Saudi Foreign Minister calls for global support in the face of security pressures in the MENA region


DUBAI: When Dareen and her family fled to Lebanon in 2014, fleeing violence in their hometown of Aleppo in northern Syria, she thought their displacement would last at most a year. Eight years later, she and her three children still reside in an informal settlement in Chtaura, near the Syrian border.

Dareen is among the UN’s estimated 852,000 Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon, who have seen their living conditions deteriorate since their host country’s financial crisis began in late 2019, which has been further aggravated by the COVID pandemic. -19 and the impact of the war in Ukraine.

Amid this economic turmoil, the language of Lebanese political discourse has become increasingly hostile to Syrian refugees, with pundits and ministers pushing a narrative that blames displaced households for the country’s hardships and continued pressure on refugees. public services.

Hoping to ease this perceived “burden” on Lebanon’s crippled economy, the country’s caretaker government, which says the number of Syrian refugees is close to 1.5 million, has launched a plan to repatriate them.

“Eleven years after the start of the Syrian crisis, Lebanon no longer has the capacity to bear this burden, especially in the current circumstances,” Najib Mikati, Lebanon’s acting prime minister, said at a ceremony in June. launching the UN-sponsored Lebanese crisis this year. Response plan.

“I call on the international community to work with Lebanon to ensure the return of Syrian refugees to their country, otherwise Lebanon … will strive to get the Syrians out through legal means and the firm application of the Lebanese law”.

Lebanese interim Prime Minister Najib Mikati. (AFP file)

According to the UN, Lebanon has appealed for $3.2 billion to deal with the continuing impact of the Syrian crisis. About $9 billion has already been provided in aid since 2015 as part of the Lebanon crisis response plan.

Mikati’s comments, which amount to a thinly veiled ultimatum to the UN to send more financial aid, followed similar remarks in May by acting social affairs minister Hector Hajjar, who said Lebanon will not could no longer afford to host such a large population of refugees.

Experts say the causes of Lebanon’s economic problems and its multiple overlapping crises are far more complex than the simple expense of hosting Syrian refugees, for which it receives global assistance.

In August, the World Bank accused the leaders of post-civil war Lebanon of orchestrating “deliberate depression” by accumulating excessive debt, diverting and spending deposits from commercial banks, and weakening the delivery of public services on a period of 30 years.

Nevertheless, according to experts, the Syrian refugees have become a kind of convenient scapegoat to deflect blame from the country’s beleaguered political elite.

Syrian refugees are conveniently blamed for Lebanon’s economic problems. (AFP file)

In July, Issam Charafeddine, Lebanon’s acting minister for displaced people, said the government planned to start sending back at least 15,000 Syrian refugees a month. Calling the decision “a necessary human, honorable, patriotic and economic plan for Lebanon”, he insisted that it was now safe for the refugees to return to Syria.

During a joint meeting with Charafeddine, Hussein Makhlouf, the Syrian regime’s local government minister, said that “the doors are open for the return of Syrian refugees” and that the government of President Bashar Assad is ready to facilitate their return. return.

Lebanon’s repatriation plan was crafted amid growing public resentment and even outright hostility toward Syrian refugees, as Lebanese citizens struggling to feed their families demand that the state prioritize their needs versus those of perceived strangers.

“I can’t take them anymore,” Maria, a 51-year-old teacher, told Arab News. “We are already struggling, and their presence is making the situation worse. There are so many things to do without having to share with strangers.

For many, the sight of Syrian children plunged into poverty in refugee camps has become unbearable. (AFP)

“When I see them begging on the streets, when I see them queuing up with some sort of welfare card to pay for their belongings, I find myself fighting the urge to yell at them. They’re not the “Welcome here. It’s our land, our food, our money. They should be going home by now.”

Some experts and politicians have even claimed that, thanks to cash donations from aid agencies, Syrian refugees have received more aid than the poorest Lebanese. Such statements have fueled a narrative that Syrian refugees are responsible for the country’s overflowing cup of doom.

Syrian refugees prepare to leave the Lebanese capital Beirut to return home to Syria on September 4, 2018. (AFP file)

Posted in July on his official Twitter account, Nadim Gemayel, a member of the Lebanese Kataeb party, said: “For Lebanon, the return of Syrian refugees is not an option, but rather a national necessity. If Syria is not safe for Syrians to return, then their stay is not safe for Lebanese, and recent events are proof of this, so come back or come back.

Concerned about the possible impact of this hardening narrative against Syrians, Najat Rushdi, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Lebanon, urged Lebanese public figures to refrain from stirring up hostility.

QUICKFACTS

9/10 Syrians in Lebanon live in poverty.

Lebanon plans to deport 15,000 Syrians per month.

Many of the 3.7 million Syrians in Turkey fear being sent back after a change in Ankara-Damascus relations.

Syrian medical student Faris Muhammad Al Ali recently lost his life in an attack by his peers in Hatay.

The toxic public discourse appears to have led to an escalation in violence against Syrians. In June, footage emerged on social media of a Lebanese landowner whipping a group of Syrian boys with a cable.

The boys, who are believed to have been hired by the landlord to harvest cherries, can be seen in the footage with potatoes stuffed into their mouths like gags as the landlord beats them and accuses them of stealing.

Even state authorities in Lebanon have been accused of mistreating Syrians. A report released by human rights monitor Amnesty International in March 2021 included testimonies from 26 Syrians who claimed they were tortured by Lebanese authorities, including beatings with metal bars and held in positions of stress.

A Syrian boy clears snow from the entrance to a tent at a refugee camp near Baalbek, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, January 20, 2022. (AFP file)

In early September, Bashar Abdel Saud, a Syrian refugee, was reportedly tortured to death by members of the Lebanese state security agency. When leaked photos of his badly bruised body appeared on social media, authorities claimed he had confessed to being a member of Daesh. Abdel Saud was arrested for being in possession of a counterfeit $50 note.

Despite these worrying incidents, many Syrian refugees say they would rather stay in Lebanon than return home. “The reason I left is still there. Assad is still president,” Abu Faisal, 68, who lives in a camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, told Arab News.

“I would rather die outside of a stranger’s humiliation than die in what I consider home from his torture and humiliation. I would live on a small piece of land isolated from the world and I would not return there.

Syrian refugees wait to be evacuated from the village of Shebaa in southern Lebanon on April 18, 2018 to return home to their village near Damascus. (AFP)

Some observers suspect Hezbollah, which has long been a prominent supporter of the Assad regime, of actively fostering harmful social attitudes to pressure Syrian refugees to return home – and thereby burnish the global image of the Assad regime. regime and its workforce.

However, although the intensity of fighting has diminished in much of Syria in recent months, human rights monitors say the country is still far from safe, with well-documented cases of returnees detained , tortured and even killed by the distrustful and vengeful regime. .

Deprived of their husbands, many Syrian refugee women have to do hard work to survive. (AFP file)

“My husband is still missing,” Dareen, the Syrian from Aleppo who now lives as a refugee with her family in Chtaura, told Arab News. “In 2018, he returned to Syria because he was working on starting a project with a friend of his to earn money. I haven’t heard from him since the second day he was there.

“My friends and family advised me to go on with my life as if he were dead. I’m sure he was arrested by Syrian thugs. I would rather consider him dead than languishing in the slaughterhouses of Assad’s prison.

Evidence compiled by human rights monitors indicates that returnees are not warmly welcomed by the regime but are instead treated as traitors for leaving.

“My sister-in-law returned to Syria to check on her sick brother last year,” Dareen said. “She was harassed at the Syrian border. The soldiers called her a traitor for leaving, called her a whore and threatened to rape her. She didn’t even want to come back here. She didn’t want to cross the border, but she had to.

Members of the Syrian Organization for Victims of War (SOVW) display footage documenting the torture of detainees in Assad regime prisons and detention centers. (AFP)

The UK-based Syrian Network for Human Rights has documented at least 3,057 cases of arrests of returnees by the regime between 2014 and 2021, including 203 women and 244 children. The majority of these returnees came from Lebanon.

In light of these threats to the lives and well-being of returnees, humanitarian organizations have repeatedly called on the Lebanese government not to deport the refugees and to continue to offer them refuge.

“Lebanon is bound not to return or extradite anyone at risk of torture and is bound by the principle of non-refoulement under customary international law, as a party to the Convention against Torture and Cruel, Inhuman or degrading,” the New York-based observer said. said Human Rights Watch in a report in July.

UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, also reminded the Lebanese government of its duty “to respect the fundamental right of all refugees to voluntary, safe and dignified return”.

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