Ehden, Lebanon – More than 1.5 million Syrian refugees have made Lebanon their temporary home, but now, newly elected President Michel Aoun is vowing to send them back to their country, still in the throes of a civil war with no end in sight.
“There will be no solution in Syria without the return of the Syrian refugees to their country,” Aoun said in his inaugural speech this week. “The issue of the Syrian refugees should be resolved as soon as possible.”
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He also characterised the refugees as a security threat, saying it was essential that camps be prevented from becoming “safe havens” for terror.
It has long been the formal policy of Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement party – allied with Hezbollah, which is helping to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – that Syrian refugees in Lebanon must return home. But while most Syrians live a precarious existence in Lebanon, returning to their home country is simply not an option.
In the mountainous town of Ehden in northern Lebanon, Mohammad, who did not want to give his last name, said he was afraid of what an Aoun presidency might mean for him.
“I’m scared because I know that Aoun is somewhat close to the regime, and he might deport those wanted by the regime,” said Mohammad, 26.
He arrived in Lebanon five years ago, fleeing his hometown of Hama after he said the regime issued a warrant for his arrest for taking part in demonstrations against the Syrian government. He has been working in Ehden for a year, battling local bureaucracy ever since.
Working seven days a week, Mohammad has two jobs: construction worker by day and doorman by night. It earns him $600 a month, a reasonable salary for a Syrian worker in Lebanon, and he is attempting to save enough to enable his wife to join him from Syria.
The local municipality in Ehden had erected signs telling all Syrian workers to leave by October 31, but recently changed the signs, asking all unregistered foreigners to leave.
Mohammad’s papers are in order, but he knows many Syrians who have had to abandon this breezy hilltop town for crowded, informal refugee camps elsewhere in the country.
Leave, but go where?
Other Syrians with whom Al Jazeera spoke in Ehden either had the correct papers, or worked for the municipality itself and declined to speak on the record.
Several were working as street cleaners, and another, who said he had the legal right to work in Ehden, had arrived this week to help to renovate a local church, along with a group of other Syrians.
All Syrian workers in Lebanon must be sponsored by an employer, at a cost to the worker of $200 a year.
On top of that, the local municipality in Ehden requires all workers to pay an extra $100 annually for the right to work here. There is also a 6pm curfew for Syrians, a seemingly arbitrary rule implemented by various municipalities across the country.
“After that we just stay at home,” Mohammad’s colleague, Ahmad, a 23-year-old from Homs, told Al Jazeera. “We are scared to go to the supermarket. But of course if my son is sick, I am going to go to the pharmacy, even if I will be arrested for that.”
Mohammad said he had grown “sick and tired of the municipality”.
“I am exhausted. I don’t know if it’s racism or something else. But I am not leaving, no. Where else would I go?” Mohammad said, noting that his work situation was good, and his boss was kind.
Old tensions resurface
For Assaf Dahdah, a visiting professor of human geography at the Lebanese American University, animosity towards Syrians stems from the historical relationship between Lebanon and Syrian workers – dating back to well before the outbreak of the civil war in 2011 – and the influx of refugees into Lebanon.
“The problem with racism is the consequence of the social hierarchy between the Lebanese and the Syrians. … They are seen as just workers,” said Dahdah, who has been researching employment and migration patterns in the Zgharta district, in which Ehden lies. “They are useful, but the Lebanese don’t want them to stay.”
Before 2011, many Syrians would come to Lebanon for a couple of months to work, whether in construction or agriculture, and then return to Syria. But now they are unable to head back across the border.
Many people also mention the nearly 30-year Syrian occupation of Lebanon “to justify their discrimination against Syrians”, he added.
As winter arrives, many local residents will leave their summer residences in Ehden, leaving houses empty. This was referenced by several Lebanese as a justification for the municipality’s decision to tell undocumented Syrians to leave, as there is a fear that empty homes will be vulnerable to theft, Dahdah noted. He said that if undocumented workers were to remain over the winter, they would probably be blamed for most crimes, whether or not they commited them.
But Ghassan Tayyoun, the deputy mayor of Ehden, denied that the decision had anything to do with security concerns.
“It’s not a matter of them not being welcome,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Syrians who are registered can stay, but we as a municipality cannot cater to them,” he said, as the council itself moves down the mountain as the winter comes. “They are most welcome in Zgharta,” Tayyoun added, stressing that the council puts on school buses for the children of Syrian workers.
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Tiny Lebanon has taken on considerably more refugees per capita than any other country globally – 232 per 1,000 people. Jordan is in second place with 87 refugees per 1,000 people.
It is UN policy for refugees worldwide to eventually return home, but only if they do so voluntarily. When a country’s infrastructure is as destroyed as Syria’s, it will need workers to help rebuild it, doctors to treat the wounded, and teachers to educate a neglected generation of children.
“They have to go back,” said Michael Young, a Lebanese political expert and editor at Carnegie’s Middle East blog, Diwan. “But the question is, when and how? It definitely can’t be something very quick, as lots of the places they have left have been destroyed.”
And while Assad is outwardly appealing to displaced Syrians to return, the president “doesn’t want the refugees back”, Young said.
Citing fears that Aoun’s warming relations with Assad might endanger Syrians in Lebanon wanted by the regime, Young noted that this possibility already existed, and the inauguration of the new president was unlikely to change anything in that regard.
“If the Syrian regime wants someone in Lebanon, the security agencies are to some extent controlled by their allies. If it’s general security, or the army, they have the capacity to do that.”