Argument

Time Is Running Out for Syrians in Lebanon

Beirut is ready to send refugees home, but there isn’t much for them to go back to.

A young Syrian refugee peeks out of a bus window as fellow refugees prepare to leave Beirut on their journey home to Syria on Sept. 4, 2018.
A young Syrian refugee peeks out of a bus window as fellow refugees prepare to leave Beirut on their journey home to Syria on Sept. 4, 2018. Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images

AKKAR, Lebanon—“They kill the kids. They kill everyone! We can’t go back!”

For Fatima, the idea of returning to war-ravaged Syria with her five children is laughable. Besides, what would she go back to? “We had a home, a farm,” she said. “All are destroyed.”

Sitting outside her tent this spring, concealed from view by an olive grove in Lebanon’s northernmost province of Akkar, the Syrian border is tantalizingly close. “I want to go back,” she said. “But we can’t.”

Yet a ruling by Lebanese authorities, along with growing hostility to refugees in both media and political circles, may soon leave her with no choice. This spring, Lebanon’s Supreme Defense Council decreed that any Syrian who entered the country without proper documentation after April 24 would be deported. The effect was immediate: On April 26, according to Human Rights Watch, at least 16 Syrians were summarily deported after arriving at the Beirut airport, despite most of the group expressing fears of torture and persecution should they return home. In total, according to Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency, 301 Syrians were deported from the country in May.

Firsthand accounts of forcible deportation, obtained by the Access Center for Human Rights in Beirut, allege violations of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Lebanon is constitutionally committed. Other testimony includes allegations of refugees being tortured and beaten by Lebanese security forces, denied access to legal advice and representation, and returned to Syria, despite the danger this may have posed to them. In one account, a refugee was reportedly handed over to Syrian authorities by Lebanese security forces, transferred to Damascus, and has not been heard from since.

The threat of forced deportation looms large of the refugee communities. “[The returnees] are imprisoned, or killed,” Fatima’s husband, Muhammed, said. “I could be conscripted into the army if I went back to Syria.”

Naama, a young Syrian activist and journalist originally from Homs, was imprisoned for speaking out against the Bashar al-Assad regime in 2014. Now living in northern Lebanon, she’s in no doubt of the fate that would await her if she were to return to Syria. “When I come back to Syria, they will take me to jail,” she later said. “I am back to death.” She believes that a similar fate would await many returning Syrians, “especially the activists and journalists.”

Along with forced deportations, Lebanese authorities are also engaged in a more insidious campaign to drive refugees out of the country. For one, new work laws are making it harder for Syrians to live sustainably in Lebanon. In June, the minister for labor, Kamil Abu Suleiman, announced a government plan to impose harsh financial sanctions on any businesses that employ foreign workers without work permits, a plan that has led to the dismissal of workers across the country. Given that a permit can cost up to $1,200, work is simply beyond the reach of many Syrian refugees. The inability to provide for their families will put further pressure on them to leave.

According to Amnesty International, there are over 900,000 Syrians registered as refugees in Lebanon. The Lebanese government counts a further 500,000 unregistered Syrians. Lebanese politicians have argued that such a huge influx of refugees is putting pressure on the economy and that Lebanese citizens are losing out on jobs to Syrians. New research from the Access Center has highlighted numerous instances of Lebanese politicians employing anti-refugee rhetoric in speeches and at rallies to turn public opinion against the Syrians.

In June, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said that “the Lebanese are above all.” He’s argued that the “genetic distinction” of the Lebanese makes them superior to their Syrian counterparts. And, according to an Associated Press story, a rally organized by Bassil’s Free Patriotic Movement party under the slogan “Employ a Lebanese” saw protestors vandalizing a Syrian-owned shop and chanting “Syria get out,” as part of a wider campaign by the party to shut down businesses that employ Syrian workers.

But according to Naama, the Syrians are just being used as scapegoats: “There is no education, there is no work or jobs for young people”—Lebanese or Syrian. She argues that joblessness leads to frustration, and officials encourage citizens to project their anger onto Syrians. “When you see all the tweets on Twitter from the political men, and you see how they deal with people and society, they play on people’s feelings,” Naama said. “‘You don’t have a job because the Syrians have taken your jobs.’ So the regular people will think that—‘Yeah, the Syrians are taking my job.’ But it’s not true.” According to statistics from the International Labour Organization, 92 percent of Syrian workers have no formal job contract, and less than a quarter earn a regular monthly wage. Most work in agricultural or domestic services, in jobs that, many of them argue, most Lebanese do not want.

A recent survey by the Carnegie Middle East Center suggested that 96 percent of refugees fled Syria because of the deteriorating security situation there rather than for economic reasons. Many wish to return home when it is safe to do so. Some Syrians, like Mutasem, another refugee in Lebanon, understand the strain the large number of refugees places on Lebanese society. Overcrowding in host communities is leading to increased demand for public services, affecting both the accessibility and quality of health care and education, and rental prices have increased drastically in response to greater demand. Lebanon’s proximity to the Syrian conflict has damaged its tourism industry, and hundreds of camps are sprawled across its landscapes.

From his family’s home, a U.N.-branded tarpaulin strung over a scaffold of wooden planks, Mutasem is aware of how he may be viewed by many Lebanese. But, he said this summer, he has no choice. “If I go back to Syria, I would be going to death,” he said. “If I’d get money, I’d go to Europe. But I will never return to Syria.”

It’s not hard to understand why. He shows a recently received video on his cell phone of his old street in Aleppo. He won’t say who sent it to him. “In my city, there is no electricity, no water. Every building has been destroyed. There are no roads. There are no people,” he said.

Like many here, Mutasem is aware of the Lebanese government’s efforts to push Syrians out of the country. His brother was killed in a Russian airstrike somewhere in Idlib, and he plans to defy the Lebanese government’s aims. “I’ve heard it, yes,” he said. “But I can’t put my family at risk. I can’t go back.”

With fighting continuing in parts of the country, peace in Syria remains elusive. It is dangerous to send refugees back into the thick of a conflict, yet that is what is happening, with pressure on Syrian refugees in Lebanon increasing day by day.

 

To protect their identities, all names have been changed.

Barnaby Papadopulos is a freelance journalist.

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