Ghosts of 2011 Haunt Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

BEKAA VALLEY, LEBANON, "I'm scared to go out on the streets," said Yousra in her shop on the edge of a small makeshift camp for Syrian refugee families. "There is so much harassment."A few days earlier, a man on the nearby highway pulled down his pants...

BEKAA VALLEY, LEBANON, "I'm scared to go out on the streets," said Yousra in her shop on the edge of a small makeshift camp for Syrian refugee families. "There is so much harassment."

A few days earlier, a man on the nearby highway pulled down his pants, exposing himself, she said.

On the shelves of her store, a few bottles of nail polish and some canned food were left. Police raided it two months ago and ordered her to close. Syrian refugees in Lebanon are increasingly being harassed or deported, she said, and the message to families is clear.

"They are targeting us to scare us into going back to Syria," she said.

Lebanon has been reeling from political instability and the financial crisis since mass protests began in mid-October. And like everyone else in Lebanon, refugees face plummeting salaries and skyrocketing prices, as street brawls between protesting groups raise the specter of a new war.

But the country's million-plus Syrian refugee population already was deeply impoverished and increasingly unwelcome before the demonstrations began. At the government's request, the United Nations stopped registering refugees in 2015, as part of a host of policies intended to encourage Syrians to leave the country.

In recent months, politician and media calls against Syrians have grown louder and more frequent. Refugees are not a main issue in the current mass demonstrations, but some protesters have lashed out against refugees. Others have called for the protection of refugee rights.

"I saw the protesters on TV," said Yousra, shaking her head. "They said Syrians are taking our jobs.'"

Individual returns

Fear and poverty have sent some Syrians packing, she added, and her family may follow. Her house in Damascus was destroyed by airstrikes, and she has no money or job prospects. But at least in Syria, she won't be harassed or hated.

Other families in the camp said they protested against the Syrian government, which now appears to finally be winning the war. If they return, they said, they could be arrested.

Syrian men between the ages of 18 and 42 face military conscription for an indeterminate amount of time if they go home. And in the markets, encampments and urban apartments, young men say that for them, service either means death, or killing.

"I left Syria because of the military," said Mohammad, 30, in an urban refugee camp in Beirut, where he sells mobile phones and access to an electric generator. "If you serve, you may have to kill your own people."

Government returns

Lebanon has the highest population of refugees per capita in the world more than one-fifth of the country by most counts � and since the influx of Syrians began in 2011, wages have gone down, unemployment has gone up, and neighborhoods have become more crowded.

The government estimates 1.5 million Syrian refugees are in Lebanon, and it is making efforts to return families to parts of Syria they say are now calm.

Some of the roughly 27,000 people who have returned over the past two years did so by choice, according to refugees remaining in Lebanon. Others, they say, were told to return by security forces. More recently, Syrians have been deported by the hundreds.

Last spring, the Lebanese government directed security forces to deport Syrians who entered Lebanon after April 24, 2019, without documentation, over the objection of human rights groups.

"Such deportations would occur without any judicial investigation to ascertain that the lives and freedom of the Syrian nationals are not in any danger in Syria," reads a position paper signed by eight Lebanese rights groups.

On Friday, a checkpoint suddenly went up near a market popular among Syrian refugees in the Bekkaa Valley. Security forces stopped young men, detaining those who did not have official legal status, according to the families in the camp.

"I was in a store at 12:00 when it started," said Mahmoud, a father with a four-month-old daughter, in his house made of wooden beams and tarps. "I stayed inside until 6:30 p.m. because I don't have papers."

Security in Lebanon

In the shop, Yousra and her husband, Abu Mustafa, said when they watch the protests in Lebanon on TV, they are also reminded of the days before Syria's war began, when youth-led demonstrations were inspired by the Arab Spring in 2011.

The movement in Syria quickly dissolved into battles. Since then, more half a million people have been killed and 12 million people have fled their homes, according to Human Rights Watch.

"It's scary," said Abu Mustafa, referring to the Lebanon protests. "I feel like this could be a disaster."

In Lebanon, demonstrations have remained mostly peaceful.

But in recent weeks, the Lebanese military has, at least a few times, positioned themselves in between groups as they hurled rocks or insulted each other. Clashes have broken out along long-held sectarian divides. Tents were burned and shots were fired, but no serious injuries were reported.

This dynamic is much different from the Syrian protests, where demonstrators battled military forces sent to break them up. But Lebanon is volatile and deeply sectarian, warring with itself for 15 years until 1990.

And Syria remains at war, making refugee families afraid they are about to face violence and displacement again, with no chance to recover from the last time.

Still, at Yousra's nearly-empty shop, her family agreed the "rights" that protesters are calling for in Lebanon are deserved basic needs, like jobs, food, housing and security.

"They should stay on the streets until they get those rights," Yousra said.

Source: Voice of America