Thirty-four-year-old Syrian war refugee Samiha has been rearing two young daughters in Lebanon since 2013, after fleeing her Damascus suburb. She feared her girls wouldn’t survive the deadly airstrikes razing her neighborhood.
Weeks before her flight, her husband was killed in an air raid — and days before, an older sister, a mother of five, died in an artillery barrage. “Sometimes I think I should return to Syria and die there — there’s no dignity here, but then I think of my girls,” she tells VOA in a Skype exchange.
"We have nothing to go back for," she adds.
Her apartment in Jobar is wrecked. Ninety-three percent of the Damascus suburb, the scene of intense fighting between the Syrian Army and various rebel groups from February 2013 to March 23 of last year, lies in ruins. Samiha’s remaining family members are now scattered — a younger sister was married to a Kuwaiti; another sister along with her husband and two small children are in Turkey, hoping to secure a visa to Europe or the United States, an increasingly bleak prospect.
The young widow and her elderly parents face the same wrenching dilemma confronting more than one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The war refugees in Lebanon were at first welcomed, but sympathy for their plight is long gone, evaporating initially into indifference, then turning into hostility. Pressure is mounting on them to leave.
After eight years of war in neighboring Syria, the Lebanese say they’ve had enough of the refugee burden, pointing out their country of 5 million has the highest concentration of refugees per capita in the World. Just under a million Syrians have been registered as refugees, but U.N. officials, who were ordered to stop registrations in 2015, estimate the number is closer to 1.5 million.
Active anti-refugee sentiment in Lebanon has had ups and downs before. The Lebanese have been torn in their reaction to the refugees. Many resent Syria, which once dominated its smaller neighbor, and fear the Sunni Muslim refugee influx into their country will upset their own highly delicate sectarian balance among Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims and Christians. Others maintain a sympathy for the refugees, remembering their own displacement during Lebanon’s 15-year-long civil war.
Lebanon’s economic woes are eroding whatever empathy might be lingering
Hostility now seems to be winning out, mirroring a similar process toward Syrian refugees in Turkey.
Right groups accuse Lebanon’s politicians of stoking nativistic ire in a burgeoning campaign against Syrian refugees. Over the past few months, the Lebanese government has deported hundreds and tightened restrictions on those who remain, making a hardscrabble life even more impossible.
Spurred on by incendiary accusations, vigilantes have been attacking unauthorized refugee camps, setting fires, and harassing Syrians. The mood is turning uglier with Syrians saying there’s zero tolerance for anything they do — from trying to eke out a living to securing schooling for their kids. They and rights groups say the strategy is to make life as miserable as possible for them in bid to make them leave.
Since the end of May, Lebanese authorities have deported 2,731 Syrians, Lebanese security officials told a local newspaper Monday. Lebanese officials say most of Syria is safe and that refugees have no need to remain. But refugees like Samiha say they have nothing to return to, with their farms and homes razed during the vicious eight-year-long conflict.
They also fear what will befall them if they go back — including imprisonment and torture, whether they were involved or not in the armed opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Earlier this month, a rights group, the Access Center for Human Rights, said it had documented half a dozen cases of Syrian refugees being handed over to the Syrian security services. Two of the deportees were tortured by Syrian authorities and interrogated about “their activities in Lebanon,’ political sympathies, activism in Syria and the reason for their flight to Lebanon, the group said.
Lebanese security officials have denied the allegation.
According to The Legal Agenda, a Lebanese NGO, an average of 30 Syrians are being deported each day. “The deportations are illegal and do not respect due process,” according to Ghida Frangieh, an attorney with the NGO. “Syria is not safe for everyone, yet Syrians are deported without any objective assessment of the risks,” she said.
Most of Lebanon’s political parties are now advocating for the return of Syrian refugees. Hezbollah — Lebanon’s radical Shi’ite movement, an ally of President Bashar al-Assad — and Christian parties say Beirut should open negotiations directly with Assad for the return of the refugees.
The country’s prime minister, Saad Hariri, officially opposes returning the Syrians, arguing that shouldn’t happen until the U.N. formally declares Syria a safe country. His foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, has been campaigning for mass deportations. And critics say he has been using highly inflammatory language at rallies in which he talks about “genetic distinction” of the Lebanese, maintaining that businesses shouldn’t employ Syrians.
The central government and local authorities are making life much harder in what rights groups say is a barely concealed effort to get them to go.
In June, the government required refugees in the border town of Arsal to ensure their living quarters — from ramshackle shacks and abandoned apartments — are compatible with planning rules, threatening to evict them otherwise and to demolish illegal buildings. Under pressure from Hezbollah, Beirut never permitted the establishment of formal refugee camps.
The Labor Ministry has been arresting and deporting Syrian refugees for working illegally and fining businesses for any foreign worker found without a work permit. An estimated 80 percent of the Syrians don’t have work or residency papers — for many, the permits are too expensive, and they fear trying to secure them puts them at risk of deportation.