As the morning heat settles in on al-Yasmine refugee camp in Lebanon, one of the biggest settlements for Syrians among those spread all throughout Western Bekaa, its calm is only disturbed by occasional cars passing by. Most don’t slow down and end up sending clouds of dust towards the children carrying empty plastic containers meant for water or simply hanging around near a road ditch.
Al-Yasmine unfolds in identical sets of rows of prefabricated homes and tents, managed by the Lebanese Union of Relief and Development Associations. Established under coordination with the Interior Ministry and the UN in 2016, it was conceived of as an emergency option in case of a mass displacement of refugee populations by the Lebanese army’s operation against ISIS in Northern Lebanon at the time. Today, the camp hosts some refugees who had been living in Arsal, but also vulnerable families from throughout Bekaa, including those whose camps have been badly damaged by the floods that ravaged the valley in January of this year.
The families who relocated to al-Yasmine initially managed to establish a sense of stability in one of the rare camps in Lebanon that has functioning healthcare infrastructure, including a health center run by URDA just 100 meters away, in addition to basic security, water tanks and electricity.
Yet, the camp residents were once again fearful for their safety in spring of this year, when the army unexpectedly raided the camp with bulldozers, tearing down more than a hundred tents it claimed were unoccupied—according to URDA, these tents had been reserved for emergency situations—and arrested most of the male population allegedly lacking appropriate residency permits. The army personnel also threatened the camp with more evictions.
“Everything is fine”
Like most of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon, the residents of al-Yasmine camp have already been redisplaced several times since the start of the Syrian war in 2011 and yet still face an uncertain future, not supposed to settle in a country whose political class increasingly wants them gone.
Still, they are reluctant to discuss their treatment by the Lebanese government with journalists, who are in any case advised by URDA not to ask any questions answers to which might further endanger the interviewees. Asked about the situation in the camp, most hastily reply: “Everything is fine.”
Just kilometers away, residents of al-Hamdanieh camp next to the town or Marj are much more vocal about the hostility that they have been experiencing. A woman who asks not to be named mentions a recent raid, during which the tents in the camp were torn down by the ‘mukhabarat,’ which in this context likely refers to the Lebanese Army Intelligence.
Commonly used in Syria to designate the intelligence services infamous for arbitrary arrests, disappearances and widespread torture of dissidents, the word conveys a sense of visceral fear, which accompanies the refugees even in Lebanon.
The growing pressure to return
Out of a total population of over 6 million, the Lebanese government estimates there to be about 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country, though upon its request the United Nations High Commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) has stopped registering them in 2015.
Allowed to work mostly in construction and agriculture, Syrians in Lebanon are earning increasingly meagre wages from precarious, sometimes seasonal jobs, which fail to counteract dwindling international aid to the point where each household has, on average, incurred over 1,000 US dollars in debt to provide for basic needs according to the UNHCR’s 2018 vulnerability assessment of Syrians in Lebanon.
Each year, the UNHCR updates its vulnerability assessment of Syrian refugees to provide monthly cash assistance of 175 dollars to “the most socio-economically vulnerable families,” which the agency considers those struggling to “cover basic family needs, such as food, health and rent,” including some suffering from severe medical issues and disabilities, explained Lisa Abou Khaled, the UNHCR’s spokesperson.
“Unfortunately, because of the limited resources available, [thousands of] families who used to benefit from the cash assistance stopped receiving the payments,” when the agency last updated its list of beneficiaries “assessed as most in need” in 2018, Abou Khaled added.
According to her, the overall number of aid recipients did not change. Still, many refugees say they don’t understand how the institution selects beneficiaries, which they deem arbitrary.
Jamila Shuli, who raises her son alone in al-Yasmine camp, where they have lived for more than two years, complains of a worsening health and says that having been cut out of the UNHCR’s cash assistance programme, she struggles to make the ends meet.
“The UN is unjust. They choose who does or does not deserve help. Either everyone should get money, or no one should,” says Zouheir Dahman.
Dahman fled Syria in January 2013 and now holds a shop in al-Hamdanieh camp. “The situation is terrible. Each year is more or less the same, but this year has been the worst,” he adds.
“There is no work, and there is no security [in Lebanon],” exclaims another man in al-Hamdanieh, who entered the shop during the interview and who prefers not to have his name mentioned.
He says that he has to rely on an irregular income from an informal job, since he was not able to register as a refugee with the UNHCR (the agency argues that the Lebanese government’s decision to suspend the registration process for Syrians in 2015 greatly complicates aid delivery).
“I only eat if there is work,” the man says.
Illegal evictions, curfews, incessant raids
While wages and employment opportunities vary massively by region, a Syrian male worker earns just a little over 200 dollars per month on average according to the UNHCR (Syrian women earn 92 dollars on average), compared to the 450 dollars minimum wage for the Lebanese.
Over the years, economic pressures have piled up in addition to the evictions of camps and mass detentions, which are no longer individual occurrences, instead becoming part of a new normal.
“The Lebanese army has a problem with the refugees, they want them to go back. But my country isn’t safe,” says Dahman.
Lebanese government’s policies targeting Syrians, such as “unlawful evictions, curfews, constant raids on refugee camps and mass arrests are making life unbearable for many refugees in Lebanon, forcing many to return to Syria,” also claims Diana Semaan, Amnesty International’s Syria researcher.
In April, the government announced to refugees in the municipality of Arsal that they had to comply with a prior regulation outlawing permanent shelters (made of stone or concrete) before June 9, which would otherwise be destroyed by the army. At the time, NGO Save the Children warned that the decision could render thousands of children homeless. Many refugees begrudgingly took matters in their own hands, demolishing the walls they had built themselves for lack of an alternative. After initially extending the deadline, at the beginning of June, the army came back to the camps to destroy at least 20 homes.
Lebanese “genetic” unity
Such policies are often justified by a rhetoric claiming Lebanon is not a country of asylum, that Syrians have nothing to fear back home and that their presence in Lebanon is harmful (socially, economically or even demographically).
These talking points are frequently amplified by members of the Lebanese political class, including the Minister for Refugee Affairs Saleh al-Gharib, supportive of the Syrian regime’s victory in the war, who believes the conditions have been reunited for a prompt return of all refugees to Syria, and perhaps most notably the Minister of Foreign Affairs Gebran Bassil.
Bassil, who presides over the Free Patriotic Movement, often expressed himself in favor of a law allowing Lebanese women married to foreigners to transmit their nationality to their children . . . unless their husband is Syrian or Palestinian.
Speaking at the Lebanese Diaspora Energy conference on June 7, in the presence of the President Michel Aoun, Bassil proclaimed that “it is natural to defend Lebanese workforce against all the others, whether they are Syrian, Palestinian, French, Saudi, Iranian or American” and said that Syrians in Lebanon didn’t pay any taxes.
On the same day, he also tweeted that the Lebanese people were bound together through “genetics,” which created a national affiliation which also consisted in “rejecting both the displaced and the refugees,” and a day later, posted a video of his party supporters calling on Syrians working in Lebanon to go back to Syria.
Even though politicians have been expressing views similar to this for years now, and prejudice against Syrians has risen over the years, civil society activists and a young generation of Lebanese weary of xenophobic narratives scapegoating refugees as a way of explaining away the country’s economic and political issues rose up in a wave of indignation, which saw the emergence of a campaign against hate speech, as well as a hashtag and a petition that got almost 20,000 signatures calling for Bassil to resign (though some also started the hashtag “I am with Bassil”).
Positive impact on the economy
Bassil’s comments were also denounced by the leader of the Progressive Socialist Party Walid Jumblatt, independent MP Paula Yacoubian, as well as a number of Lebanese artists, journalists and intellectuals. Directly referring to the controversy, Camille Abousleiman, the Minister of Labor affiliated with the Lebanese Forces, claimed that racism was not part of LF’s methods for solving unemployment, although he called for an increased surveillance of businesses illegally hiring foreign workers, thus likely encouraging a further restriction in livelihood opportunities.
To counter these narratives, the Refugees=Partners research initiative was founded in 2018 by the Syria Center for Policy Research and the Lebanese Economic Association in order to advocate for a “dignified space” for Syrian refugees Lebanon, as well as a data-based approach to the economic side of the refugee “crisis.”
“Though the refugees were blamed for an economic setback, they supported Lebanese economy during a bad time,” when tourism was at its lowest and exports were cut, says Fatima Ibrahim, the initiative’s project manager.
Believing that Syrians have had a positive impact on Lebanon’s economic activity which has mostly gone underreported, Refugees=Partners are using social media to catch the public’s attention to some lesser well-known fact about refugees’ presence in the country.
For example, the mass arrival of Syrian refugees has promoted the continuous creation of a minimum of 10,000 jobs annually and has substantially contributed to the phone subscriptions rate in Lebanon, almost doubling it between 2010 and 2017.
So according to Ibrahim, rather than chastising Syrian workers, the Lebanese government should regulate and organize Syrians’ residency and employment status, as most are employed informally, with their rights constantly at risk of being violated. The residency papers are also notoriously costly and hard to renew for refugees.
Yet, this is a difficult message to get across in a country that refuses to see itself as a place of final destination for the region’s refugees, the reason why Lebanon has refused to sign the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees.
To stay or to leave?
It is not surprising then that a growing number of refugees are considering returning to Syria. In March 2019, the Lebanese government announced that over 170,000 refugees had come back to Syria through the “voluntary” return program organized by the General Security, yet many more might join, as the obstacles to their stay are unlikely to dissipate.
“The international community has failed to provide sufficient funding to the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan, and this has created a gap in providing aid and the needed services to the refugee population,” says Semaan.
While more than half of Syrian families in Lebanon survive in extreme poverty, spending less than 2.90 dollars per day, and most incur debt just to afford food, some are considering that it is worth to try their luck back home.
Yet returning poses a different set of risks.
Alarmed by the growing political hostility towards Syrians in Lebanon, Amnesty International has released a Q&A reminding that refugee returns to Syria were “premature” and that refugees in Lebanon were not yet “in a position to make a free choice.”
Refugees who choose to come back to Syria “are returning to the unknown,” according to Semaan. She believes the biggest risk to those returning is represented by the Syrian security forces responsible for disappearances, torture and extrajudicial killings of alleged opponents to the government of Bashar al-Assad, and who perform “security clearances” of everyone who attempts to come back to their place of origin. She also mentions a lack of humanitarian provisions, since international organizations’ aid deliveries are frequently blocked or delayed by the Syrian government.
In fact, some of the Syrians who had already returned—and have thus been issued a temporary or permanent re-entry ban by the Lebanese General Security,—find themselves forced to flee their country once again, as detailed in a report by Sawa for Development and Aid released earlier this year.
“A lot [of refugees] want to go back, and then there are a lot who want to stay,” says Omar Abdullah, Sawa’s livelihood program coordinator. Over the years, Sawa branched out and its livelihood department now offers vulnerable Syrians career training and income opportunities. More than 90 refugees are currently part of various projects, that yield a monthly income. A recent one named The Master Peace partners with a Lebanese fashion designer to offer Syrian women the opportunity to sell their woodwork and their own clothes.
Abdullah is Syrian himself, and when he came to Lebanon from the town of Zabadani, he first worked with Save the Children, until he joined Sawa two years ago. He stayed with the organization which, he describes, felt “like a family.”
“Our livelihood program gives Syrians motivation and self-confidence, since they are being productive and working for themselves. They need to feel that they are being productive even though they are out of the country, in order to come back empowered,” Abdullah explains.
Relatively small NGOs like Sawa are unlikely to overturn the rising tide of anti-refugee politics in Lebanon, and yet civil society initiatives play a role in nuancing the picture of a country that might otherwise seem completely inhospitable.
Ideally, “we want to stay together with the Lebanese people,” Abdullah says, adding that “even if the refugees [who have been part of these subsistence programs] go back to Syria,” they won’t be more vulnerable than they were when they first left. “They will have kept the fact that they have grown within the Lebanese environment.”