In Lebanon, opposition to the presence of Syrian refugees is growing stronger. One need only look at the racist and xenophobic comments on social media, many extremely vulgar, about the story of the recent evacuation of dozens of refugees from a building in Al-Msaytbeh, in central Beirut. “Go away, go back to your home, we don’t want you here,” said the more generous ones.
Even the approximately 400,000 Palestinian refugees, descendants of the victims of the Nakba in 1948, have returned to public attention because of the talk about the so-called “Deal of the Century,” the Trump administration’s supposed “peace plan” (still kept under wraps), which denies Palestinian refugees the right of return to their homeland, something Israel opposes.
As a result, the government and the local authorities have no qualms about approving measures aimed at forcing the Syrians—and, whenever possible, even the Palestinians—to return to their homelands. The protests from international agencies and NGOs helping refugees have fallen on deaf ears.
In April, the Syrian refugees in the Arsal region, in the Bekaa Valley, were ordered to demolish any type of structure not built from timber or plastic sheeting by June 9. After that date, all the dwellings built from concrete or bricks will be destroyed. Three major NGOs—Save the Children, World Vision and Terre des Hommes—put out a statement a few days ago warning that at least 5,000 buildings are at risk of demolition, and that tens of thousands of refugees, including 15,000 children, are likely to be rendered homeless.
“Our teams regularly meet children who are still disturbed by the loss of their homes in Syria,” said Allison Zelkowitz of Save the Children. “They should not have to watch their homes be destroyed again and relive such traumas.”
Piotr Sasin, Country Representative at the Terre des Hommes Foundation, added that “many of these families are very poor, barely making ends meet and put food on the table. If their homes are demolished, they have no means of rebuilding them or paying rent elsewhere.”
In addition, according to the joint statement by the three NGOs, “the demolition of many of these homes could result in the destruction of household water and sanitation systems, leaving children at high risk of illness and disease.”
However, in Lebanon, very few seem to care about the fate of these thousands of civilians. Demolishing the structures built by the refugees means preventing stable settlements and pushing the Syrians to return to their country. More than half of the population of Syria, 22 million people, left the country after 2011 because of the war between the government and various Islamist and jihadist organizations. Around five million Syrians fled to the neighboring countries, and their presence is especially unpalatable to the Lebanese. With a population of four million, the country famous for its cedars is housing at least 1.5 million refugees, of whom two-thirds are on the UN lists.
“They steal our jobs and use our services”—these are the words one hears most often among the Lebanese. The problems are magnified out of proportion by the rampant xenophobia, but that doesn’t mean they have no basis in reality. According to some studies, the arrival of the Syrians—who, in order to survive, are willing to do any job and work for very low pay—led to at least 200,000 more Lebanese falling into poverty.
Beirut is also accusing Western countries, which oppose the return of refugees to Syria despite the fact that ISIS and the other jihadist groups have been defeated by the Syrian army and are now narrowly confined to some areas (such as the Idlib region). The Deputy Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, Elie Ferzli, interviewed on the al-Mayadeen TV station, accused “certain parties” in Lebanon of having agreed to slow-walk the return of the refugees in exchange for weapons and money from the US and Europe. Ferzli claimed that the return of the refugees would mean the return of Syria to “normality” and the strengthening of the regime of President Bashar Assad, backed by Russia and Iran—a development that the Trump administration and several European countries—first and foremost France—are keen on avoiding.
It’s no secret that the pressure coming from Washington on UN agencies and other international organizations is a powerful impediment to reconstruction in eastern Aleppo, where one of the most destructive episodes of the Syrian war took place. Before Ferzli’s statements, the Secretary General of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, had reiterated the party’s position that the Syrian refugees are expected to return to their own country very soon.
However, the Sunni Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, an opponent of Assad and Iran, and his allies inside and outside Lebanon are saying that a political solution must be found first—by which they mean an agreement to remove the Syrian president from power. Nasrallah highlighted that “the real reason … for these divergences [between the various political forces] … is a political reason. All this is related to the upcoming presidential elections in Syria.” He pointed to the fact that the United States, together with a number of Arab states in the region, don’t want the refugees to return before elections are organized in Syria.
Over the last year, several thousand refugees have returned to Syria, mainly from Jordan and Lebanon, but the vast majority remain outside the country. Many no longer have a home to return to, and others say they fear the “punitive measures” by the government. In addition, others are unwilling to return as they don’t want to be conscripted into the armed forces.
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