“I am pleased to see the Lebanese people proud of their identity. It is something which could ultimately make me want to remain in this country” Majd,1 24, tells us in confidence. We met this young Syrian from Damascus in a demo. He has been in Beirut for a little over a year, waiting to go on to Germany where he hopes to resume his studies. According to the authorities, there are still around a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon from among those who fled here eight years ago at the start of the hostilities in their country. Majd was able to obtain a resident’s certificate and a work permit, whereas two thirds of his fellow refugees are undocumented and illegally employed. “I’m well aware that I have an easier life than most of the Syrians who have settled here,” the young man explains, “It’s partly for their sake that I’m in the streets today.”
Since mid-October Street protests of almost unprecedented dimensions have mobilised Lebanese from every walk of life, and in every part of the country. Tamirace Fakhoury is a college professor and she is also director of The Institute for Social Justice and Conflict Resolution at the Lebanese American University (LAU) is of the opinion that “Lebanese citizens have succeeded in repositioning themselves as a people demanding that their aspirations be taken into account by the political elites, after decades of being ignored, marginalised and disadvantaged. The protestors accuse the political class of corruption and the mismanagement of public funds responsible for the major financial crisis currently afflicting Lebanon.
In reply to these accusations, the government claims that the economic stalemate is due to the war in Syria and the ensuing population displacements which have made Lebanon host to the largest number of refugees per capita in the world. “Sheer propaganda,” Khadija shouts indignantly into the microphone. She’s a nurse in her fifties from Tyr, in South-Lebanon, come to take part in the Beirut protests. Not far from the lorry on which Khadija and others take turns addressing the compact crown gathered on avenue Riad el-Solh, in the centre of the capital, a group of protestors are chanting: “The warlords have poisoned the sea, destroyed the mountains and made people, hate you. The warlords have stolen our jobs and our homeland and blame it on the refugees.”
To the beat of the drums and clapping hands, these protestors take a firmer and more controversial line: “Welcome refugees!” Yet while several opinion polls have shown that a majority of Lebanese are in favour of sending the refugees home, Tamirace Fakhourt insists that there is “a state of relatively peaceful coexistence with the host communities”. Although he has been the object of racist and xenophobic aggression, Majd agrees with her. “It isn’t the people who have a racist attitude towards the Syrians in Lebanon, it’s the State,” he maintains, though he does understand that certain workers with precarious employment see Syrians as a threat. With around 25% of the active population out of work, many bosses prefer to hire Syrians who are prepared to accept lower wages and inferior working conditions.
“The status of Syrian refugees in Lebanon has varied enormously”, Tamirace Fakhouti points out, referring to a plan to combat illegal employment among foreigners, set up by Labour Minister Kamil Abousleiman in June 2019. Since then, employers have been reluctant to hire Syrian workers without a work permit, for fear of having to pay a fine which can amount to as much as 2.5 million Lebanese pounds (£1,285 or $1,660) in case of an inspection.
She has also observed a tightening of border controls on Syrians seeking entry to Lebanon; since 2014, the Lebanese authorities have put an end to their “open door” policy, restricting the admission and registration of new refugees by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). This restrictive tendency was accelerated with a series of measures adopted since 2018 by Gebran Bassil, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigration who is also President Michel Aoun’s son-in-law, who favours sending the Syrian refugees home.
Even before the protests began, Bassil was criticised for declarations that were considered racist, and is now the target of several slogans heard during the demonstrations. He is regularly in the headlines for his controversial draught laws and public statements, of which one of the best known was made in October 2017 when he wrote on his Twitter account that “foreigners present on our territory against our will are an occupying force, no matter where they come from.”
A deep-rooted distrust
Lebanese reservations about the presence of Syrians have an historical origin, since until 2005 “the land of the Cedar-tree” was occupied by the Syrian army. The withdrawal of Syrian troops urged UN Security Council resolution 1559 was in fact prompted by the vast popular demonstrations after the death of Premier Rafic Hariri on 14 February 2004, an assassination blamed on Syria though the matter never came to court.
“What is happening in Syria today is reminiscent of what happened in Lebanon after the civil war when foreign powers implemented the Taef Agreement, settling the country’s future without consulting the Lebanese.” So speaks Mahmoud, a Syrian from the suburbs of Alep who went into exe in 2012 after serving a prison sentence for opposing Bacjar Al-Assad’s regime. As apolitical activist, he says he is glad to be able to “support the Lebanese people in their struggle against those who have destroyed their country while pretending to rebuild it.”
Some Syrian are worried
After several weeks of protests, it is impossible to say how many Syrians were in the crowds. Sarah tells us she hasn’t left her home since the beginning of the movement: “I came to Lebanon after seven years of war in Syria and now the same thing is happening all over again.” He tone is indignant. “Where can I run to if things get worse here?”
She is not the only one to fear the worse: a waiter in a restaurant which has been closed since the protests began has no longer one iota of hope. He doesn’t understand why the Syrians should stand up for the rights of the Lebanese “when we have no rights in this country, when the Syrians who weren’t slaughtered like dogs are treated in Lebanon like rats”.
A situation which Tamirace Kakhoury hopes might change for the better if “the protest movement achieves its goals, then Syrians and Lebanese could come to be regarded as subjects of equal rights and treated according to the principles of international law.” However, she warns against another possible scenario, in the lights of Michel Aoun’s 31 October speech in which the President of the Republic “mentioned twice that sending the Syrian refugees home was a major issue for Lebanon”.However, this policy challenged by some members of the international community, upon whom the Lebanese government depends to firm up its legitimacy in the midst of a blatant political and economic crisis. Moreover, Professor Fakhoury believes that it is not in the government’s interest to oblige the Syrians to leave the country, which is why it favours “voluntary” departures by complicating the lives of Syrian refugees in order to incite them to seek new horizons.”
The Turkish offensive in North-Eastern Syria, launched on 9 October, has produced over 100,000 displaced persons in less than a fortnight, so that for the Syrians who have found refuge in the land of the cedar tree, their future is as unforeseeable as that of their host country.
1For security reasons, all the first names of the Syrians interviewed for this article have been changed.