The sight of children swimming in the pool in downtown Beirut has not been unusual in recent weeks, as an organized media campaign to promote racism and hatred against Syrian refugees had considered their very presence in the public space as a threat. Local Lebanese channels have directly and deliberately portrayed the socio-economic and spatial rights of Syrian refugees as a derogatory issue that detracts from the rights of the Lebanese population. This campaign coincided with the Lebanese authorities’ crackdown to deport them, despite calls by international organizations to stop the illegal deportations of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Today, the Lebanese authorities continue to raid their homes and tents, and to arrest and deport them amidst a political and security situation in Syria that encourages their arrest, torture and persecution by the Syrian authorities upon their return.
As a result of this systematic campaign, the Lebanese authorities infringe upon the spatial rights of the refugees on a daily basis by restricting their movement and displacing them from their houses. These practices hinder their ability to carry out their work, attend school, and normally resume their lives. Additionally, they are forced to change their place of residence from Lebanon to Syria, an issue they may not desire and which may pose a serious threat to their lives. Cases where family members have been deported or children have returned from school to find their parents deported have been documented. A report by international organizations, including Human Rights Watch, has indicated that a significant number of those deported have been detained by the Syrian regime, with no information available about their whereabouts. The deportations have included areas such as Bshamoun, Bourj Hammoud, Jounieh, Kesrouan, as well as camps in Gaza (Al-Bekaa) and Al-Qaraoun. Individuals and families have been arbitrarily arrested, including those holding valid residency permits and who are registered at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), while a number of Lebanese individuals have been reported to act as informants to the army to disclose the location of Syrian residents.
These campaigns have also legalized and encouraged toxic social practices and physical assaults at times, where refugees are continuously targeted and attacked in the streets or in their own neighborhoods. This has become an ongoing threat to their lives and has stripped them of a sense of security even within their own homes.
The authorities have employed various indirect means to pave the way for direct deportation campaigns. This includes the issuance of curfew orders by many municipalities and continuous pressures exerted by the Ministry of Interior on the UNHCR to provide information about the refugees in Lebanon. Additionally, the launch of what is known as the “National Campaign for the Liberation of Lebanon from Syrian Demographic Occupation” is a clear attempt to infringe upon the spatial rights of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
In this context, and through the strange decisions of the Governor of Beirut, the state has resorted to prohibiting refugees from entering the Beirut Pine Forest (Horsh Beirut), limiting this to just Mondays and Tuesdays, which is illegal, as public spaces are open to everyone at all times according to the law.
In addition to this, there have been raids on the homes of Syrian refugees, and arbitrary arrests of individuals and entire families at the police station under the municipality’s jurisdiction, where their identification documents have been confiscated, and they have been coerced into signing an unlawful pledge to return to Syria in exchange for the return of their documents, a practice in which the municipality of Dekwaneh has engaged.
Racism towards Syrian refugees in Lebanon has prompted MP Fadi Karam, a member of the Lebanese Forces party, to propose repeated expedited legislation aimed at “preventing any form of apparent or disguised integration of Syrian refugees, staying in Lebanon as a result of the Syrian revolution.” It is peculiar that the same authority that has been pleading for significant financial aid from foreign donors under the guise of “integration” is now proposing to reject such integration. If anything, this proposal reflects a sense of fear towards the refugees.
In parallel, this draft law mandates “the Ministry of Interior – General Directorate of Personal Status – in cooperation with the Ministry of Social Affairs and international community organizations, to conduct an accurate census of the number of displaced Syrians, and to follow up on this census periodically, until their return to the Syrian territory, and to register them as individuals.” Thus, after ninety years of neglecting this role, the Lebanese state is now focusing its efforts on counting Syrian refugees – with the aim of excluding them and fueling racist sentiments – instead of having a census for the general population in order to determine the needs of people and of regions across the country, in terms of public policies, planning and organization. The authorities’ practices and mistreatment of the Syrian population are arbitrary, and therefore violate the human rights treaties and conventions to which Lebanon is a signatory, including those enshrined in its constitution.
Several municipalities in Lebanon, completely absent from fulfilling their developmental role, have been very active in enacting procedures that prohibit the renting of housing to Syrians in specific neighborhoods and areas. These measures include direct rental bans, conducting population surveys to count the number of refugees in neighborhoods, and other practices that restrict the right to access housing. What is notable in this context, particularly in terms of the population census, is that the majority status of Syrians in Lebanon is deemed “illegal,” which makes the census process a legal and indirect tool for eviction and exclusion from neighborhoods.
It is also noteworthy that calls to establish neighborhood committees have been made, which is a demand we have been working towards for some time, with the aim of creating a new level of representation and encouraging civic and environmental political activities at the neighborhood level. However, these calls seek to establish a form of civil police force that would pursue refugees and intimidate them, acting as informants for the authorities.
Finally, the raids by municipal police and Lebanese authorities on houses inhabited by refugees and their subsequent eviction blatantly violate the right to housing, as the legal justification for these raids and eviction practices is based on the nationality or legal status of the residents. On May 19th, a raid led by the governor himself took place in a building in the Nweiri-Al Mazraa area, where the entire building (Dana Building) was evacuated and sealed off on the grounds that it was an “unlicensed investment occupied by non-Lebanese individuals and does not meet the requirements of public safety, protection from hazards, fire safety, and health conditions, which poses significant harm, inconvenience, and imminent danger to the surrounding area and neighborhood.” It should be noted that none of the families or young Syrian workers who were residing in the building had alternative housing options.
As a result of these practices, housing vulnerability among Syrian refugees has significantly increased in recent times, especially since the UNHCR announced a severe funding shortage in a report issued in September 2022, leading to the suspension of support to 63,883 Syrian families starting January 2023. We have directly witnessed the repercussions of this support cessation, as the Housing Monitor at the Public Works Studio received 146 reports of housing rights violations between February 24th and March 24th, 2023. Out of these reports, 129, or 88% of them, were submitted by Syrian families who reported their inability to pay rent and/or being at risk of eviction.
The highest percentages of reports came from marginalized neighborhoods that currently accommodate residents with low incomes and the working class from various nationalities. Some of them mentioned that the reason for this emerging housing vulnerability is the suspension of support received by families from the UNHCR, which used to contribute to covering the minimum expenses of essential needs, including housing.
As Syrians disappear after crossing the Lebanese borders, the Lebanese authorities and media continue to call for the revocation of their spatial rights in Lebanon, by evicting them from their homes, banning them from the public space, restricting their freedom of movement, and erasing their presence from the city. This constitutes a blatant violation of spatial justice in Lebanon.