Though there is no doubt that Lebanon hosts an enormous number of Syrian refugees, also evident is the manner in which the Lebanese authorities—and citizens—have struggled to cope with this demographic influx.
However, rather than deal with the situation in a constructive manner, many Lebanese officials and mainstream media outlets have chosen the easier, more xenophobic route. Accordingly, Syrian refugees often face harassment and blame for a range of issues, as though they were solely responsible for Lebanon’s problems, many of which predate their arrival.
Below are some of the most common stereotypes and misconceptions regarding the status of refugees in Lebanon:
Refugee, Not Displaced Persons
Since 2011, the consecutive Lebanese governments have insisted on referring to Syrian refugees in Lebanon as “displaced” people.
This was clear in the ministerial statement of Saad Hariri’s government, in which he said: “The government ensures its commitment to working with the international community to confront the burdens of Syrian displacement, while respecting international protocols. The state can no longer bear the sole responsibility for this burden, which has added pressure to its social, economical, and infrastructural status, particularly after these displaced persons have come to account for more than a third of the total population in Lebanon.”
However, such terminology is incorrect. Article 1 in the 1951 Refugee Convention clearly defines refugees as: “A person who is outside his or her country of nationality or habitual residence; has a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail him, or herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution.”
The Convention and its 1967 Protocol grant refugees rights that cannot be overlooked. Despite Lebanon not being a signatory to this convention, it is not exempt from enforcing its basic principles, such as preventing the expulsion of refugees, or returning refugees to dangerous situations affecting their lives or liberties. Moreover, Lebanon is bound by international law to provide accommodation, education, relief, and identification documents to refugees.
Yet, it is precisely for these reasons that Lebanese officials insist on using the term “displaced” instead of “refugee”, despite its inaccuracy. The misnomer implies a desire to defer responsibility on the Lebanese government’s part.
The Number of Refugees
Lebanese officials have announced that the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon has recorded 1.5 million; a number that has frequently been repeated by both former PM Tammam Salam, and current PM Saad Hariri.
On the other hand, a number of the Lebanese media outlets have cited numbers referring to statistical centers, which state that the refugee population has reached two million. However, these centers do not disclose the methodology used to come up with these numbers.
The official count issued by the Office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) indicates the presence of 1.011 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
Why the discrepancy?
Lebanese institutions intentionally conflate the number of registered refugees with the total number of Syrians living in Lebanon, including those who have resided in Lebanon since before the war broke out. The Syrian labor force has always been a vital component in the Lebanese economy, whereby Syrians actually contributed to the reconstruction of post-civil war Lebanon. The numbers of Syrian workers in Lebanon is estimated to be approximately 400,000 to 600,000.
The Number of Newborns
On May 3, 2017, Lebanese news site Addiyar announced in an article that the number of newborn babies among Syrian refugees will amount to over 300,000 in 2017.
The article is based on several reports from international organizations, though none of them are cited. The majority of Lebanese media outlets picked up the story without fact-checking it and ensuring its accuracy.
Lebanese officials and media are quick to blame Syrians for problems in Lebanon, conveniently overlooking issues predating their arrival.
Since the influx of Syrians over the past few years, Lebanese officials and citizens have struggled to cope properly with what they refer to as a "burden".
However, the spokesperson for the UNHCR in Lebanon, Dana Sleiman, tells Raseef22 that the number of newborns in the Syrian refugee community since 2011 has not surpassed the 100,000 child mark. She affirms that that the numbers in the article are incorrect.
Yet, the majority of the media outlets that picked up the story from Addiyar did not correct the numbers later.
Meanwhile, in informal circles, Lebanese citizens cite astronomical figures regarding the number of refugees’ newborns, most commonly placing their number at 500,000.
The Electricity Crisis
Lebanese Minister of Energy Cesar Abi Khalil announced his plan to resolve the electricity crisis in a press conference held in March 2017.
“The electricity crisis is caused by several factors; some natural, which is increase in demand, and some unnatural, caused by Syrian refugees. According to a study prepared by the ministry, in collaboration with the UNDP, Syrian refugees consume more than 490 megawatts [sic], depriving the Lebanese citizens of five hours of electricity on a daily basis, and costing the state more than $333 million.”
The Minister of Energy refrained from naming the original causes that led to the years-long energy shortage in Lebanon, sufficing instead to hold the Syrian population accountable. Meanwhile, the fact that the issue has been ongoing since the end of the civil war in 1990 has been conveniently overlooked.
In 2011, before the Syrian refugee crisis, former Minister of Energy Gebran Bassil, who also heads the Free Patriotic Movement to which Abi Khalil belongs, announced that the Lebanese economic losses from the power outages amount to $6 billion annually. At the time, Bassil put forth a plan to rent electrical warehouses for three years, and build new power plants that compensate for the energy shortage.
The electrical warehouses were rented, but the power plants were not built. Nowadays, Abi Khalil wants to rent additional warehouses to add to the previously rented once, in a questionable deal surrounded by suspicions of corruption.
Responsibility for Terrorist Bombings in Lebanon
Many Lebanese citizens are quick to accuse refugees of being “terrorists”, compounded by the security forces’ claims of capturing Syrians affiliated with terrorists groups on a daily basis.
Meanwhile, the facts indicate that majority of suicide bombings in Lebanon between 2013 until 2015 were not committed by Syrians, including the most devastating among them, such as the bombings of Ruwais, Haret Hreik, Taqwa, and al-Salam mosques, and the Iranian cultural center.
The Rise of Crime
Similarly, many Lebanese citizens point fingers of blame at Syrian refugees for the increasing crime rates in Lebanon. With every theft, rape, or homicide, Syrians refugees are the first in the line of fire.
However, in actuality, official statistics from the Internal Security Forces indicate that crimes executed by Lebanese citizens against Syrians have increased from 2% in 2011 to 9% in 2014. In addition, the crimes executed by Syrians against Lebanese citizens have decreased from 6% in 2011 to 5% 2014.
According to the Internal Security Forces’ statistics, which were published in the UK-based Arabic-language news website Alaraby Aljadeed, the number of Syrian detainees by the Internal Security Forces registered 1,682 in 2011, increasing to 2,550 by 2012, then 3,778 in 2013, and 5,726 in 2014.
However, the reason behind the increased number of detainees was attributed to their arrest for “various crimes”, such as illegally residing in Lebanon, or misdemeanors, according to Joseph Musallam, Head of Public Relations Division, Internal Security Forces.
The numbers of detainees arrested for “various crimes” increased from 891 in 2011 to 4,329 in 2014, while other crime rates remained low. A total of 513 Syrians were arrested for theft in 2011, while the number only marginally increased to 559 arrests for the same crime in 2014.
As for rape crimes, 18 Syrians were arrested in 2012, and the number remained unchanged in 2014. However, the number of arrests on drug-related charges increased from 102 in 2011 to 572 in 2014.
Lebanese political parties, particularly the Free Patriotic Movement, were stringent in their refusal of the establishment of Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon, under the pretext of rejecting resettlement.
Their stance did not prevent the establishment of more than 5,000 unofficial camps and gathering points; however, it left the camps without modern administration methods and security, subjecting their residents to frequent violations.
Seizing Aid From Locals
“Syrians steal the aid that was once reserved for the Lebanese”—a phrase heard every day in Lebanon.
However, the phrase is inaccurate, as Lebanese entities receive a share of the aid directed to Syrian refugees.
Among the Lebanese demands that were approved was a 40% portion of the aid that goes to all the countries hosting Syrian refugees. It was a detailed demand, filed by Lebanon to the granting bodies, and stating the requirements that need to be fulfilled in Lebanon, in order for it to be able to continue receiving refugees.
Stealing Job Opportunities
Former Minister of Labor Sejaan Azzi said in a seminar this month that unemployment rates increased from 11% to 30% in the aftermath of the Syrian refugee crisis. He stated that Lebanon requires 35,000 job opportunities annually, but only 12,000 are provided at best.
The media frequently accuses refugees of stealing job opportunities from Lebanese nationals. Recently, several campaigns began calling for boycotts against establishments owned by or employing Syrians.
In contrast, Nasser Yassin, Research Director at the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut (AUB) published clear figures, indicating that 12,321 temporary and permanent job opportunities were created in refugee aid organizations in 2016.
The figures also indicated that 493 retail stores in Lebanon participated in the Food Assistance for Refugees project, where $20 million worth of food products were purchased.
Yassin moreover previously stated on his Twitter account that 84% of the new economic institutions founded near refugee gathering points are owned by Lebanese citizens.
Those accusing refugees of boosting the unemployment rate have overlooked many of the facts, such as the declining expatriate remittances to Lebanon, while a number of Lebanese employees in Gulf countries have returned to Lebanon for economical and political reasons. In addition to the decline of tourism revenues as a result of the war in Syria, there has also been a decline of Arab tourists for political reasons. All these factors have contributed to swelling the unemployment rate.
The accusers have also conveniently neglected the years of military clashes, severe political crisis, and the recent two-year presidential vacuum in Lebanon.
In October 2016, local daily Annahar reported that former Minister of the Environment Mohammad Machnouk said that the pollution in the air “has increased significantly for several reasons; most importantly due to the presence of more than 1.8 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, as a result of the Syrian crisis.”
He claimed that the research conducted by the Ministry of Environment in 2014 to study the effect of the Syrian crisis on the Lebanese environment indicated that emissions had increased by 20% in comparison with 2010.
The newspaper however noted that Machnouk had neglected the “garbage accumulating in the streets, which increased the pollution rate in the air.”
At that time, Lebanon was still suffering from a waste crisis, with garbage accumulating all over the streets, while some locations began to burn the garbage. The crisis has remained at varying degrees, and is yet to be resolved in many areas.