Xenophobia Will not Solve Lebanon’s Refugee Crisis

"Screenshot of Forbes UNHCR refugee figures"
"Screenshot of Forbes UNHCR refugee figures"

As if all it takes is an online petition to the US state department and the United Nations to "rid" Lebanon of its refugee crisis, over 20,000 signatories signed a petition calling for "Syrian refugees to leave Lebanon and return to safe zones in Syria". 

While the petition is sloppily written, it is an important reflection of what goes on in the hearts and minds of a portion of the Lebanese public, who view the refugee crisis as an economic, security and demographic threat that "might lead to serious altercations between the [Syrian refugees and Lebanese people]".

The petition comes in the context of a rise in anti-refugee discourse in the country, from Syrian businesses being shut down in some municipalities, to a banner threatening to "cut the hands" of Syrians if they threaten Lebanese livelihood, and even a fake news story about 300,000 new refugee births in 2017 that raised the alarm about resulting demographic changes.

Such voices are certainly not representative of the Lebanese people as a whole. Many Lebanese activists, lawyers and groups have done their best to help Syrian refugees in their "temporary home" as they await a settlement that would allow them to return home.

Yet, an anti-refugee rhetoric plagues the small country of 4.5 million people, already hosting Palestinian refugees, as it struggles to cope with 1.5 million Syrian refugees.

Lebanon is the country hosting the most refugees per capita. This fact rightly deserves attention and international support, but it has also been exploited domestically to scapegoat refugees as the main culprits for the dire state of affairs in the country.

Scapegoating Refugees

Anti-refugee rhetoric can be seen as a symptom of much larger problems Lebanon is currently facing, as its government is unable to hold parliamentary elections on time, reform state institutions, fight corruption and nepotism, and agree on a unified foreign policy as sharp divisions remain surrounding Hezbollah's involvement in the Syrian war.

Consequently, these legitimate frustrations have been projected onto the Syrian refugees who have become a convenient scapegoat for disgruntled citizens and incompetent politicians. This phenomenon is not unique to Lebanon, as we have seen similar discourse in Europe and the United States as a facade for economic grievances, in addition to being an expression of forthright racism and xenophobia.

One might presume that concerned citizens in a parliamentary democracy would, as a matter of priority, be outraged and launch petitions in favour of holding elections on time, rather than call for Syrian refugees to leave Lebanon and go to a yet undefined and hypothetical "safe zone".

However, the hysterical and irrational fear of the "stranger" or "foreigner" has sometimes overcome the capacity for empathy and compassion - interestingly among a populace that has experienced first-hand the suffering and displacement caused by a civil war between 1975 and 1990, as well as by Israeli wars in 1982 and 2006. Most recently in July 2006, many Lebanese people fled to, or through, the Lebanon-Syria borders as a result of the Israeli aerial and naval blockade.

Surely some voices have tried to counter said discourse with a fact-based approach that seeks to treat refugees as assets rather than a burden, as a professor at the American University of Beirut, Nasser Yassine, tried to do in a series of tweets.

Such initiatives are extremely important in the fight for public opinion, since, generally speaking, Lebanese citizens are bombarded with negative examples of refugees' effect on the economy, crime, education, electricity and terrorism.

Countering xenophobia is in the state's interest

A government policy that takes refugees' dignity and rights into account is pragmatically and strategically in the state's interest, as was noted by human rights lawyer Ghida Frangieh in relation to the government's residency policy of "reducing the numbers". That policy in fact "stripped more than 70 percent of Syrians residing in Lebanon of their legal residence papers … [and they] became invisible to the Lebanese authorities and lost many of their rights".

Taking active steps to ameliorate refugees' living conditions, as well as promoting a non-xenophobic public discourse, will display Lebanon's commitment to international processes and convince donors that the government understands the refugee crisis - not just in terms of amount of funds needed, but also in relation to the treatment of refugees in political and media discourse.

As agreed upon in the UN New York Declaration on Migrants and Refugees (pdf), "combating xenophobia, racism and discrimination in our societies against refugees and migrants" should be among the top priorities of the government as it tries to enact a refugee policy (obviously, countering xenophobia should also be coupled with the declaration's injunction for refugees "to observe the laws and regulations of their host countries").

Thereby, Lebanon can seek to have a stronger voice in ongoing global negotiations on the refugee crisis from the standpoint of a state that is doing the right thing at home.

Speaking with me in her personal capacity, Alia Aoun, senior legal adviser on Humanitarian Affairs to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said "it is counterproductive to work on the assumption that making life harder for refugees will cause them to return to Syria. The result would be undocumented refugees which is not in the refugees' or Lebanon's interest".

However, a portion of the general public have not yet recognised that it is not in the interest of the state to make life harder for refugees and have intensified a campaign to "kick the Syrians out", as the aforementioned petition illustrates.

For this reason, politicians and media outlets that have contributed to xenophobic public discourse should actively seek to right the wrong that has been done, and is still being done, by acknowledging that fear-triggered xenophobia is the wrong approach.

Absent an all-inclusive refugee policy, Syrian refugees living in extremely difficult conditions, where even "death brings a final indignity", will be driven into the hands of criminal networks who exploit people in search of better prospects, or simply for an honest day's work.

If Lebanon is genuinely concerned about the economic and security ramifications pertaining to hosting a large number of refugees, it is worth remembering that adopting an active pro-refugee discourse and countering xenophobia in society will, in the words of the New York Declaration, "reduce the risks of marginalisation and radicalisation".

In short, xenophobic discourse leads to an environment of marginalisation, social exclusion and dehumanisation, all in the name of protecting the economy, nationalism and security.

It is never too late to start over and put forward a calm, rational, fact-based approach to the refugee crisis that would allow the country to make the best out of a very difficult situation in the interest of both the Lebanese state and refugees.

This article originally appeared in Al Jazeera English.

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