Analysis

Syrian Refugees in Lebanon Face Mounting Hostility: 'Their Presence Is an Occupation'

More than 1.2 million Syrian refugees now live in the country, much to the dismay of many Lebanese who hold mass rallies against 'the Syrian invasion'

Protesters hold placards calling for the departure of Syrian refugees in Zouk Mosbeh, October 14, 2017. Arabic on the placards reads, 'So that we don't lose Lebanon. So that we don't lose our job.'
Hassan Ammar/AP

The slogans all sound the same: “We shall not become a minority in our own homeland,” one sign blared, in red letters. “This is a time-bomb that will destroy the nation,” Israel’s foreign minister declared. The rage expressed in south Tel Aviv against Sudanese asylum seekers sounds much like the winds of hatred blowing in Lebanon against the refugees from Syria.

More than 1.2 million Syrians now live in Lebanon. According to the United Nations, more than 70 percent of them are living below the poverty line. Of those, 400,000 are children, few of whom are going to school.

Heart-rending reports describe the difficulties of life in Lebanon, especially for children. Some of them, as young as 10 years old, have been forced to work. Their parents aren’t allowed to hold down jobs officially because the Lebanese government won’t give them work permits. The men who head households may find occasional employment, in construction or agriculture, but they are paid a pittance.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun has explicitly clarified that Lebanon will not allow Syrian refugees to settle within its borders, and the establishment of so-called safe zones has become an excuse for the public to rally against the newcomers. These zones remain far from safe for their inhabitants, let alone provide any sources of employment for them.

In any event, enraged Lebanese citizens have recently held mass rallies against the “Syrian invasion” – because, as Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil put it, on October 8: “Any foreigner who is in our country, without us agreeing to it, is an occupier, no matter where he or she come from.”

In this June 20, 2017 file photo, a Syrian refugee hangs laundry outside her tent at a Syrian refugee camp in the eastern city of Baalbek, Lebanon.
Bilal Hussein/ AP

Apparently many of his countrymen agree with the minister: They’re mainly furious at the refugees for “stealing” jobs. “Brother Syrian refugee, my right to a job is greater than yours in our country,” said one sign, brandished at a protest in the city of Hadath, in northern Lebanon.

One Lebanese citizen, Francis Yaqub al-Kami, told the Middle East Online site that, “the Syrian presence in Lebanon has become a social and economic occupation, and ultimately, it will become political.”

The fear of Syrians settling in Lebanon is understandable. The fragile demographic fabric of the country cannot withstand such a vast influx of these individuals, whether Sunni or Shi’ite, who constitute the majority of refugees (although there are also some Christians).

This is also the main reason why Lebanon has historically refused to grant citizenship to Palestinian refugees.

As for the economic situation in Lebanon, opinions differ, with some arguing that the refugees are good for the economy because they do jobs the locals won’t touch and also help boost consumption by buying goods with money they get from aid organizations. Others claim, however, that unemployment among the Lebanese has increased by 30 percent since the Syrian civil war began.

The Lebanese government does not publish official statistics on the economic impact of the refugees, or on how the government allocates the humanitarian aid it receives.

Thus, the dispute has moved to the political arena, with each side presenting its own “data.” There is a national consensus that the refugees should go home to Syria, but the political dispute focuses on whether negotiations should be held directly with the Syrian government, as Hezbollah demands, or coordinated through the UN, as Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his loyalists demand. Hariri opposes negotiations with Syria because he doesn’t want to grant the regime recognition. Hezbollah, for its part, does want Lebanon to recognize Syria.

The upshot is that there are no negotiations, not with Syria nor with the UN, while the refugees are caught in the middle, bereft of a solution. Hezbollah critics blame the organization for Lebanon’s refugee problem, noting that Hezbollah took the Syrian regime’s side in the civil war, and that it controls many of the areas from which Syrians have fled. Hezbollah rebuts that defending the Syrian regime is a Lebanese national interest and an important part of resisting foreign forces, meaning, the United States and its Zionist ally.

Turning the refugees in Lebanon into political pawns makes the job of charities all the more challenging They’re suffering from “donor fatigue,” and from anger of the locals, who fear that helping the refugees will keep them in Lebanon all the longer. For example, these organizations are having trouble even running schools for the refugee children, or ensuring that high school graduates can go on to study at Lebanese universities, which won’t recognize the certificates given to the grads by the Syrian opposition organizations. Only four private colleges accept Syrian students and they’re on the verge of shutting down too.

In contrast to Jordan or Turkey, where Syrian school and university students are integrated into the local education system and may – under certain conditions – also work, Lebanon has no national plan to handle the refugees. Beyond that, international awareness of the urgent need to resolve the refugee problem is ebbing, even though the potential threat embodied in this problem only intensifies over time.