The Time Bomb That Could Destroy Lebanon

The continued presence of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon helps explain why the Lebanese are loath to establish camps for Syrians fleeing the civil war.


Hussein Hazuri begins his report in Lebanon’s Al-Nahar newspaper by asking his readers if they remember Hamra Street. “Do you remember the Champs-lysées of Beirut? The crowds at the cafés, the theaters and the nighttime parties? Nothing is left of them. Hamra Street has lost its people. Today, ‘the brothers’ and ‘the foreigners’ [a reference to refugees from Syria] have turned the street into a site for tourism, work and begging.”

Hazuri complains that the thoroughfare, which had once been a symbol of Beirut’s wild cultural scene, has been taken over by establishments sporting signs with Syrian names and where all the employees are Syrian. The vehicles on the street even bear Syrian license plates. “What else is missing to make you feel like you’re in Syria?” Hazuri asks. He interviews café and restaurant owners, who complain that Lebanese people no longer frequent the street because it has “turned” Syrian.

“You hear the Syrian dialect everywhere. The owner of Al-Farouk – a well-known Damascus restaurant – has opened a branch on the street with a staff of 20 Syrians, and Hamra Street has become a Syrian street inside Lebanon,” Ahmed al-Hafar, the owner of another restaurant, Marbouta, tells Hazuri. “Hamra,” which means red in Arabic, “has now turned black.”

It’s not just Hamra Street that has changed. Young Syrian women are working in Beirut’s bars and nightclubs as hostesses, replacing young Iraqi, Russian and Lebanese women. Most live in groups in rental apartments, for which they each pay about $150 per month. Their salaries at the clubs can amount to $500 per month, before tips, for what they call “guest services.” Their parents are unaware of their line of work and apparently don’t inquire as long as the money keeps being sent back home.

Some of the women are university students, while others pick up casual jobs during the day. They tell Lebanese newspapers that what they earn at nightclubs in Beirut is at least five times what they would make “at a desk job or in front of a sewing machine.” But they are also aware that their choice of occupation gives a bad name to the Syrian diaspora in Lebanon, which has already been called “the prostitution stockpile” that Syria has plied in Lebanon.

Armed fiefdoms

More than 1.2 million Syrian refugees currently live in Lebanon – about a quarter of Lebanon’s original population. Technically, the Syrian refugees are not allowed to work in Lebanon, but there isn’t a single person who won’t violate the ban when there are people offering them work, even at half the official Lebanese minimum wage.

Such a large number of refugees in a country like Lebanon, where the ethnic and religious balance is so fragile, is rattling a government that was having difficulty functioning anyway.

Their sheer numbers make it impossible for the refugees to be appropriately sheltered and protected. Unlike Turkey and Jordan, which have set up orderly refugee camps guarded by security forces and where a reasonable level of services – such as education, medical care, water and electricity – are provided, Lebanon has not set up any camps.

The reason is political. The Lebanese have the experience of Palestinian refugee camps that, over the years, became armed fiefdoms within the country, under the command of the Palestine Liberation Organization. After the PLO was expelled from Lebanon by the Israeli army, the camps became enclaves whose residents were excluded from the country’s socioeconomic life.

Despite the controversial nature of the situation, the Lebanese Foreign Ministry has drafted a 51-page document that considers the advantages and disadvantages of creating refugee camps for the Syrians. Among advantages stated is the need to bring the refugees together, away from population centers, so they can be protected from any kind of harassment. Their residence in camps would also make it easier to keep an eye on them and prevent them from going out to beg or work illegally.

On the other hand, if camps were established, it would also involve certain responsibilities: “It would require the state to allocate large tracts of land, and this is not as simple a matter as people think,” the document stated. “In addition, the government would have to obtain the approval of residents of the areas in which the camps would be set up, even if the distance between the camps and population centers is [great].”

These provisions are mostly evidence of concern over the outbreak of violent confrontations between the Lebanese and refugees, and over a loss of control of the refugee enclaves.

There is also concern over conflict among the refugees in the camps and their becoming centers of crime. The biggest threat, however, is that the camps would become permanent, “as happened with the Palestinian camps.”

The official document has so far not been used or discussed, inasmuch as bitter opponents to setting up refugee camps in Lebanon include the country’s Hezbollah Shi’ite militia, which has made it clear to the government that any discussion of the refugee issue would have to meet three conditions: That no refugee camps be set up in Lebanon; that there be negotiations with the Syrian government over the return of those refugees who wish to go back; and that the dispersal of the refugees in Lebanon be coordinated “with all the sides,” meaning with Hezbollah’s agreement.

The border issue

Hezbollah’s major concern is that the camps would become armed power centers that would challenge control by the Shi’ite militia itself, particularly in areas near the Syrian border. In these regions, as in Lebanon’s Bekaa, there are more than 130,000 refugees in about 830 locations, where the Syrians have been given tents that cannot stand up to the fierce winds and snowstorms that raged this week.

Water containers froze, many tents collapsed and several children died of the cold. Heating equipment is not arriving and many families have complained about landlords who have evicted them from rented apartments, to re-rent them to tenants who can pay more.

These phenomena are an indication of a growing rift not only between the population of Lebanon and the refugees, but also among the refugees themselves – particularly against the backdrop of competition for decent housing and employment.

Reports of a fire among refugee tents near the northern Lebanese city of Akkar don’t add to the sense of security for the refugees, who have become a political bargaining chip among Lebanese factions and organizations.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil has called the refugee problem a time bomb that could destroy Lebanon. That’s not an idle threat, in light of the signs of violence and revulsion that the refugees have been subjected to, as well as public pressure to find a quick solution.

This week actually, new regulations came into force that require each refugee to obtain a visa before entering Lebanon. The visas are to be issued only for the period during which the Syrian “visitors” plan to stay at a hotel, and the Syrians will each be required to demonstrate that they have $1,000 at their disposal and have a means of support during their stay.

It is doubtful, however, if the regulations will be able to stem the flow of thousands of Syrians who enter the country via unofficial crossing points. The rules would also not address the problem of the refugees already in the country.

At the same time, the Syrian government is liable to take retaliatory action against Lebanon and prevent the flow of trucks and merchandise into Syria, even further hurting the Lebanese economy and the Lebanese national treasury, which has so far had to come up with the funds necessary to “host” the Syrian refugees.

The piece by Hazuri did, in fact, spark widespread condemnation, and he has been called both racist and fascist for calling Hamra Street “Black Street.” A special Facebook page was even started ridiculing the writer.

The editor of Al-Nahar was forced to explain that the article did not reflect the spirit of the newspaper and represented only the writer’s own views. However, a check of Lebanese media websites and articles by major Lebanese journalists show that Hazuri is not merely speaking for himself. Lebanon, which has avoided civil war since 1990, is now more united than ever over the need to rid itself of the Syrian refugees in any way possible.