UNHCR warns of rising tensions between Lebanese nationals and Syrian refugees

BEIRUT: In recent weeks in Lebanon, there has been a series of violent attacks and other crimes committed by Lebanese against Syrian refugees and vice versa.

The attacks have led to an increase in discriminatory rhetoric targeting Syrian refugees in Lebanon, while popular support for their repatriation to Syria has also grown as the situation in Syria is widely perceived to have improved enough to allow refugees to return home.

Indeed, the country’s acting Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, recently threatened “to take an undesirable stance towards Western countries, by illegally repatriating refugees (if) the international community does not cooperate”.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Lebanon has been a strong advocate for the refugees.

In a statement, the UNHCR expressed its “serious concern over restrictive practices and discriminatory measures activated on the basis of nationality, which affect refugees and other marginalized groups”.

UNHCR spoke of “increased tensions between different groups, particularly violence against refugees, which is leading to an escalation of acts of violence on the ground in many districts and neighborhoods”.

He said the economic crisis in Lebanon is “terribly affecting everyone, especially the most vulnerable”, and warned the Lebanese authorities that “the continued support provided by the international community to Lebanon – which hosts refugees – is a matter very important that guarantees food security and other necessary needs.

UNHCR has called on the Lebanese authorities to “guarantee the rule of law and bring an early end to violence and discrimination against people residing on Lebanese territory”.

There are an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon, of whom 900,000 are registered by UNHCR as refugees living in camps. The vast majority of Syrian refugees in Lebanon face extremely difficult living conditions, whether they are in the camps or living and working in the country.

The situation also appears to be getting worse: Lebanese officials have begun to claim that Syrian refugees are partly responsible for the severe shortage of bread in the country, as they consume large quantities of subsidized wheat.

Some bakeries in areas hosting Syrian refugees have resorted to segregation, forcing refugees to show identification and wait in long queues, separated from other customers. When served, they are only allowed one packet of bread per family, as some Syrian refugees have been accused of sending their children to bakeries to buy bread which they then resell on the black market.

Maher Al-Masri, coordinator of the Arsal camps in the Bekaa region of northern Lebanon, near the Syrian border, painted a brighter picture saying: “We share the same food with the Lebanese in the region who welcomes us and if anything bad happens to the refugees, the Lebanese residents of Arsal rush to defuse the situation.

But one of the camp leaders said: “We no longer go to bakeries to buy bread. We now buy flour and bake our bread in the camp to avoid coming into contact with the anger of the Lebanese.

The Lebanese Progressive Socialist Party warned that “the worrying escalation of these problems could lead to dangerous options that widen social gaps and increase poverty and racism”.

It already seems to be happening. On Friday, a Lebanese man was stabbed to death by Syrian refugees in Jnah, Beirut, after an argument. Another Lebanese was killed on July 19 in Mirna Chalouhi. He was stabbed 19 times. They said the victim was killed by “Syrian refugees who accused him of having a physical relationship with one of the Syrian refugees.”

Social media platforms have been flooded with inflammatory comments demanding the repatriation of Syrian refugees. But it later turned out that the killer was in fact a Lebanese and a friend of the deceased, whom he allegedly murdered because of a family dispute.

On July 21, a 13-year-old Syrian boy, Khaled Hammoud Al-Saleh, was killed after being assaulted by a Lebanese man and his sons in the southern region of Sarafand.

On July 24, a camp in the Akkar region of northern Lebanon was set on fire by family members of Diab Khouweilid, 43, father of seven, whose body was discovered by the sea in Qlayaat after being missing for two days. His family suspected that one or more camp residents had information about Khouweilid’s death.

The fire affected 85 of the camp’s 90 tents and camp residents were forced to leave to avoid further violence. Most of them lost their belongings.

Lebanon’s acting minister for displaced persons, Issam Charafeddine, is due to travel to Damascus to discuss the Syrian refugee repatriation plan. Charafeddin said the plan is to repatriate 15,000 refugees each month, despite warnings from international organizations against coercive repatriation after reports of crimes against a number of repatriated refugees.

Syrian refugee activists in Lebanon said in a statement: “Refugees in host areas avoid tensions. Syrian refugees are suffering from the economic crisis in Lebanon, like the Lebanese. The issue of repatriation awaits practical solutions. We hear appeals and statements from Lebanese officials, but we have not yet received anything from the UNHCR.

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