Racist rhetoric against Syrian refugees in Lebanon has escalated in 2019, exacerbated by several government officials led by Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, head of the Christian Free Patriotic Movement. This rhetoric has resonated, especially on social media. At the same time, a number of activists, intellectuals and political forces have been campaigning against what they describe as hate speech.
After the outbreak of the civil war in Syria in 2011, around 1 million refugees fled across the border to Lebanon. Unable to return home, they have faced growing racism and resentment, becoming pawns for the country’s different political trends.
Over the past years, social media has been full of videos depicting the abuse of Syrian children, including a video showing a Lebanese man encouraging his son to beat a Syrian child, another video of a man insulting and torturing a Syrian child, as well as reports of human trafficking, prostitution and drug networks that exploit the circumstances of displaced persons. However, the hate speech against Syrians has escalated in recent months as politicians and other officials have blamed Syrians for the unemployment and economic crises facing Lebanon.
“We cannot accept that the Lebanese people be deprived of jobs while the Syrians work illegally in Lebanon,” Bassil said in various media. He also accused the refugees of possessing weapons. “In small camps, security apparatuses would seize arms there, so what is the justification for the presence of weapons in refugee camps?”
This inflammatory tone has had a significant impact on Lebanese society, especially within Bassil’s own party. With the participation of dozens of young supporters, the Free Patriotic Movement launched a campaign titled ‘Safe return to Syria; situation in Lebanon no longer tolerable’. The participants said that the campaign aimed to confront illegal workers by raising awareness about Lebanon’s Labour Law. Videos were released showing scores of young people carrying Free Patriotic Movement flags, chanting anti-Syrian slogans outside a restaurant and demanding the refugees return to their country.
In another video broadcast by OTV, Free Patriotic Movement supporters could be seen marching past restaurants, shops, cafes and other businesses, calling for the expulsion of Syrian workers and replacing them with Lebanese as part of a campaign titled ‘If you love Lebanon, employ Lebanese people’. The video showed the participants bullying the Syrian workers, who were at their workplaces when the march started.
Explaining why he joined the campaign, Mark, a young supporter, said, “The unemployment rates among the Lebanese youth are historically high, and so is the economic crisis. Such conditions push our young people to migrate abroad while thousands of Syrians are working in our country in violation of the Labour Law, a phenomenon that every Lebanese must stand up to.”
However, Dania Grady, a Beirut restaurant and cafe manager, disagrees that getting rid of Syrians is the answer. “Lebanese youth refuse to engage in many jobs because they do not find these jobs to fit them, including jobs at cafes or restaurants. The majority of the Lebanese people want to engage in administrative jobs instead,” she said. “We now have a majority of Syrian workers and only a few Lebanese who are all university students and work as part-time employees only. This is in addition to the fact that the Lebanese workers do not accept the same wages as their Syrian counterparts who are more skilled and experienced.”
According to Wissam Matta, a journalist and political analyst, “The phenomenon of racism or hate speech towards the Syrians in Lebanon is not new; it has always been present in the country, especially in some sectarian environments, and particularly the Christian communities, which have obsessions about ‘the minority’ and show high sensitivity when it comes to what they label as ‘the stranger’, although such sentiments of dismay at different communities are not limited to ‘the stranger’ who holds a different nationality. Rather, they are particularly directed at Lebanese people belonging to different sectarian groups. Racism is therefore a multifaceted phenomenon in Lebanese society, and it is sectarian in essence.”
He added, “In the past, the racist discourse was directed against the Palestinians, given the many political or social backgrounds, and it is still going on these days in some Lebanese social environments, although it is not as intense as in the past, especially since the new ‘strangers’, that is the Syrians, have come to Lebanon. If we tracked this rhetoric against the Syrians, we would notice that it originally started during the [Lebanese] civil war, because Syria was among the main players in the war. The Phalange party and Lebanese Forces party, for example, still remember the repercussions of the hundred days war , the siege of the city of Zahle [1980-1981] and several other rounds of confrontations with the Syrians. Others recall the legacy of the Liberation War (1989), the legacy of Operation 13 Oc-tober 1990 and the ensuing feelings of ‘injustice’ or ‘frustration’ in the years of the Syrian guardianship over Lebanon up until 2005.”
Besides the political aspect of hate speech, he said that the economic factor has been on the rise since the 1990s, when many started to complain about Syrian labour competition. The situation has deteriorated since the outbreak of the Syrian war and the influx of refugees.
“This has caused hate speech to extend from being limited to specific Lebanese social, regional and sectarian groups to being a phenomenon that moves across sects and areas. If, for example, we compare the situation in Lebanon to hate speech [against Syrians] in Europe…although the percentage of the refugees in these countries is insignificant compared to the percentage of Syrian refugees in Lebanon…we would understand some aspects of racism and hate speech prevailing in Lebanese society today.”
To counter the hate speech and racism against Syrians, hundreds of Lebanese youths and activists have launched their own campaigns, staging protests and a symbolic sit-in in Samir Qasir Park in central Beirut and holding banners denouncing Bassil’s statements.
Adham al-Hasaniyah, one of the political activists who called for the sit-in, told Fanack, “Some Lebanese politicians and officials have not found any party other than the Syrian refugees to blame for their administrative, political and economic failures. The crisis of unorganized foreign labour in Lebanon has been going on even before 2011, but the accumulation of failure led the officials to resort to a re-actionary, fascist and racist discourse to cover for this failure, taking advantage of the exaggerated sectarian and national sectarian discourse that already exists and is devoid of human values.”
He continued, “We decided to launch a campaign against the hate campaigns that are now being spread because we felt that it is our duty to tell society that racism and hatred…are the greatest impediments to progress and development of society, and we must promote a discourse that accepts diversity and differences.”
In parallel, dozens of intellectuals, journalists, activists and artists issued a statement condemning the campaign against Syrians and expressing what they described as ‘disgust with the racist hysteria run by Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil’. They warned that this campaign poisons the entire atmosphere in Lebanon, which they described as ‘already plagued by excessive sectarianism that is mobilized and incited by populist leaders, led by Bassil himself’.
The Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut published statistics to correct the figures being circulated about the number of Syrians living in Lebanon, who account for 24.7 per cent of the population, according to the statistics, not the 40 per cent claimed by politicians. In addition, 86 per cent of Syrians of working age are engaged in construction, agriculture and other sectors and do not compete with the Lebanese for jobs.
Speaking to Fanack, Mohamed Ajati, director of the Badail Forum for Political Studies, said, “There is a long history and several backgrounds in Lebanon that were the cause of a 15-year civil war. However, the regional and international context and the escalating rhetoric of the far right in the world have contributed to bringing this discourse in Lebanon to the fore. It is a discourse that is focused on identity and sectarianism, which is beginning to reflect on Lebanese society itself. Recently, for example, it has become common to refuse to rent houses and apartments in certain places with a majority of a particular sect to tenants from other sects. This existed in the past, but it is now being implemented according to official decisions.”
He added, “Some politicians, such as Gebran Bassil, use this discourse…for political mobilization in their favour, but people like Minister Bassil do not realize the adverse consequences of such actions for Lebanese society. This is because the return of hate speech, racism and sectarianism to Lebanese society can lead to a surge of violence.
Although it is difficult for violence to break out as in the days of the civil war, because one party possesses the bulk of weapons in Lebanon, the current regional and international tensions that involve financing some media and social groups may also provide weapons to change the balance of power inside Lebanon, which could result in the outbreak of a new civil war. In summary, hate speech against the Syrians will backfire…in a more violent and dangerous manner than what the refugees are experiencing in terms of living conditions.”