The Arab nations of Lebanon and Syria share a complex and often fractious history of mutual dependence, intermarriage, and bitter divisions. The Syrian regime once sought to occupy and dominate Lebanon, but today many Lebanese gripe that they are experiencing a very different kind of Syrian occupation – in the form of about 1.5 million refugees.
But these tensions obscure deeper truths: that Syrians and Lebanese are both profoundly suffering, and that there are those who are calculatedly plotting to set the two peoples against each other for political gain. It is not unfair to ask why the refugee issue has suddenly been forced to the top of the Lebanese news agenda, and what national priorities this divisive issue is supposed to distract us from. Everybody theoretically supports the eventual repatriation of Syrians. Lebanon’s devastated economy makes it impossible to bear this immense refugee burden, along with substantial refugee populations from Palestine, Iraq and elsewhere. The World Bank has placed Lebanon as the highest-ranked country in the world for food price inflation, with a 261 percent annual increase in the food consumer price index.
However, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has raised important questions about who would guarantee the safety of returning Syrians, and warned that refugees couldn’t simply be sent back to a slaughterhouse. Amnesty International likewise urged Lebanon to “immediately stop forcibly deporting refugees back to Syria amid fears that these individuals are at risk of torture or persecution at the hands of the Syrian government.” With the refugee issue becoming frenziedly politicized, Lebanese social media is suddenly overflowing with anti-refugee hate speech, rumors and abuse. Shiite and Christian leaders fear the political consequences of the long-term presence of the mostly Sunni refugee population. Some people have genuine fears of history repeating itself, given that the unmanageable tensions related to the Palestinian refugee population were a principal trigger for the Lebanese civil war from 1975 to 1990. Self-serving sectarian politicians are cynically fanning the flames. One minister provocatively warned: “We will become refugees in our own country.” Another figure who should know better declared: “Military occupation or civilian occupation – they both lead to the same thing: a ‘greater Syria’ and the loss of Lebanon’s sovereignty. We are truly under invasion by a foreign people.”
One popular narrative warns that for every 100 repatriated Syrian families, 200 new Syrian babies are born in Lebanon, while another widespread trope blames the West for obstructing refugee returns to undermine states such as Turkey and Lebanon. A minority of Syrians have exacerbated tensions by publicly badmouthing their Lebanese hosts. And just as anywhere in the world, a large, impoverished refugee population has given rise to increased criminality and other social problems. This is unsurprising when 90 percent of Syrian refugee households live in extreme poverty with minimal access to healthcare, services or employment. Over a third of Syrian children aren’t even enrolled in school. But let’s have the intelligence and self-respect to not use this as a pretext to denounce all Syrians. Traumatized Syrian refugees faced torture, murder of family members, rape, chemical weapons attacks and state terrorism. Let’s have a modicum of empathy and forgive their hesitation to return to Syria to suffer more of the same.
Lebanese and Syrians are all collectively struggling to survive. So let’s refocus the media agenda back toward those genuinely culpable for our current predicament. It isn’t the fault of Syrian refugees that corrupt political factions sabotaged Lebanon’s economy and obstructed all conceivable routes to national salvation. It isn’t the fault of Syrian refugees that Hezbollah and its allies are indefinitely blocking the selection of a president and a government to address Lebanon’s myriad crises. Who are the real criminals here? Social media fearmongering has real-world consequences – namely an escalation in violence against refugees and vigilante action to evict Syrians from various localities. Citizens should be conscious of the sinister agendas behind such provocations. In the past two years there has been an escalation in concerted efforts for forced returns of refugees. Many refugees have nothing to return to after homes were destroyed on an industrial scale, and vast tracts of land and urban areas were given to Assad cronies. One of Lebanon’s largest concentrations of refugees is at Arsal, where many were displaced from the border-straddling Qalamoun region. Hezbollah has appropriated the agricultural land there and controls the area as its personal fiefdom.
The levels of coordination between Lebanese and Syrian ministers on this issue suggest that Assad will be able to handpick those who return – either reliably loyal demographics or those who can be transported directly into the army or the torture chamber. After the earthquake in February it took aid agencies days to reach affected areas in Syria, with the regime exploiting its control of borders to obstruct access and corruptly profit from goods intended for earthquake victims. There is an evolving trend toward rehabilitating Assad, treating his crimes against humanity as a closed chapter, thus allowing him to believe that his atrocities were vindicated. Arab diplomats demanded that Assad distance himself from Tehran, but he bluntly replied that Iran was the one regional ally who remained with him over the past 12 years. Consequently, there is a risk that regional states, desperate to draw a line under the Syrian conflict, are offering normalization without gaining anything in return. If the Arab world and international community want to close the Syrian refugee file, they must work much harder to broker a permanent solution that guarantees the rights and safety of citizens. It’s said that you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. Syrians and Lebanese are fated to exist alongside each other for eternity. How we support our Arab brethren in this moment of existential crisis will be always remembered and will shape that relationship for centuries. Given Hezbollah’s energetic efforts to goad Israel into a massively disproportionate retaliation, tomorrow it could be Lebanese refugees flooding into Syria. What goes around comes around. So let’s dig a little deeper into our reserves of tolerance and empathy, and refuse to allow these malevolent voices to set us against each other.