Beirut: Activists Protest Visa Restrictions on Syrian Refugees

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Syrian refugees continue to suffer in makeshift camps in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley where they must endure harsh temperatures and exploitation by the Lebanese security services and landowners renting them land. Al-Akhbar/Marwan Tahtah

By: Nasser Elamine

Published Monday, January 26, 2015

An assembly of organizations and activists gathered Saturday on the front steps of the National Museum in Beirut in protest of the Lebanese government’s recent decision to impose visa restrictions on Syrian refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria.

Approximately 80 people were present, holding banners such as “We refuse any sectarian intervention by the Lebanese powers in Syria” and “Let Lebanon be a warm and safe shelter for them all, and for their dreams of a free Syria: Dignity, Justice, and Humanity.”

“We were promised hundreds but only 70 or 80 showed up, this is disappointing but not unexpected,” one of the organizers said.

The protest was organized by various NGOs and political organizations such as the Socialist Forum, Sawt Al Niswa, Beirut Walls and others including independent activists.

The decision issued in October 2014 to impose unprecedented visa restrictions on Syrians fleeing the brutal war across the border is considered a controversial attempt to end the massive influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon came into effect earlier this month.

The statement, posted on the Socialist Forum’s website described the decision as “shameful and inhumane.”

“The amount of refugees is catastrophic, for both the Lebanese and the Syrians,” said Camil Dagher, lawyer and member of the Socialist Forum, “to overcome this we need to work together with the Lebanese government, but the policies that have been issued have had terrible repercussions upon the refugees and the people still trapped in Syria.”

The demonstrators demanded that the Lebanese borders be “opened wide” and for the Syrians in Lebanon to be considered officially refugees and not emigrants, thereby forcing the Lebanese government to deal with them as refugees — which in turn grants them protective rights — a move that according to government officials could be economically “catastrophic” for Lebanon.

Walid Daw, one of the organizers and a member of the Socialist Forum, said that there are “big questions marks” around the money reaching the Lebanese government in donations for the refugees and whether it is being distributed to the refugees.

“If the money is actually reaching the refugees, every one of them should have been given $20,000,” he said.

In addition to the visa policy, the organizers spoke out against the abusive treatment and racism Syrian refugees suffer in Lebanon due to the Lebanese government’s haphazard policies and the lack of protection provided for the refugees.

“They are attacked by people on the streets, they hit them, and insult them, they even on occasion go to the camps and destroy their tents. The government rather than protecting them has contributed to this abusive behavior,” said Dagher, referring to the crackdowns on refugee camps and curfews imposed by various municipalities that prevents Syrians from leaving their homes after a set time.

Dagher described these measures as “not only disgraceful for the Lebanese government but the Lebanese people as well.”

In an article he wrote in 2013, Bassim Chit, a prominent leftist activist who passed away last year, argued that the systemic racism of the Lebanese state and political forces against Syrian refugees was an attempt to escape the pressure created by the social mobilization against sectarianism and the strikes and mobilization of the Trade Union Coordination Committee and other “localized protests.”

The movements, Chit wrote, had “uncovered Lebanon’s ruling elite’s inability to manage the rising needs within society and the calls for reform” and by attempting to “channel existing popular resentment against the State towards a xenophobic and racist victimization of poor Syrian refugees.”

Furthermore, the organizers criticized the “traditional left” for not condemning the atrocities being committed and for allowing their political commitments to come before the suffering of the Syrian people.

The organizers pledged to continue their movement in solidarity with the Syrian people despite their modest numbers.

“The revolutionary left is being built” said Daw, “it is built by cooperating with the people and not by arrogant empty rhetoric and expressing of disgust with their movement because it has to be in accordance with a certain agenda.”

He added that “the revolutionary left is growing and it will continue without hesitating due to our small numbers or anything else.”

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