BEIRUT — Syrians have long come to Lebanon in search of better job opportunities, but the sudden increase in their numbers as they flee the war in their homeland has exacerbated tensions with their Lebanese hosts.
Nadim Houry, the deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa for the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, said he’d documented growing harassment of Syrian workers in Lebanon.
“We’ve seen the army and the police detaining and roughing up a number of Syrian workers. Most recently, the Lebanese army beat up 72 workers; most of them were Syrian,” Houry said. “The Lebanese army rounded up the migrant men in the neighborhood and decided to ‘teach them a lesson’ instead of doing police work.”
The United Nations has registered more than 80,000 Syrians as refugees in Lebanon, a number that, since most refugees don’t register, only partly accounts for the migration. Syrian license plates have become ubiquitous, especially since the rebellion spread this summer from rural areas to the richest districts of Aleppo and Damascus, the country’s largest city and its capital, respectively.
“I’ve met some people who went back to their communities to help – some of them even picked up weapons – but they’ve come back to Lebanon because they ran out of money,” Houry said.
Syria’s hand in Lebanese politics, along with atrocities committed while Lebanon was under Syrian occupation, created a long-standing animus that’s been projected onto vulnerable Syrians here in the past. But as the Syrian government has threatened to destabilize Lebanon because of support here for the rebellion that’s seeking to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, Syrian workers find themselves trying to keep a low profile while facing a dilemma: Before the civil war, Syrian workers in Lebanon generally planned for a future in Syria with the money they saved here. Now more and more are considering moving their families to Lebanon to escape the uncertainty in Syria, a dynamic that could quickly bring an even greater number of Syrians to this small country of about 4 million.
“Initially, many Lebanese sympathized with the uprising, and that sympathy continues, but that sympathy hasn’t translated into sympathy for the workers. So we’re still seeing some of the violations we saw before, like random xenophobic violence, but now we’re seeing it in greater numbers,” Houry said.
Kidnappings of Lebanese citizens in northern Syria, followed by retaliatory kidnappings of Syrians in Lebanon, have added to the tensions, as did the assassination in Beirut last month of a general whose death was widely blamed on the Syrian government.
Syrian workers have seen their wages drop as their Lebanese bosses realized they had few other options and would work for less.
“Syrian male workers in Lebanon have often been double victims,” Houry said. “First they were victims of the Syrian regime’s neglect for years, which pushed them into dangerous low-paying jobs in Lebanon in the construction industry and other things.”
Few Syrians were willing to discuss the situation in their home country. They avoid talking politics. Those who agreed to be interviewed asked that their surnames be withheld.
On the roof of the building where he shares a small apartment with other Syrian workers, Mohammed said he tried to keep a low profile. Still, he was assaulted during a recent wave of kidnappings; a great irony, because those who attacked him were supporters of the Syrian government.
“I’m pro-regime,” he said. “Some of the people who hit me were people that have known me for four years.”
But the danger here is less severe than it is in Syria.
Another man, also named Mohammed, said he’d stopped going back to visit his family in northern Syria because it wasn’t safe there and that the rest of his family was planning to come to Lebanon. He said that even if the government fell, he wasn’t sure when he’d return because he expected further instability.
“Some of my cousins were here before the revolution, but after it began all of them came,” Mohammed said. “Maybe I would live there after the regime falls, but at least I will be able to visit. I’m not afraid, but it is dangerous there. Lebanon is safer; if I go to Syria I might just disappear.”
The tension is being felt not only by construction workers and other laborers. College graduates, another demographic that historically has frequently left Syria seeking work, now also find themselves with fewer options. Tension between the Syrian government and Arab Persian Gulf countries over support for the rebels who are fighting the Syrian government has led to more restrictive visa policies for Syrians in the Gulf.
Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @davidjenders