Syrians gobbling up Lebanon’s bread... Rising populist campaigns against refugees

Saturday 23 July 202201:15 pm
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"السوريون يأكلون خبز اللبنانيين"... شعبوية حملات التحريض ضد اللاجئين على قدمٍ وساق

“The Shockingly Huge Amount of Bundles of Bread that Syrians Consume in Lebanon on a Daily Basis”; Several headlines such as this one have greatly and dramatically spread across various Lebanese news sites, in the midst of the stifling bread crisis that the citizens of Lebanon are suffering from, alongside several other overlapping crises.

Many Lebanese were drawn into these headlines, and started echoing the notion that “the Syrians are eating our bread”. Thus the reality that they live in at a number of different levels was reduced into a scene between a Syrian and a Lebanese man squabbling over a few loaves of bread. The Beddawi area in Tripoli, in northern Lebanon, witnessed a shooting between two Lebanese individuals, leaving three people injured due to disagreements over who should go first in the bread queue they were standing in.

Unfortunate news such as this one sadly didn’t have its share in what was trending in the Lebanese digital space, perhaps because of the people being used to shootings that take place for no reason, and for every kind of reason, the latest of which was the release of the results of the ninth grade official exams Thursday night.

As for Syrians in Lebanon, they are always under heavy scrutiny. From time to time, a hostile campaign against their presence would emerge, sometimes by holding them responsible for Lebanese youth unemployment, and at other times by criminalizing them and regarding them as the main crime hideouts in the villages they live in. Today, the latest campaign launched against them was under the headline: “bread thieves”.

Voluntary return

This campaign intersected with a political form of escalation on social media and in many political discourses. The official Lebanese forewarning came in the words of caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati who threatened in the statement: “I call on the international community to cooperate with Lebanon to secure the return of the displaced Syrian refugees to their country, or else Lebanon will take a position that is undesirable for Western countries, which is to work on removing the Syrians from Lebanon through legal means, and the firm application of Lebanese law,” during his launch of the 2022-2023 Lebanon Crisis Response Plan (LCRP) on June 20th, 2022.

Mikati’s plan, which entails the return of 15 thousand Syrian refugees to their country on a monthly basis, has the blessing of the Church and has been met with great approval from President Michel Aoun, who stressed the need to return the Syrian refugees to their country and reject the idea of ​​integrating them into the societies that are hosting them. He had expressed Lebanon’s rejection of what some countries had suggested regarding heading towards integrating Syrians into the societies that host them during his recent meeting with the United Nations Deputy Special Envoy to Syria, Najat Rushdi.

In turn, MP of the Lebanese Kataeb Party, Nadim Gemayel, tweeted: “The return of Syrian refugees is not an option but a national imperative. If Syria is not safe for the return of Syrians, then their stay (in Lebanon) is not safe for the Lebanese people, and the recent events are proof of that! The only available option is their return.”

In his most recent statements, the chief of the Lebanese General Security Directorate, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, on Thursday said: “The international community has no intention of returning the displaced Syrian refugees to their country, and there are major countries and powers obstructing their return under several pretexts,” revealing that he had presented a motion to the UN states to secure a safe return for the refugees after obtaining assurance from the Syrian leadership, but it was rejected because there is no international desire for their return in the short term, as he put it.

“I have a proposal for the government: Start sending Syrians to Europe by sea, just as Erdogan did, and you’ll see how the West will come around”. Lebanon offers “advice” to its government, seeing refugees as the cause of all problems 

The “Al-Wafaa” parliamentary bloc issued a statement on July 14, calling for the revitalization of the process for securing the safe return of the displaced to their country. Paradoxically, MP Major General Ashraf Rifi also called for the return of the displaced to their country, thus providing a clear picture of the state of affairs: the warring Lebanese parties and sects that had been so divided during the elections and differed over every major and minor issue, have come together to stand united on the issue of asylum in the country and the urgent return of refugees.

The popular populist campaigns

The people who support this campaign of forced displacement of Syrians from Lebanon include a large portion that is full of arrogant and angry sentiments. An account published a photo of a man with three women and a group of children walking behind him, commenting: “Whoever knows who the mother is, wins a bundle of bread”, referring to the large number of births in the refugee camps and among the Syrians.

Another account under the name of Andrei, tweeted: “I have a suggestion for the Lebanese government, which is to start sending the displaced Syrians in Lebanon to Europe by sea, just like what Erdogan did, and you will see just how the West in all its entirety will come to us on its knees”.

Meanwhile, the matter took a classist turn after it was widely promoted that displaced Syrian refugees in Lebanon are receiving a salary in US dollars from NGOs and international institutions and are living comfortably while the Lebanese people are suffering real hardship. For example, one account wrote, “Has anyone ever paid attention to the mobiles that the displaced refugees carry? I have been using the same mobile for 6 years, and I cannot buy a new one because of how much the state of #Nabih_Berry has crushed the Lebanese people with bills. But the displaced who grew rich off the backs of the Lebanese people are carrying the latest mobile phones. The next time you see a displaced person, try looking at his mobile phone,” ending the tweet with the hashtag #Rich_displaced_Syrians.

Shirking responsibility

The Executive Director of the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND), Ziad Abdel Samad, describes the scene by saying “the political class in Lebanon throws its failure and the result of its rampant corruption onto others and evades its responsibilities before its people.” He tells Raseef22, “Yes, there is a major crisis, the first of which is caused by the rentier economic system and the wrong policies that led us to this enormous economic shortfall. The second factor is the onset of the crisis in Syria and the start of an influx of Syrian refugees coming to Lebanon, which placed additional pressure on its resources, but that does not mean that the refugee is the crisis, or the cause of it, but rather the lack of organization in their arrival and stay, while also counting them as refugees sometimes and as displaced persons at other times. It is the Lebanese official negligence and the failure to develop a real strategy are what led to the state we are in today.”

There's no doubt that the refugee crisis is a burden on Lebanon already drowning under its crises. But from day one, the government has refused to take any practical steps to regulate this asylum and reduce its repercussions, and is now paying the price

For her part, activist Alia Mansour, who is involved and active in refugee affairs, believes that “the latest campaign against Syrians in Lebanon began with Mikati’s statement, in which he had raised his threatening finger, in an attempt to please the Free Patriotic Movement, which rejects the Syrian presence in Lebanon the most, in order to gain its votes.”

Mansour believes that blaming the weakest link is the easiest way, while the actual reason for Syrian and Lebanese people standing in bread queues is smuggling wheat from Lebanon to Syria, and the solution is to simply stop the smuggling.

“Christian parties are the first ones supporting the risky and dangerous return of these Syrians to their areas, and some Lebanese people are practicing random, sometimes racist and sectarian methods to vent, while, for example, the people of Tripoli today are living through the suffering of Syrians by fleeing from their homeland in ‘boats of death’ in search of better life opportunities,” Mansour tells Raseef22.

Fallacies and investment

The Lebanese Minister of Displaced Affairs in the caretaker government, Issam Sharaf El-Din, is preparing for a visit to Damascus with the aim of discussing the issue of Syrian refugees with the official authorities. In a press statement, he stressed that “the plan protects the returnees from any security prosecutions, and therefore comes hand in hand with the general amnesty law that Syria had issued, and this was considered one of the reasons that previously hindered the implementation of the plan, aside from the fact that it guarantees in detail a safe and dignified return.”

The Lebanese plan was met with international comments completely rejecting endangering the security and safety of Syrian citizens by Human Rights Watch and the UNHCR, which registered, as of May 2022, the presence of 839,086 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, making it the smallest country hosting the world’s largest number of refugees relative to its population and area.

Abdel Samad warns that “the alleged competition for job opportunities between the Lebanese and the Syrian people — or that for bread, medicine, and many others — has created an atmosphere of tension and racist tendencies toward Syrian refugees, knowing that the Syrian labor force is a fundamental pillar and mainstay in some sectors.” As for the official position, he comments, “The Lebanese pressure on the international community at present is due to Lebanon’s lack of a real capacity and ability to carry on as is, but it is not morally permissible to disregard the lives of Syrians and their human rights under any pretext.”

Back to the beginning, the media investment and campaigns on social media are leading to what can be seen as incitement against the Syrians in Lebanon, amid the circulation of false numbers about what they receive and consume in comparison with the miserable situation that the Lebanese people are living in. Moreover, the scene of the assaulted Syrian workers in the Akoura region by one of the “qabadayat” (القبضايات - courageous local) has not yet been erased from memory, provided that these campaigns and actions will not multiply in the coming days, even though the opposite seems to be much closer to reality.

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