Syrian refugees in Lebanon face growing restrictions and deportation

Thirteen years since Syria’s civil war broke out, Lebanon remains home to the largest Syrian refugee population per capita in the world: roughly 1.5 million people. Now, Lebanese politicians say they must be sent home. Many employers have stopped hiring Syrians for menial jobs. And municipalities have issued new restrictions, even evicting Syrian tenants, according to recent news reports.

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Maha Rahma was 7 years old when she lost her mother to Alzheimer’s disease.

Since then, she has dreamed of studying the brain, finding out why this disease killed her mother.

“I want to help other people avoid it,” she said.

But life has had other plans for her. When she was 9, war broke out in Syria. Rahma’s city, Homs, came under siege, with government forces cutting it off from the outside world for more than two years. She recalled constant shelling and sniper fire and that people starved.

Rahma’s family managed to escape. On a cold, December day in 2013, they crammed into her uncle’s car and drove to Lebanon. There were a few checkpoints, Rahma said, but they had no problem getting through.

Rahma’s family is among 1.5 million Syrians who have fled to Lebanon, a country of about 5 million. 

Thirteen years since conflict broke out in Syria, Lebanon remains home to the world’s largest Syrian refugee population per capita. Now, Lebanese politicians say they must be sent home. In recent months, many employers have stopped hiring Syrians, and some municipalities have issued new restrictions and even evicted Syrian tenants, according to news reports.

Maha Rahma only had a year and a half left of her studies at a private college in Lebanon but she says she hasn’t been able to renew her residency and so she can’t register to finish her studies.Shirin Jaafari/The World

 For Rahma, life in Lebanon has not been easy.

For weeks after she and her family had moved to the country, Rahma heard the sounds of shelling in her head. She would wake up in the middle of the night, terrified, thinking she was still in Homs.

Slowly, Rahma’s family started to build a life for themselves in the Beqqa Valley in central Lebanon. Her father found work as a blacksmith. Her stepmom volunteered at a charity.

Rahma went to school.

“It was tough,” she recalled. “The Lebanese education system put up one hurdle after another.”

She had to go back a year, because they wouldn’t transfer her credits, she said. In the end, Rahma managed to pass her baccalaureate exams, and at 23, she now attends a private college in Lebanon.

Neurology wasn’t an option at this college, she said, so she picked the closest field available: biochemistry. For a few years, it seemed like Rahma was getting closer and closer to earning  her degree. Until it was time to renew her residency papers.

To do that, she was told she has to have her school certificate from Syria approved in Lebanon. But each time she tried to do so, she ran into more bureaucracy.

“It’s like we go round in circles,” she said. 

Without her residency papers renewed, Rahma can’t continue her education. And she’s not alone. She said many of her Syrian classmates are facing similar problems.

‘They have to go back’

There has been a rise in anti-Syrian sentiments in Lebanon since 2019, said Dalal Harb, spokesperson for the United Nations refugee agency in Lebanon.

“Lebanon is going through its worst economic crisis in its modern history, and this is not an easy situation at all,” Harb said.

Last year, roughly 14,000 Syrians were subjected to deportations or pushback operations that were conducted by the Lebanese army, aid groups say, a dramatic increase compared to the 1,500 documented cases in the previous year.

Harb said the recent killing of a Christian political figure, Pascal Sleiman, has added to the anti-Syrian sentiments in Lebanon.

Suleiman was abducted and killed on April 7. A day later, his body was found in Syria. The Lebanese army accused Syrians of Sleiman’s murder.

“There is no room for them to stay here. They have to go back to Syria,” said Naji Emile Hayek, vice president of the Free Patriotic Movement in Lebanon, a Christian party. 

He said that the Syrian refugees coming to Lebanon claim they’re fleeing the Syrian civil war, but in reality, this is an economic invasion.

“They claim that they cannot go back to Syria but the fact of the matter is they are here typically for financial reasons because here, they can make more money,” Hayek said. “The UNHCR and some European countries, what they do is they tell you ‘if you stay in Lebanon, then we’ll give you $100, $200 a month.’ So, they come.”

Hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel are at an all-time high, he added, so Lebanon is not much safer than Syria. He said that Syrians are better off going back home.

But human rights organizations like Amnesty International have documented cases in which Syrian security forces have detained, tortured and killed refugees who returned.

“Human rights organizations unanimously agree: no part of Syria is safe for refugee returns. Lebanon’s authorities must stop summarily deporting refugees to a place where they are at risk of violations, lift restrictions and end their vitriolic campaign against refugees. EU countries similarly have a legal and moral obligation to refrain from forcibly turning back boats carrying migrants to Lebanon,” Amnesty’s deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, Aya Majzoub,” said in May.

Harb of UNHCR explained that the majority of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon say they want to return to Syria, but that they need to feel safe and have access to basic necessities like housing and health care.

“The presence of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is not driven by the assistance provided to them here,” Harb said, “but it is driven by the situation in Syria.”

‘Not a life I want to live’

Abed Ali Ibrahim, who fled from Syria to Lebanon in 2014, said that he worries that he and his family could soon be uprooted again.

Ibrahim has been out of work for about four months because his former employer refused to sponsor his residency. 

“My situation is terrible,” he said from the small apartment that he and his family rents in west Beirut.

Abed Ali Ibrahim stands in the balcony of his apartment in West Beirut.Shirin Jaafari/The World

“I’m jobless and I still have to pay rent, electricity and everything else. Sometimes, we go without food.”

Ibrahim has six children — two of them were born in Lebanon. None of them have residency, he said.

Syria is not safe for them, Ibrahim said: “You either have to be on the side of the government or the opposition. It’s not safe for my children.”

For now, he said, he lives in limbo, unsure of what to do. He can’t work without current residency papers.

With little choice left, Ibrahim said he is considering making the unsafe journey on a boat to Europe.

“This is not a life I want to live,” Ibrahim said.

Related: An abandoned hotel in southern Lebanon has become a sanctuary for dozens of displaced families

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