Event Reports

"Citizens on hold – the Syrian Refugee Issue vs. Lebanese Concerns"

Conference debates the plight of Syrian refugees alongside Lebanese concerns

Hayya Bina initiates inter-Lebanese discussion on refugee status, citizenship and social cohesion in “Citizens on Hold” conference

The Lebanese civic initiative Hayya Bina, in partnership with Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, brought together a broad spectrum of local and international civil society, diplomats, political parties, and Syrian refugees on Saturday, the 18th of April, 2015, in a conference titled “Citizens on Hold – The Syrian Refugee Issue vs. Lebanese Concerns.”

The conference was the capstone event for a program launched last fall to address the issue of Syrian refugees in terms that go beyond relief efforts and security concerns, but recognize it as the complex hardship it has been for Syrians, their Lebanese hosts, and Lebanon as a whole.

After introductory remarks from Hayya Bina’s Lokman Slim and Peter Rimmele of Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, the conference screened a short documentary called “Refugees in Their Own Words,” a film that focuses on the challenges that Syrians face living in Lebanon and interacting with both their Lebanese neighbors and the country’s officials. Following the screening, attendees took part in a thorough, frank and wide-ranging discussion of the issue, from refugees’ daily struggles to cope with deprivation and discrimination and the ineffectiveness of existing public policies, to how the broader history of Lebanese-Syrian relations affects Lebanese responses to the Syrian refugee situation today.

Participants and speakers – which included, among others, Dr. Mona Fayyad, Ziad El Sayegh, Dr. Akram Sukkarriyyeh, Thaer Ghandour and Hassan Abbas –agreed that the Lebanese government’s failure to even develop, much less implement, a single coherent policy towards the Syrian refugees has only exacerbated their plight and the one of the Lebanese hosting community. Since Lebanon is not a signatory of the UNHCR’s 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, most of them are living in a state of complete legal limbo. Worse, one participant points out, this failure to develop even the semblance of a policy has prevented a great deal of aid from coming to Lebanon, which could desperately use it.

"The Lebanese government has entirely relinquished its policy on Syrian refugees to security bodies!” thunders the journalist Ziad El Sayegh. “And yet crimes are mostly committed by Lebanese citizens and not necessarily Syrian refugees”. Not to mention widespread fraud: more than a few people are lining up to exploit the vulnerable, selling them expired food products and fake travel documents. “This breeds hatred and resentment,” Ziad reminds us, before stressing a far darker notion. “What does all of this mean in the long-term? There’s a generation of people becoming ripe for the picking. All this will throw them into the arms of whoever comes along first.”

This, the journalist Hassan Abbas noted, also belies the well-worn argument that inbred Lebanese racism is to blame for widespread discrimination against Syrians. Though an integral part of the Lebanese character, he noted, the ‘racism’ now being flaunted as the source of all anti-Syrian sentiment is, at best, a red herring used by upper-middle classes whose social and educational levels place them well beyond the pale of competition from Syrian labor. Making it willful ignorance, at best, to categorize the anxieties of poor and working-class Lebanese, who can no longer find service-sector, construction or agricultural jobs as mere racism.

The good news? Lebanese of all persuasions – ‘citizens’ of a country that often resembles, as a colleague likes to say, a dystopian shopping mall in its compartmentalization – are at least coming together in one important regard: not addressing the repercussions of the crisis at present will amplify its consequences and make it even harder to find medium to long term solutions later in time.

“Never has the sense of Lebanese identity been stronger,” Abbas noted gloomily.

Ever lurking in the minds of Lebanese is the colossal threat that they will simply repeat the same mistake they have made with regards to their very sizeable Palestinian refugee population. According to Lokman Slim, that is precisely what they’re doing. Which brings us to the biggest question of all: will the Syrians ever go back home? Knowing that according to UNHCR most refugees will never leave.

And until then? We struggle to remember an earlier speaker’s words. “We must remind ourselves that Syrians have always been in Lebanon! In many regions they’ve been warmly welcomed.” This, of course, is also true. “What Lebanon most urgently needs, then, is two things: one, an official, rational policy. Two, to try and remember that we’re simply hosting an old friend.” In the current circumstances, much easier said than done. Political parties should not go into relief work but into putting efforts into political solutions, in particular in finding a comprehensive policy about the Syrian refugee crisis.

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