Syrians in Lebanon are increasingly coming under attack as lingering anti-Syrian sentiment intensifies amid the current conflict next door.
The Syrian imbroglio has polarized various sects and factions in Lebanon. While Sunni Lebanese in the north have welcomed tens of thousands of Syrian refugees in the last year and a half, Lebanese of other sects and in other parts of the county are less welcoming.
On the streets of Beirut’s Christian neighbourhood of Geitawi, a stronghold of the Lebanese Christian right, their intolerance of Syrian migrants, who have worked in Lebanon for years, is palpable:
“Syrians ruled us for 30 years, how can we like them?” protested Kamal Sa’ad, 48. “God willing, the war will kill them all. They’re an Arab people; we [Lebanese Christians] are Europeans.”
Residents of the neighbourhood have gathered around 60 signatures demanding the governor of Beirut take “the necessary security and legal measures” against Syrian workers who are perceived to pose a threat.
“We are sending this letter to warn the authorities that if they don’t intervene, we will organize ourselves and solve the situation through violence,” warned Cesar, a local butcher who preferred not to divulge his second name.
“Drunken Syrian workers are always around harassing women at night,” said Charbal Issa, 29. “You know what we will do? [Impose] a 6pm curfew for Syrians, so that they work and sleep - nothing else.”
Military raids and mob violence
The estimated 300,000 Syrian seasonal workers in Lebanon before the Syrian uprising began in March 2011 were often the object of anti-Syrian sentiment - a legacy of Syria’s 29-year occupation of Lebanon, starting in the 1970s.
“Following the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon [in 2005], each bombing blamed on the Syrian regime was followed by the beating of some Syrian workers,” said Yara Chehayed, a member of the Beirut-based Anti-Racism Movement.
But since the conflict in neighbouring Syria, when Syrians started fleeing to Lebanon in large numbers, fears that the Syrian opposition will use Lebanon as a base for its own struggle - the way Palestinians did in the lead-up to the Lebanese civil war - have intensified pre-existing xenophobia. Military raids are now increasingly replacing the usual mob violence.
On 7 October, the Lebanese Army raided the apartments of around 70 Syrian, Egyptian and Sudanese workers living in Geitawi and another Christian neighbourhood in Beirut, Mar Mikhael, late at night. One week earlier, on 1 October, soldiers stormed a construction site where migrants worked and slept in the adjacent Ashrafieyeh neighbourhood, according to residents who told Human Rights Watch (HRW) they “heard screams from the building”. Several `mukhtars’, administrators of the neighbourhood, reportedly issued a statement encouraging more such raids.
On 17 October, in the coastal neighbourhood of Ramlet al-Baydah, a mob of more than 20 Lebanese men attacked Syrian workers with knives and sticks, injuring 10 people.
Targeting Syrian Sunni dissidents?
The military defended its operation in Geitawi, claiming it was responding to increased complaints about sexual harassment and crimes committed by foreign workers. Lebanese residents in the area blame Syrian workers for thefts, sexual harassment, fights and even murders.
|God willing, the war will kill them all. They’re an Arab people; we Lebanese Christians are Europeans|
But according to HRW, the evidence against them is scarce and the military operation looked more like collective punishment than proper policing.
“No clear investigation has been carried out. Why didn’t the army look for specific suspects?” said Beirut-based Nadim Houry, deputy director of the Middle Eastern division of HRW. “We advocate the rule of law and police enforcement, not this kind of mob violence.”
The army also argued it was checking work permits, but Syrians are allowed to work in Lebanon without papers, as per a longstanding unwritten agreement.
Ahmad*, a Syrian tailor in his thirties, who arrived from Hama several years ago, said not a single Syrian was arrested on specific charges. Instead, he said, soldiers beat the Syrians, including minors, for nearly five hours, using electric shock batons until 2am. “They didn’t allow us to talk and started beating us straight away,” he said. He still bears the scars of the beating, a large haematoma covering half of his back.
Syrians say they believe they were victims of a factional and sectarian army.
“While they were beating us, they asked us: ‘Don’t you know these punishments from the time you served in the Syrian army? Or are you with the [rebel] Free Syrian Army?’” said Ahmad. “They even checked our names to single out the Sunnis and, judging from their dialect, we suspect they were Alawis from Jebel Mohsen,” he said, referring to a neighbourhood in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli inhabited by people of the same sect as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“The Lebanese military [intelligence] leadership is controlled by Christians and Shias and both sects are worried by the growing presence of the Syrian Sunni opposition in Lebanon,” explained Khaled*, a Syrian activist from Hama, who arrived at the building just after the 7 October raid to check on friends. “The operation was a message to Syrians: ‘Don’t think you’re protected; we know where you are’.”
Ahmad said the army took notes about where the migrants worked and for whom. “The army came with the intention of recording our names and checking if there was someone wanted in Syria,” he suggested.
“Politics are always behind these aggressions, even if they tell you it was all about harassments,” said Chehayed, of the Anti-Racism Movement. She compared it to an incident last November, when Lebanese Armenians assaulted Syrian Kurds in an Armenian majority neighbourhood in the suburbs of Beirut for their role, she said, in the Armenian genocide under the Ottomans.
Others dispute this version of events, saying the army did indeed round up suspects and ask Lebanese women to identify those who were guilty of harassment.
The army said it detained 11 people, but HRW only witnessed the arrest of African migrants who presumably did not have legal residency documents. The army has not confirmed who was arrested or why.
Nevertheless, observers are more hesitant to confirm a political agenda. “Two months ago we documented an instance where the army rounded up Syrian workers, looking for someone who had purchased a satellite device,” admitted HRW’s Houry, “but I think in Geitawi, it was more of a provocation than a political interrogation: if it was purely political they wouldn’t have rounded up also Egyptians and Sudanese.”
The Syrians, Ahmad and Khaled, disagreed, saying the round-up of other nationalities was “a cover for the real aim of the operation.”
Some residents of Geitawi show no prejudice against Syrians and they reject the fabrication of an easy scapegoat.
“There is no problem with Syrians. The scoundrels [responsible for theft and harassment] come from all sorts of countries: Sudan, Sri Lanka, Egypt,” said Rami al-Abyad, a barber in his sixties. “Not all the migrants are bullies.”
Even Ahmad, the Syrian tailor who was beaten, pointed to the good relations he has always had with his Lebanese landlords: “The house-owners were upset by the military operation and they even hid some Egyptians in their apartments.” Others don’t conceal their politically biased racism against Syrians.
“The irony is that many of these workers support the Syrian opposition,” said HRW’s Houry. “They have always been double victims: the regime didn’t offer them job opportunities and in Lebanon they were seen as part of the Syrian occupation, even if Beirut has been rebuilt on cheap Syrian labour.”
Local landlords are also profiting from the increased Syrian presence, Lebanese residents admitted.
The untouchable army
HRW is calling for a transparent investigation into the 7 October raid, but the army said any possible violation would be dealt with internally. The Ministry of Defence did not respond to IRIN’s request for information.
“There is a [lack of] accountability of all security forces, including the army,” said Houry. As the only respected security force in Lebanon amid many sectarian militias, the army is considered something of a sacred, less-easily criticized institution.
Syrian workers who appeared on TV to comment on the raid say they have been threatened by the military, but feel they have no recourse, given the links between large parts of the Lebanese government and their ally in Damascus.
“Since the revolution started, no one defends us and I cannot go to the Syrian embassy to complain about what happened,” said Ahmad.
*not a real name
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions