told to accept said decision.

No clear plan was announced as to where refugees are supposed to go and there are legitimate fears that this could be "used as a backdoor to forced returns to Syria" which would be a violation of international law.

Given the ongoing political climate in Lebanon, these fears are not unfounded. The precarious legal nature of refugees - 60 percent of Syrians over the age of 15 lack legal residency in Lebanon - has meant that the most vulnerable refugee is also the most harshly punished, with increased raids, arbitrary arrests and ID checks just a few of the symptoms.

This has also lead to many child refugees working 10-hour days for up to six days a week and to most refugees (91 percent by some estimates) being in debt.

Scapegoating refugees

Devoid of any representation within Lebanon's political structures, Syrian refugees in Lebanon have often found themselves scapegoated for a wide variety of government failures.

To give but one example: When the Christian-majority village of Al-Qaa was hit by multiple suicide attacks by IS 30km north of Baalbeck on 27 June 2016, the governor of Baalbek-Hermel decided to tighten already-existing curfew for Syrians, forcing them to stay indoors between 6pm and 6am (instead of 8pm and 6am).

The measure was imposed despite the fact that the authorities found no links between refugees and the attack. One imagines that the governor was either pressured or did so willingly, but what is clear is that refugees could not do much to protest what they rightly viewed as unjustified collective punishment. 

So the same government that is loathed by most Lebanese is telling the Lebanese to look at Syrian refugees as the source of their problems

The idea of refugees as a security threat is widespread, and refugees are aware of it. Speaking to Arab Weekly, Mohammad, a 55-year-old refugee from Homs, said:

"Every time there is a security incident we are singled out as sus­pects. Even my children are being harassed by Lebanese students at school who blame Syrians for Leba­non's instability and rising criminal­ity. My 16-year-old daughter asked me to leave Lebanon for a country that respects the human being but we have no choice except to stay here and put up with this situation."

The responsibility for the "securitisation" of a fundamentally humanitarian issue lies at the top. For example, Lebanon's Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil has repeatedly made headlines describing refugees using the now-normalised language of "security", prompting the phrase "none is a stranger but Gebran" to appear graffittied on the streets of Beirut.

Bassil has recently moderated his tone, describing refugees for who they are: "Refugees are innocent people who fled to save their lives." 

But Bassil was never alone. His father-in-law - and Lebanon's current president - Michel Aoun, has also employed similar vocabulary to describe refugees on a number of occasions. Aoun has described refugees as "a heavy burden", has called for the "return" of refugees to "safe zones" within Syria - which do not exist, and said that refugees' stay in Lebanon is "not permanent". Prime Minister Saad Hariri, meanwhile, said that Lebanon was reaching "breaking point".

The government is very unpopular and needs the average Lebanese to 'look elsewhere'

The UNDP's latest "Security & Justice Sector Wide Assessment" report attests to the efficacy of such scapegoating rhetoric:

"Tensions appear to be driven by host community and security forces' perceptions of Syrian criminality, as well as cases of ill-treatment of refugees, competition over jobs and access to local services and infrastructure, and perceptions that humanitarian distribution targets Syrian refugees but largely excludes poor Lebanese." 

This despite the fact that "Syrians do not appear to commit crimes at disproportionate levels despite perceptions to the contrary held by some Lebanese."

As for why Syrian refugees are scapegoated, the answer is glaringly simple: The government is very unpopular and needs the average Lebanese to 'look elsewhere'.                                           

The government has good reasons to fear the wider population. When 1,000 Lebanese adults were polled by Gallup in September of 2016, the international polling organisation found that just 25 percent of the population approve of the country's leadership, 14 percent are confident in the national government and 22 percent are confident in the honesty of elections.

Syrians, being so easily "Other"-ised, are quickly abused in a climate of fear which was there long before the 2011 Syrian revolution

This is, after all, the same government whose parliament has extended its own term on two occasions, will most likely do it a third time, and whose current lawmakers were elected in 2009 for what was meant to be four-year terms; whose corruption caused the 2015 trash crisis which launched the 'You Stink' movement; and which recently proposed a tax hike without any improvement in public services.

So the same government that is loathed by most Lebanese is telling the Lebanese to look at Syrian refugees as the source of their problems. But is it working?

The government knows that fear of sectarian tensions in a country heavily defined by its "sectarian balance" is a powerful deterrent. Lebanese people are afraid of renewed violence and that fear is often enough to exacerbate already existent protest fatigue on the streets.

Syrians, being so easily "Other"-ised, are quickly abused in a climate of fear which was there long before the 2011 Syrian revolution and subsequent civil war, the refugee crisis caused by the latter simply exacerbating what was already there.

But many Lebanese have also denounced these waves of xenophobia.

Following reports of "revenge attacks" against refugees which followed the suicide attacks of June 2016, many Lebanese took to Twitter with the hashtag "Refugees Are Not Terrorists".

On July 18, 2016, a silent march was organized in Beirut denouncing the political class' scapegoating of refugees and against curfews limiting freedom of movement of refugees in several areas of Lebanon.

While in no way should anyone underestimate the seriousness of the refugee crisis, the fact the Lebanese government is not addressing any of the issues plaguing the country in the first place must be emphasised.

The UNDP recently released a report saying that the "ongoing Syrian refugee crisis is damaging Lebanon's already poor electricity infrastructure". The key terms here are "already poor". The various energy and water ministers have been promising 24/7 electricity coverage since 1992. 

Turning refugees into bargaining chips

The two main political camps, March 8 and March 14, have both instrumentalised the refugee crisis to score political points. Most notable among them is the only major party currently fighting on behalf of the Assad regime in Syria, namely Hizballah.

Hizballah is proposing "safe zones" along the Lebanese-Syrian borders where refugees could be resettled. But how safe are these "safe zones"?

Abdulrahman al-Masri noted that these "safe zones would shield Hizballah's arms supply line, cement the militia's position in the contentious Lebanese political landscape and secure Iran's geostrategic interests and foothold in the Qalamoun region - the territory that connects the Hizballah-dominated Lebanese east with Syria's core."

In other words, refugees are being used as disposable bargaining chips. Hizballah knows that most refugees would not willingly go back to regime-held areas, but they may if desperate enough.

Most refugees interviewed in Germany (ie, away from the fear of regime shabbiha present in neighbouring Lebanon) cited the Assad regime as the reason for fleeing, while Assad has been busy appealing to his far right following in Europe by demonising refugees. With Hizballah widely seen as Assad's most powerful military ally, it is highly unlikely that refugees would readily accept Hizballah's plan.

With Hizballah widely seen as Assad's most powerful military ally, it is highly unlikely that refugees would readily accept Hizballah's plan

But Hezbollah's calls were echoed by their most prominent ally, Aoun himself.

Aoun, who continues to support Hezbollah's military wing unconditionally, downplaying the impact of the group's military intervention in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime - and this despite Assad's primary role in the ongoing destruction of Syria - has even called on world powers to work with the Assad regime, an extraordinary statement for obvious reasons, but especially coming from a man who was himself exiled by the regime in 1990.

Donors should pressure the Lebanese government not to scapegoat refugees when convenient

This reflects a worrying trend, that of wanting to "expel" the "problem" rather than seek solutions to its underlying causes. If Aoun was truly worried about Lebanon's security, he would call on his ally Hizballah to stop its vital military support of the Assad regime. Instead, Aoun chose to meet a notorious Assad ally, Mufti Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun.

That same Mufti, nicknamed "the Mufti of Barrel Bombs" by activists for his religious edicts in defense of the Assad regime, was accused in Amnesty International's report on the notorious Saydnaya prison, where up to 13,000 prisoners were hanged between 2011 and 2015, of personally approving the hangings:

"Ahmed Badreddin Hassoun was deputised by President Bashar al-Assad to approve the execution of up to 13,000 inmates in Saydnaya prisoner over the last five years."

And while Aoun was meeting with Mufti Hassoun, a Lebanese lawyer filed a lawsuit on behalf of several Syrian refugees claiming that "the Mufti's remarks have incited crimes against humanity and war crimes".

Meanwhile, the Lebanese government is continuing to request international funds to help with the refugee crisis. While there's no doubt that more funds are needed, donors should pressure the Lebanese government not to scapegoat refugees when convenient.

As Human Rights Watch made clear in a statement, "As Lebanese leaders in Brussels tout Lebanon's humanitarian achievements and call for more aid, refugees here are living in fear of losing their homes." 

Joey Ayoub is the MENA editor at Global Voices as well as a Lebanese researcher from Beirut currently living in London. He is the founder of Hummus For Thought and mostly writes on Syria, Israel-Palestine and Lebanon.

Follow him on Twitter: @joeyayoub

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.

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