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Paul McLoughlin

Beirut clamping down on Syrian refugee campaigns in Lebanon

Protests in Lebanon in support of Syrian refugees [AFP]

Date of publication: 18 July, 2017

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In-depth: Protests organised by Syrian refugee solidarity campaigners, and a rival pro-army demonstration, have both been banned by Lebanese authorities with fears tensions could erupt between the two sides.
Lebanon is clamping down on a Syrian refugee solidarity campaign with the interior ministry banning a planned protest - and a likely "pro-army" counter-demonstration - in Beirut's downtown.

The ban on Tuesday's planned protests comes as security forces launch another series of raids on Syrian refugee camps around Arsal, eastern Lebanon. Previous raids have led to bloodshed and allegations of abuse against detainees. 

The army argue that the camps have been infiltrated by Syrian militants including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group.

Harassment

Activists say the raids are part of a government campaign to harass Syrian refugees in the country, following growing anti-immigration sentiment.

New laws have restricted the freedoms and rights of Syrian refugees in the country, many of whom live in dire poverty.

Tuesday's ban on protests also coincides with parliament's first debate of an unpopular tax hike to fund public sector wage increases, but its focus was to prevent rallies supporting Syrian refugees, activists said.

The protest was called following a wave arrests in refugee camps around Arsal, with one raid in June seeing at least four Syrians dying in army custody, allegedly during or after torture.

The army argued the men died of "pre-existing medical conditions" and "climatic issues", but few were convinced, and activists called for "justice marches" on Tuesday.

But tensions between pro-Syrian activists and a strand of xenophobic Lebanese have led to online clashes and death threats, with fears that the Beirut demonstration could lead to violence.

The interior ministry this week cancelled all protests, as talk built of a "pro-army" counter-demonstration to face off against the activists in downtown Beirut.

Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk tried to placate frustrated activists by saying the government would investigate the deaths of the detainees.

"We hope to accelerate the investigation into the death of the four Syrian refugees," Machnouk said on Twitter.

"For that reason, and after discussing with concerned security forces, we decided to decline any requests to hold a protest from anyone, in order to preserve security and civic peace."

Online threats

The government's action came after a planned sit-in on Tuesday at Samir Kassir Square organised by the Socialist Forum was cancelled due to safety concerns.

Personal details of Socialist Forum activists were leaked online, while a number of Lebanese personalities have publicly criticised the campaigners.

In a statement, the activists alleged that a "shady" Facebook group named The Syrian People's Union in Lebanon might be connected to the harassment of activists.

"Given the atmosphere of fear and intimidation that followed the widespread incitement campaign that was launched by a shady intelligence Facebook page called the Syrian People's Union in Lebanon," the group said.

"Taking into account the numerous threats received by some of the organisers, the Socialist Forum decided to cancel the sit-in."

Unknown group

Despite the allegations, there appears, however, to be no clear and direct link between The Syrian People's Union in Lebanon and the threats.

The page purports to have been set up to support Syrians in Lebanon and called for separate protest in downtown Beirut on Tuesday.

But refugee solidarity campaigners said the organiser of the page was not known by Syrian activists in Lebanon. They also pointed to the use of fake social media profiles and pages by Syrian and Lebanese intelligence to entrap opponents. 

The Facebook page is filled with damning - sometimes threatening - comments directed at Syrians and pro-refugee campaigners from critics.

"Racist [and] unfair most of the followers like ISIS on this page," read one comment, referring to the jihadi organisation in Syria and Iraq.

The page's founder, Hani H, from Raqqa, eastern Syria, was reportedly detained following a police raid at the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp on Monday for "inciting against the army", The Daily Star reported.

In the days leading up to his arrest, Hani had stressed the peaceful nature of the The Syrian People's Union in Lebanon's planned protest.

"They are saying that our demo is against the Lebanese army and this is untrue," a post read.

"The protest will be peaceful and in solidarity with the Syrians in Lebanon and their rights. The participants will be of several nationalities and will comprise supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime.

Some have compared the situation to the growing sectarianism and anti-refugee sentiments during the build-up to the Lebanese Civil War. Both sides of the divide are now calling for calm.

"No to demos on the issue of refugees. No to the 1967 to 1975 (build up to Lebanon's Civil War) past experience that has devastated and divided the country. Yes to distinction between terror and Syrian refugees," said Wailid Jumblatt in a tweet.

The leader of the Progressive Socialist Party has been one of Lebanon's most vocal supporters of the Syrian revolution.

So far, the streets of Beirut appear quiet, but the military's campaign against Syrians in Arsal have continued, with little media coverage.

Hizballah are meanwhile said to be planning a major offensive against rebels of the Syrian side of the border with fighting expected to spill over into Lebanon and the camps around Arsal.

Many activists believe that fears of division have left Lebanon's most vulnerable community even more susceptible to attack.

Follow Paul McLoughlin on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin

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