“Demolish your home or we’ll do it for you.” This, in a nutshell, is the ultimatum that was given to the Syrian refugees living in camps in the village of Arsal, northeast of Beirut.
Last week, the Lebanese army demolished at least 20 concrete settlements in three Syrian refugee camps in the village, but before the army’s intervention, several refugees had taken the matter in their own hands and had already destroyed their own homes.
The demolitions follow a decision by Lebanon’s Higher Defence Council in April to take down refugee structures made of any material other than plastic and wood. According to the head of the Arsal municipality, Bassel al-Hujeiri, the order applies to 3,500 to 3,600 refugee families in Arsal.
“Arsal hosts one of the most vulnerable refugee groups in Lebanon” explains Lisa Abou Khaled, UNHCR spokeswoman in Lebanon, “this situation adds to the existing financial difficulties of the refugees – 90% of whom are in debt – and their capacity to buy materials or rent elsewhere.” According to Abou Khaled, “refugees had obtained authorisations from their landlords at the time and did not have a sense of doing anything illegal.”
The demolitions come as part of a crackdown that not only targets the refugees’ shelters, but also seems aimed at pressuring them to go back to Syria. Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch, describes the demolitions as one of many other actions that include “ramped up arrests and deportations, closing of shops, and confiscation or destruction of unlicensed vehicles, on top of other long-standing restrictions, including curfews and evictions, and barriers to refugee education, legal residency, and work authorisation.”
Looking at the bigger picture, it’s evident that Lebanon is a pressure cooker. It has a population of nearly five million people, and it has hosted more than an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees since 2011, the highest per capita number of any country in the world. So some might see the current refugee crisis as unavoidable. What might be less expected is the heightened anti-refugee political rhetoric. The champion of such rhetoric is the son-in-law of president Michel Aoun and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, a man seen by many as “the Donald Trump of the Middle East”.
Bassil is very active on Twitter, where he regularly comments on the presence of refugees in the country and encourages the youths of his political party, the Free Patriotic Movement, to take action.
On 8 June, Bassil posted a video on Twitter depicting a few dozen supporters of his political party chanting the national anthem in front of a restaurant, where they were protesting against the restaurant’s management hiring Syrian workers. In that occasion, he tweeted: “You love Lebanon… hire a Lebanese.”
That day, the Free Patriotic Movement announced that volunteers from its youth wing would campaign to shut down businesses that employ Syrian refugees and non-Lebanese nationals. Flyers were distributed across Beirut, calling on Lebanese to send photos and videos as evidence of businesses employing Syrians. Bassil and his party even coined the term, “Lebanity” to distinguish between Lebanese and non-Lebanese citizens. “Our belonging is what brings us together, and one of the aspects of our belonging is the nationality and the “Lebanity” which we consider to be the highest belonging, over everything else, and this is the real common factor between us” tweeted the Minister.
While the Foreign Minister’s comments were met with two opposing social media campaigns, one supporting him as “patriotic”, and the other calling for his resignation, over time this type of narrative has produced a significant deterioration in the relationship between Lebanese people and Syrian refugees.
“The quality of these relations has been worsening every year and particularly since 2014 and onwards.” says Nasser Yassin, the Director of Research at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, “I think it has to do of course with the pressure of having a large number of refugees, but also because of this poisonous rhetoric that refugees are taking our jobs, polluting, bringing a lot of children…all of these are exaggerated facts and they tend to affect the way people think and perceive refugees and Syrians in particular.”
Maytham Kassir, a Lebanese broadcast journalist, thinks that this is part of a specific plan: “What Bassil is doing is creating populist support for his plan to return Syrians, especially since he knows that he doesn’t have any support internationally or locally. And his language risks creating a sectarian problem. The issue is starting to be described as ‘the Christian minister attacking Sunni refugees’.”
The sectarian element is an explosive one in a diverse country like Lebanon. Recently, President Michel Aoun has called the crisis an existential danger to Lebanon, reflecting a view that the presence of the mainly Sunni Syrian refugees will overturn the balance between Lebanese Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shi’ite Muslims and other sectarian groups.
But Antoine Constantine, the Media Advisor to Minister Bassil, is adamant that the issue has nothing to do with race and sects, and it is instead a political and economic one. Commenting on the Minister’s recent remarks that countries like the UK should direct their aid money to return refugees to Syria, rather than to supply them services inside Lebanon, Constantine argues that “Syria is now safe. The UN itself has visited the country and declared that more than 80% of it is safe. Lebanon is not going to force anyone to return. But all those who do not face any political obstacles and who are proved to be economic refugees must be returned.”
Bassil has repeatedly claimed that the majority of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are not staying in the country for political reasons, but mainly for the economic benefits. “They are working in Lebanon, taking money also from the UN, and then they regularly go to Syria and come back to Lebanon” vehemently states Constantine. Asked to comment on such claims, Abou Khaled explains that “UNHCR has a very thorough and detailed process of identification of refugees who receive assistance.[…] A person who is working will not be prioritised for assistance since he/she is fortunate to already have a source of income. If UNHCR identifies a Syrian refugee who may be commuting between Lebanon and Syria, and verifies that the person is not doing so for compelling reasons – such as medical care or urgent family reasons – then the individual’s registration with UNHCR is inactivated.”
Another argument often used against the presence of refugees in the country is that they represent “a burden” on the suffering Lebanese economy. According to the World Bank, as many as 23,000 Lebanese nationals enter the labour force annually and Lebanon needs to create six times as many jobs as it is currently able to absorb them.
“Given our economic situation, we can’t carry this burden on top of our problems. We can’t handle the impact of the Syrian civil war”, explains Constantine, insisting that the UN should handle the return of refugees. “Why are we the ones who have to pay such a price? Did any European country take an intake of refugees equal to 40% of their population? Did the UK, or France, or Italy take in such a number?”
Economic implications aside, the return of Syrian refugees is likely to become an explosive topic affecting not only Lebanon but also other neighbouring countries such as Jordan and Turkey. UNHCR confirms that 80% of refugees in Lebanon have told them they wish to return to Syria. “For some, the return is now, however many still have some considerations that delay their return in the immediate future,” says Abou Khaled, who also admits to a lack of funds.
Certainly, Lebanon’s refugee-hosting fatigue has been exacerbated by a lack of international support. The United Nations appeal for more than US$2.24 billion in international aid to meet the humanitarian assistance needs of Syrian refugees in Lebanon for 2019, was only 15.8 per cent funded. Money aside, what really are the factors obstructing safe returns? Amnesty International highlights the ongoing airstrikes in Idlib, the instability in the eastern cities and allegations of forced conscription and torture by the Syrian government.
However, Bassil’s team refuses to link the return of refugees to a political resolution to the conflict. “You mean like the political solution that we are waiting for Palestinians since 1948? Or the political solution for the Cypriot displaced population? We can’t wait” claims Constantine.
Facilitating the return of Syrian refugees, however, will not be straightforward. “The issue isn’t that simple” explains Kassir “every party wants to use the refugees’ card in the political solution. The Syrian regime isn’t opening the doors easily, demanding international support for the return of refugees. UNCHR says they don’t have access to help those going back. Russians are asking for money to take part in this return process. The Americans and other parties won’t make it easy unless the regime gives them something in return. That’s, in a nutshell, why Minister Bassil and the Lebanese government are scared that the return of Syrians will take too long.” It is then possible that the forced demolitions in Arsal might be a test for the rest of the country, and if sufficiently successful (and not vehemently opposed by activists and politicians), might lead to such strategy being applied to the rest of Lebanon.
In other words, the living conditions for Syrians in the country might get so precarious, that many might prefer going back to Syria, rather than going through the re-traumatising effect of seeing their houses destructed again, and again.