Lebanon: Beirut protesters decry racism toward Syrians

Activists say discrimination has heightened in recent weeks and Syrians are being blamed for the city’s woes.

Beirut protest against racism towards Syrians
Slogans read: 'Curfews must be forbidden' and 'Racism threatens civil peace' [Kareem Chehayeb]

Protesters took to the streets of Beirut to march against racism toward Syrian refugees, which they say has been growing in recent weeks.

At least 200 people gathered on Monday in an anti-discrimination protest in the Lebanese capital under the banner “all against racism”.

Chanting slogans such as: “The refugee was killed the first time when he ran away from the war, don’t kill him again with your racism” and “Politicians who incite hatred must be held accountable”, they marched from the ministry of foreign affairs to the interior ministry. 

“Everybody in the Lebanese establishment is bigoted and racist beyond belief,” Kareem Chehayeb, a 24-year-old political activist who attended the protest, told Al Jazeera.

“They use Syrians as scapegoats for their political gain, to consolidate their power and distract people from their corruption.”

'He who took your job is a Lebanese, and he makes $23,000,' reads a sign at the protest [Sarah Shmaitilly/Al Jazeera]
‘He who took your job is a Lebanese, and he makes $23,000,’ reads a sign at the protest [Sarah Shmaitilly/Al Jazeera]

According to activists, several events in recent weeks fuelled negative attitudes among ordinary citizens as well as institutions towards Syrian refugees.

In late June, a series of deadly suicide bombings that took place in the northern Lebanese village of al-Qaa saw Lebanese troops respond by raiding Syrian refugee camps and arresting more than 100 Syrians. Curfews have also been put in place in several villages.

Lebanon’s military prosecutor charged three people, including two Syrians, with links to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group, over the attack which left five people dead, according to AFP.

“This caused so much negativity towards Syrian refugees. Despite the interior minister’s comments that the attackers were not refugees and did not come from camps,” said Chehayeb.

Images which circulated online last week appeared to show Lebanese police blindfolding and beating Syrian refugees in the coastal town of Amchit, 40 kilometres from Beirut, according to activists.

‘Abuse has increased’

In a statement released on July 14 in response to the reports in Amchit, Lebanese Minister of Interior and Municipalities, Nohad Machnouk, ordered “strict instructions” to Lebanon’s municipal police “against the abuse of force”.

“Abuses, especially against Syrian refugees, have increased in the last period, tarnishing the image of the local police,” read the statement. 

READ MORE: Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in fear of deportation

Sarah Shmaitilly, another activist, told Al Jazeera: “We heard people saying they wanted to take Syrians out in the streets and beat them.”

She added that protesters were scolded by passers-by for supporting Syrian refugees.

“You cannot find anyone who does not have a racist comment about Syrians. It’s pretty ridiculous,” she said.

The registered refugee population of Syrians in Lebanon stands at 1.1 million, in Lebanon’s 4.7 million population.

Human rights groups and activists say refugees are often blamed for the city’s electricity, employment and traffic problems.

“We are here to remind ourselves and everyone else that we did not have electricity, water, telecommunication, and roads, even before the Syrian refugee crisis,” one of the protest organisers said.

“The visa and the sponsorship system is not in our name. The trafficking of Syrian women and hiring forced Syrian labour is not in our name. The arrests and raids and humiliation at checkpoints is not in our name. The illegal curfews are not in our name. The expulsion of Syrian students from schools is not in our name,” said the organiser, who did not give his name.

READ MORE: Syrians to face visa restrictions for Lebanon 

The protest came as a new Human Rights Watch report, released on Tuesday, said that more than half of the 500,000 school-age Syrian children registered in Lebanon are not enrolled in formal education.

Citing limited resources and “harsh regulations” on residency and work for Syrians, the rights group said Lebanon needs to do more to support the influx of refugee children in schools.

The Syrian civil war, which started in March 2011 after protests against President Bashar al-Assad, has killed more than 250,000 people and displaced 4.5 million Syrians who now mostly reside in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.

Follow Zena Tahhan on Twitter: @ZenaTahhan

Source: Al Jazeera