In Syria, thousands of children have only witnessed the threats of war and traumatizing sounds of explosions and air strikes, led by all sides involved in the conflict. UNICEF is concerned by the loss of an entire generation, with families living in degrading conditions as a result of mass influx of refugees and displaced populations.
Lebanon’s only driving distance neighbor has been suffering from a deadly civil war for almost a decade. The war in Syria has resulted in the largest humanitarian crisis in modern history, with millions of Syrians seeking refuge or asylum in the neighboring countries of Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Lebanon has abstained from signing the 1953 UN refugee convention and the country is considered to only be a temporary host. The Syria crisis wasn’t the first to impact Lebanon, now hosting the largest number of refugees per capita with around 930,000 currently registered with the UNHCR. Indeed, the establishment of the State of Israel and the ongoing conflict between the Palestinians and the occupation has also resulted in high numbers of refugees fleeing to Lebanese urban and rural neighborhoods. According to UNRWA, it is estimated that around 450,000 refugees from Palestine or of Palestinian descent currently live in Lebanon.
Syrian refugees at the UNHCR registration center in Tripoli, Mohamed Azakir/World Bank
Lebanon’s history of conflict allows its people to empathize or even re-experience the tragedies next door. Three decades following fifteen years of civil war followed by Israel’s invasion of Lebanese territory, the tiny Mediterranean country’s resilience has been further enhanced. However, the political system is seen to be corrupt and damages affecting infrastructure still date from the civil war. In 2017, Lebanon scored 28/100 on Transparency International’s annual index, a global anti-corruption organization, revealing the lack of transparency and accountability in the country’s structures and institutions.
Lebanon has generously hosted Syrian refugees since the outbreak of the war. Some Lebanese families have even welcomed Syrians inside their houses or provided temporary accommodation with little to no rental fees. Conversely, tensions have gradually increased and the conversation around threats imposed by Syrian refugees to the host community started to take a serious tone.
“They [Syrian refugees] remain extremely vulnerable and dependent on aid from the international community. Without continued support, their situation would be appalling.” - Amin Awad, Director of the UNHCR's Middle East and North Africa Bureau
According to the UNHCR, thousands of refugees need urgent humanitarian assistance to cope with the crisis and receive access to proper nutrition, clean water, shelter, health and education services. Cash assistance is also a form of aid offered to Syrian refugees. But what about the host community who is also threatened by poverty? During a field visit to Nabaa area, an urban neighborhood with challenges in infrastructure and home to Lebanese, Syrian and Lebanese/Armenian populations, I engaged in a conversation with a woman in her fifties, residing in an informal building’s ground floor. “They took everything. Our money, our jobs… May God curse them”, she replied when asked about the interaction between Lebanese and Syrians in the neighborhood. “My daughter is about to enter university and my husband was fired from his work. They took his job”, she added in a cold tone. The UN agencies do fix a quota on service distribution, part of which is dedicated to the most vulnerable from the host community. Nevertheless, some consider themselves to be invisible to aid agencies.
While the Lebanese Ministry of Labor restricts work to Syrian refugees in the areas of construction, environment and agriculture exclusively, some employers have found – if not risked – a way to hire Syrians employees. Practically, a Syrian employee will not require a contract, thus enrolling in informal labor. He or she will not be required registration to the Lebanese National Social Security Fund. Immigrant or refugee employees are often underpaid, work for long hours, exposed to challenging or hazardous working conditions, and are allegedly humiliated or exploited in their workplace given their submission to their employer. This situation creates a different impression for the host community, which considers Syrian refugees to be replacing them in the job market without government regulation.
Syrian worker on duty, Alice Fordham/NPR
“They deserve what’s happening to them. They’ve treated us like dogs when they were occupying our country.” – Omar, 57 years old from Beirut
Although the views are split regarding Syria's military presence in Lebanon from 1976 until 2005, Lebanon’s collective memory still recalls the struggles faced during this period. Omar has expressed what perhaps some Lebanese still ask for: vengeance. Philosopher Gorge Santayana did not exaggerate his saying “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it”, yet it seems like the wounds from the past are still unhealed. It is evident that psychological and social repercussions continue to influence witnesses and survivors of the Lebanese civil war, which may cause similar reactions to Omar’s when left unaddressed.
Lebanon’s civil war and the July war in 2006, thousands of Lebanese have also found refuge in Syria. Today, the fear of the Lebanese host community and government relies on whether Syrian refugees will return or remain. With the offensive against ISIS in the Bekaa in 2017, Lebanese political leaders were heard calling for the immediate return of refugees to Syria. Refugees are protected under international law, which condemns forced return to areas where they might still risk persecution or danger. With media emphasizing discriminatory discourse that the threat caused by refugees is serious, seeds of fear were planted in the minds of the Lebanese, further limiting the chance for social cohesion and stability.
“I’m afraid to walk the streets after midnight, I fear being harassed” – Farah, 22 years old, lives in a wealthy neighborhood in Keserwan area
Since the Syrian refugee influx to Lebanon, Farah witnessed an increase of what she describes as gangs around her neighborhood. “I have a feeling that they stare at me from head to toe, and I sometimes hear pickup lines that make me feel uncomfortable”, she said. It is exaggerated to claim that such reactions addressed to Farah’s are exclusive to Syrians, noting that both Syrian and Lebanese societies suffer from gender-based violence and abuse. However, some Lebanese neighborhoods have advocated for “refugee-free” streets by night, which led several municipalities to impose curfews forbidding non-Lebanese citizens from moving after a specific period of time and “under their own responsibility”. Rights groups have condemned this decision as a violation of human rights and international law.
In a conversation with a Lebanese marketing student, Jad highlighted that he had no problem to share the same classroom with Syrians, but doubts his willingness to make Syrian friends citing cultural divergences. Lebanon’s educational system differs from the system in Syria, as the state-run Lebanese University and private universities offer programs in Arabic (less dominant), English or French. Some Syrian university students have reported to face difficulties in learning, especially during classes offered in foreign languages. On a positive note, many Syrians are seen to be familiar with the Lebanese lifestyle and vice-versa.
Syrian women and children wait to return to Syria on Lebanon-Syria border, File AP
Only a few miles separate Lebanon from Syria and both countries enjoy a relatively common history. The war in Syria has awakened the senses of those who witnessed conflict and occupation in Lebanon, bringing back bitter feelings to the present moment. Sudden changes in demography have alerted the host community, as conflict surrounds all Lebanese borders and negatively influences its economy. Lebanon’s infrastructure is weak and inaccessible to all regions, and corruption is still threatening good governance. Pressure on public services restrict equal access to healthcare, education, or labor services by the general population. Lebanon's vulnerable host community feels deprived from humanitarian aid and fear being replaced by Syrians in the job market. They feel less secure with the presence of refugees in their neighborhoods. Anti-refugee rhetoric further contributes to shaping public opinion on refugees and the media plays a major role in modeling the population’s perception of the crisis. Conciliation between both communities remains necessary to maintain peace and stability in Lebanon especially in times of regional instability. Efforts must be invested in providing development programs benefiting both communities as well as fair and adequate services to respond to their basic needs. Most importantly, it remains crucial to invest in genuine efforts to put an end to the civil war and reach a political solution in Syria.