Attacks on Syrians in Lebanon: Scapegoating, par excellence
By: Yazan al-Saadi
Published Tuesday, September 16, 2014
Attacks on Syrians in Lebanon have been increasing and have become much more public and flagrant, especially after the events in Ersal. These attacks are often incited, implicitly and explicitly, by political elites from all sides and are usually dismissed as a means to protect the country and its people from what is perceived as an existential threat. In the end, Syrians with lower incomes and who lack any form of power are the ones that pay the price.
In a brief report by the Lebanese news site El-Nashra published on September 13, Antoine Chakhtoura, the municipal head of Dekwaneh, a suburb north of Beirut, said, “Now and then,the municipality raided the homes of Syrians in order to not repeat the experience of the [Lebanese civil war] in 1975.”
“Every gathering by Syrians is a sleeper cell [directed] against the security, economic, livelihood, or environmental [sectors],” he added.
The municipal official further claimed that ever since 10,000 Syrian refugees started residing in the area two years ago, the strain on infrastructure has been great, and that the crime rate “has risen dramatically,” citing a figure of 350 incidents, unverifiable by Al-Akhbar English, in the course of the two years “that include murder, rape, and theft, in addition to various infringements.”
The narrative of the 'threatening Syrian'
Chakhtoura's arguments are commonly heard throughout Lebanon, regardless of geographic or political circumstances, ever since a large influx of Syrian refugees sought sanctuary from the violence besting their country.
There are abundant examples of similar statements by politicians, whether senior or otherwise and within both political blocs, and highlighting each inflammatory statement is a task that is beyond the scope of what can be presented here. One can point to the various statements over the past few years by current Minister of Foreign Affairs Gebran Bassil, or former Minister of Interior Marwan Charbel and his current successor Nouhad al-Machnouk, or Kataeb Party MP Samy Gemayel as well as Michel Aoun and other MPs, or the various municipality officials for districts in the Bekaa and elsewhere, as samples of how systematic these inflammatory statements directed against Syrians are.
Regardless of who said what, and where they said it, they all inherently share the common trait of presenting Syrians as a homogeneous threat to the country.
In addition to the rhetoric arising from the political sector, the media also plays a key role in propagating a negative narrative in regards to Syrians.
In a comprehensive report that continues to be important and ever relevant, titled, “Understanding racism against Syrian refugees in Lebanon,” and published by Lebanon Support on October 2013, authors Bassem Chit and Mohammed Ali Nayel highlight how problematic methods of reporting – which often lacks context, omits facts, and tend to led to gross and distorted generalizations of the issue – are part and parcel of a larger problem facing Lebanon.
Stories and news reports about Syrian refugees in Lebanon are abundant in Lebanese media. Stories covering the refugees seem to cover almost all aspects of being a Syrian refugee in Lebanon. However, they are always portrayed in majority as having a “turbulent” effect on Lebanese society, without actually looking to the already existing turbulent conditions in the country. The fact that Syrian refugees are being coerced towards a refugee status is similar to that which many Lebanese faced during the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon or the civil war. But it is mostly neglected or only used to justify support for the regime or segments of the opposition in Syria. It does not purport to show the striking similarities in hardships, oppression, and exploitation that both Syrians and Lebanese face, while living under the existing ruling orders; the continuous state of stagnation of reforms that both the Syrian and Lebanese regimes are facing; or the effects this stagnation has in terms of exacerbating social and civil injustices.
It is no wonder then, as the narrative of “the threatening Syrian” is constantly articulated by influential sectors, that the Lebanese public are affected to a startlingly degree. As reported in May by Al-Akhbar, a study conducted by Dr. Charles Harb and Dr. Reem Saab of the American University of Beirut's Faculty of Arts and Sciences, titled “Casual Labor Initiative and Social Cohesion in Akkar and Bekaa,” showed that over 90 percent of Lebanese in the areas of Wadi Khaled, Sahel Akkar, and the Bekaa Valley support restricting the movement, political freedoms, and work opportunities of Syrian refugees, and in some cases, a significant percentage of Lebanese support violence directed towards the refugees.
Presently, Syrian refugees are blamed for an array of issues afflicting Lebanon. From eroding infrastructure, economic hardships, to the deteriorating security conditions, Syrians are targeted, innocent or guilty, and even when the narrative collapses under scrutiny. And because of these claims, Syrians face numerous restrictions and difficulties that include discrimination, curfews, attacks, evacuation, and other hostile acts.
While it is undoubtedly true that an additional estimated 1.5 million people in the country is a massive burden, the core reasons behind the faltering infrastructure and abysmal economic conditions predate the start of the Syrian uprising in early 2011.
Lebanon ranks 127 out of 177 in the Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Index, in addition to the fact of the continual unwillingness to invest and develop the infrastructure, suggest that the problems go beyond simply external factors but are rather a Lebanese affair.
In terms of the alleged claim of widespread criminality by Syrians, the claim is equally shaky when looking at the available numbers.
According to figures provided to Al-Akhbar English by the Association Justice and Mercy, a Lebanese non-government organization that works predominately on detainee rights, around 200-250 registered Syrian refugees were incarcerated on average within all of Lebanon's prisons in 2013, and usually for petty crimes such as theft or for holding invalid or forged documents. In comparison, Roumieh prison, the largest and most notorious of Lebanon's 22 penal institutions, holds more than 5,000 prisoners – mainly Lebanese.
Indeed, another apt example of this sheer disregard of facts, or in other words practices of scapegoatism, is the decision by relatives of the Lebanese soldiers and policemen who were kidnapped by jihadist militants near Ersal to abduct 18 Syrians and lock them up in a warehouse, despite the fact that these 18 had nothing to do with the abduction of the soldiers by members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and al-Nusra Front. Their sole crime, it seems, is being merely Syrian.
A further sticking point is the prevailing aversion by sectors in Lebanon to the politicization of the Syrian masses in the country. Whether a Syrian is aligned with opponents to the Syrian regime, or if they decided to participate in a political process such as elections that shores up the regime's legitimacy, the outcome tends to be the same: hostile rhetoric.
A 'good Syrian'
What makes a 'good Syrian' in this context?
If one considers the rhetoric, a good Syrian should be apolitical, and most importantly, economically well-off.
The latter point bares much thought. As much as there is growing discrimination and xenophobia towards Syrians in Lebanon, it is not directed towards all Syrians on the ground, as sensationally presented by certain Lebanese news sites.
As Chit and Nayel noted in their report, “...this scapegoating is never done on the level of interfering governments or rich Arab and foreign interventionists. Quite the contrary, it has always been directed against migrant workers, refugees, workers, and the poor.”
“The opening quote of this article mentions that “it [Lebanon] treats my money,” making Lebanon a safe haven for the rich and, at the same time, a punitive establishment for the poor. The punishments is incited through sectarianism and racist and xenophobic strife and conflict,” they added.
A similar point was spotlighted by Lebanese economist Mahmoud Mroueh, in an article he wrote for Open Democracy, published on September 15.
”Well-off and wealthy Syrians are perceived as entirely distinct from lower middle class and working class Syrians, as if the two hail from different parts of the planet. Rather than perceive well-off Syrians as Syrian and abandoning their generalizations in the process, the Lebanese bourgeoisie, vindicating Marx, resorted to sundering the Syrian people into two distinct and oppositional groups along economic lines. Upper class and upper middle class Syrians constantly hear statements (and I myself have been privy to these conversations dozens of times) of the “but you’re not Syrian Syrian”, or “I know you’re Syrian but you’re different” variety. Needless to say, the vast majority (if not all) racially motivated attacks against Syrian nationals in Lebanon have targeted lower middle class or working class Syrian refugees.”
In any discussion in regards to the treatment of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, it would be greatly misguided not to highlight the difficulties of hosting such a large number of people, especially in a small country like Lebanon.
The discrimination, xenophobia, and violence towards Syrian refugees have been seen before with Iraqi refugees in Syria, or Palestinian refugees throughout the region. Yet in Lebanon, the matter is further compounded by the lack of space, Syrians’ inability to go elsewhere due to visa restrictions, and the intertwining of events in Syria with Lebanon.
However, given these important points, the Lebanese government and elites have been dragging their feet in terms of trying to alleviate the strains on the country. The ongoing discussions about establishing refugee camps, an imperfect solution onto itself, is a clear example of the Lebanese government’s inability, and perhaps unwillingness to take that necessary step to thwart a brewing calamity within its borders. Then again, why would the politicians and elites in Lebanon act when they are mainly untouched by the problems, or at times are actively exploiting the issues for their own interests?
The fact that the political class has failed to meet the basic needs of the Lebanese people, and the widespread discontent by the Lebanese masses is an indicator that placing all the blame on Syrian refugees smacks of a desperate attempt by the Lebanese elites to escape accountability. In fact, in Harb and Saab’s study, the Lebanese individuals surveyed not only expressed displeasure over Syrian refugees, but also towards the Lebanese politicians.
Seemingly, the Syrian refugees will remain a target as long as they remain displaced from their homeland or until they themselves mobilize in response and in whatever means necessary to preserve their rights. The parameters and nature of this mobilization must be determined by the needs of the Syrian refugees, and they need to be able to have control of their fate, especially since there is no aid or support neither from the Syrian regime nor its opponents, Syrian or otherwise.
Whatever the solution may be, it will require a serious and concerted effort by all stakeholders involved and must work on ensuring the rights and safety of the refugees.