While hitchhiking last summer in Lebanon, a friend and I were offered a free ride by a Syrian taxi driver — one of hundreds of thousands of Syrians who work in the country.
After verifying that we were in no way able to procure him a visa to Europe, he began reciting the travel itinerary he would soon undertake in order to get there, where he hoped to earn money to send to his family in Syria.
The impending trip involved a trek across part of Libya and then to Italy by boat, of the variety that regularly capsizes in the Mediterranean.
As if the obstacles to his freedom of movement in the world weren’t already bad enough, they have now been rendered even more complex by new restrictions on Syrian existence in Lebanon, a country that previously maintained an open-door policy with Syria. Far from being necessary, such steps taken by Lebanon’s ruling class provide a convenient scapegoat for its inability to govern.
More than a million Syrian refugees have entered Lebanon since the outbreak of war in their country.
The Lebanese government began curtailing the refugee influx in October, and in January an unprecedented border policy was implemented, requiring all Syrian visitors to have either a visa or a Lebanese sponsor. Six visa options are available, including for tourism, medical treatment and business, but the average refugee stands little chance of sneaking in under any category.
The tourist visa, for example, requires you to have $1,000 in your pocket and a hotel reservation — in Lebanon, guaranteed to be no small investment.
A Los Angeles Times report from the Masnaa border crossing on the day the regulations went into effect depicted a chaotic and demeaning scene, with even Syrians possessing the proper documentation being turned away. The article warned that the new rules “could prevent Syrians from reaching their jobs, strand people in need of medical aid and separate families.”
In an interview with Al Jazeera’s Nour Samaha, Lebanese Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas inexplicably contended that “the government has not issued visas for Syrians” and that the only thing it did was “limit the number of refugees.”
His claim that “these new procedures don’t target refugees [already] in Lebanon” is misleading because refugees who leave Lebanon even for a second will not be allowed back. These range from women who for financial reasons return to Syria to give birth to folks needing to attend to business at home, such as a death in the family.
A convenient scapegoat
At first glance, the new measures might seem understandable and even necessary. After all, how can a tiny country of 4 million people cope with such a dramatic spike in population? The strain on resources is simply too great, say defenders of the closed-but-not-locked-door policy.
There are, however, some holes in this logic. For starters, the Lebanese government does not expend a great amount of energy attending to the needs of its own citizens, let alone its Syrian guests, many of whom are relegated to living on the street, in makeshift shelters, in fields and even in landfills.
Needless to say, these people aren’t on the receiving end of many services. And as Lina Khatib, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, has confirmed, much of the aid money intended for the refugees and their host communities instead ends up fattening the wallets of Lebanon’s finest: its politicians.
The more the Syrians in Lebanon can be cast as not only a burden but also a menace, the better it is for the political elite and the worse it is for the refugees.
But the Syrians provide a convenient distraction for the refusal of the Lebanese government to behave like one. Its ineptness is legendary: The parliament has now failed 19 consecutive times to elect a president, leaving the country without a head of state since May.
The institutionalized electricity shortage, which has left some areas of Lebanon with a mere six hours of government-supplied power per day, has spawned a lucrative generator industry and considerable interest in maintaining the defective status quo. Like Lebanon’s other plagues — including corruption, water scarcity, waste mismanagement and formidable traffic congestion — the electricity situation long predates the Syrian influx, which has simply highlighted the unsustainability of the whole landscape, with or without the extra Syrians.
By overhyping Syrian responsibility for the mess, members of the political class aim to divert public attention from these and other pressing matters, such as why there is fecal matter in the food and why less than one-half of 1 percent of the population reportedly owns almost half the country’s wealth.
In a 2013 paper, “Understanding Racism Against Syrian Refugees in Lebanon,” freelance journalist Moe Ali Nayel and the late Lebanese activist Bassem Chit discuss another reason for attempts “to channel existing popular resentment against the state towards a xenophobic and racist victimization of poor Syrian refugees.” These aim to thwart calls for reform of the political system, preserving Lebanon’s identity as sectarian polity extraordinaire, in which citizens are kept forcibly divided on the basis of religion, thus ensuring their continued dependence on sectarian leaders. And the more the Syrians can be cast as not only a burden but also a menace (they might support the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant!), the better it is for the political elite and the worse it is for the refugees, who have already been subject to punitive Syrian-specific curfews and attacks on their tents.
A recent article in Lebanon’s An-Nahar newspaper encapsulated the politically incorrect views on Syrians espoused by a number of people in the country. Beirut’s prominent Hamra neighborhood, the author complained, has ceased to be “Lebanese” and because of the Syrian invasion had become “black.” In a response to the article, blogger Joey Ayoub quipped, “I didn’t know that the Lebanese were white. Awesome! I can travel now.”
Racism against Syrians is a curious phenomenon, given that they are of the same stock as the Lebanese. It’s actually not so much racism as classism that has acquired racist overtones, thanks in part to a long presence in Lebanon of Syrian laborers, whom Lebanese society dubbed inferior. Syrians with the proper socioeconomic qualifications are largely exempt from discrimination — and if they have at least $200,000 in the bank, they’ll happily be granted a three-year Lebanese residence permit.
Their less worthy compatriots, on the other hand, are finding that their prospects are precarious. It remains to be seen with what level of efficiency and zeal the new visa regulations will be carried out and if the initiative will gradually lose steam as so many other Lebanese projects have, from an indoor smoking ban to traffic law enforcement.
But for the moment, anti-Syrian efforts show no signs of letting up. The introduction of the sponsorship option for Syrian laborers is cause for further pessimism; the practice is already in place for migrant domestic workers from Africa and Asia, whose passports are often confiscated by abusive Lebanese sponsors.
Meanwhile, if Lebanon is really worried about the possibility of Syrians joining extremist groups, the best way to avert such a scenario is not through classist bigotry, vilification or a denial of rights and human decency.