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Syrian workers living “in a world of enemies”

Syrian manual workers in Lebanon, who number several hundred thousand, say they are victims of an unprecedented low in political relations between the two countries.
(Hugh Macleod/IRIN)

Radwan was fast asleep when three men broke down the door of his flat. They beat him. They broke one of his ribs. Then two held his arms while the third slashed his head with a knuckleduster. His crime, they told him, was to be a Syrian working in Lebanon.

After Radwan - who like all Syrians interviewed by IRIN gave a false name for fear of retribution - went to the police, the thugs came back. “They told me I had to tell the police I’d lied, or I’d be going back to Syria in a coffin,” he said. He did as he was told.

Syrian workers like Radwan say they are victims of an unprecedented low in relations between Lebanon and Syria, sparked by the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Because Syrian labourers require no visa for Lebanon, estimating their numbers is difficult. Beirut-based economists estimate that about half a million were present before Hariri’s killing, and hundreds of thousands are thought to remain, mostly working in agriculture, construction and other unskilled or manual jobs.

After Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, Syria became the power broker of its smaller neighbour and many in Lebanon and abroad blamed Damascus for Hariri’s death.

''They told me I had to tell the police I’d lied, or I’d be going back to Syria in a coffin.''

An ongoing UN inquiry into Hariri's assassination - which released its ninth report on 29 November - initially found the involvement of senior Syrian and Lebanese security officials in the killing. Syria denies all involvement.

“I came to Lebanon in 1994 and used to like working here. I felt this was a place where people and their rights were respected,” Radwan said. But that changed with Hariri’s killing. “Now my family are always asking me to come home and I plan to go as soon as I can.”

Bearing the brunt of Syria-Lebanon tension

Syria’s impoverished labourers bear the brunt of each period of tension, says Abed, who like Radwan cooks and works as a waiter at a Beirut café.

When the Lebanese police stopped his cousin, a car park attendant and father of two, and started to check his mobile phone, he protested. “They made him put his hands against the wall and beat him up,” Abed says. “He went back to Syria a few months ago but still can’t find any work.”

Photo: Lucy Fielder/IRIN
Graffiti of a Syrian street sweeper covers a Beirut wall where migrant workers, most of them Syrians, wait every day for casual labour

A Lebanese security spokesman told IRIN all charges were investigated and the Internal Security police force respected human rights. “The Syrian worker is like any foreign citizen in Lebanon and is treated according to the law,” he said.

A wave of “tens” of killings and many more beatings of Syrian workers in Lebanon followed Hariri’s assassination, Amnesty International said at the time, calling for perpetrators to be caught and tried.

But workers and activists say violence continues at a lower ebb. Severe attacks reported against Syrian workers in Lebanon in 2007 included the killing of two men in Damour, near Sidon, in October; a man stabbed to death and another injured in the mountain resort of Aley in July; a man found dead after his skull was smashed in January and a man in his 60s apparently smothered to death in October. The media frequently report the torching of Syrian workers’ tents and shacks.


Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) Lebanese researcher, said such reports illustrated a pattern of violence.

“It appears some Lebanese take out their frustrations with the Syrian regime on poor Syrian workers,” he said. “I see them as victims of the political conflict.”

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora called on the Lebanese not to attack Syrian workers in May, after receiving a security report on the issue.

''There’s racial discrimination in Lebanon against all people who are different. It’s not only the attacks on Syrian workers: they don’t investigate a maid jumping from a balcony to see whether it was a suicide or induced.''

“This report drew attention to the fact that every day there are about four incidents against Syrian workers across all areas of Lebanon, most of them involving theft, whether in petrol stations, homes or shops,” his spokesman said.

Houry said HRW welcomed Siniora’s call. “But we want to see more high-level official statements saying violence against Syrians and other migrant workers will not be tolerated, and to see concrete measures on a policy level.”

Lebanon had a “problem with impunity”, he said. “The authorities need to investigate promptly and seriously.”

Several legal experts contacted by IRIN said prosecutions were unheard of. “To my knowledge, none of these cases are ever investigated,” said Omar Nashabe, a criminology expert.

“There’s racial discrimination in Lebanon against all people who are different. It’s not only the attacks on Syrian workers: they don’t investigate a maid jumping from a balcony to see whether it was a suicide or induced.” Lebanese police investigations in general were flawed, he said.

No embassy

Syrians in Lebanon have no embassy to turn to for protection, because Damascus has always argued the two countries are too closely allied to need one, despite the demand of the UN Security Council and the Lebanese government that Syria demarcate its borders and open an embassy with Lebanon.

More than ever, the workers say they are on the alert. Pro-Syrian Lebanese President Emile Lahoud ended his term without a successor on 23 November, leaving a perilous vacuum at the top, which the governing anti-Syrian camp and the Damascus-backed opposition have been unable to agree on filling. Parliament reconvenes on 7 December for another attempted vote.

Photo: Hamza Haj Hassan/IRIN
Aged six, Abdullah travelled with his brothers to Lebanon from the northern Syrian town of Raqqa in search of work. Two years later, the malnourished, overworked boy spends his days picking through litter in the hope of finding things to sell


Ahmad, a Beirut petrol station attendant who earns just over US$50 a week, said his brother has returned to Syria to avoid the political tension surrounding the election. “Everyone’s afraid we’ll be blamed if things go wrong. But I’ll lose my job if I go back home.”

A Beirut lawyer and legal columnist, who preferred not to be named, said a Syrian who ran a local car park was recently severely beaten by intelligence officers in a room in his office building.

“I tried to persuade him to let me represent him in court, but he refused to report it, he was too afraid,” the lawyer said.

Legal expert Nashabe said the Syrians had nowhere to turn. “They’re beaten up here because they’re seen as being from the regime that also beats them up when they’re the other side of the border,” he said. “They live in a world of enemies.”


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

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