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A young man herds sheep nearby a Syrian camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley (Hanna Davis)

Syrian Refugees in Lebanon Face Violence and Incitement

After fleeing war-torn Syria, refugees face violence and discrimination in Lebanon.

Words: Hanna Davis
Pictures: Hanna Davis

Bashir*, a 28-year-old refugee, fled Syria to escape the civil war. In neighboring Lebanon, he tended to fields working as a farmhand. But after a recent altercation with his Lebanese boss, he found himself on the receiving end of bloodshed.

On March 1, Bashir saw an argument erupting in a distant field between two of his cousins and their boss. So, he hopped on his motorcycle and sped over to see what was the matter, he recounted. 

When Bashir arrived at the scene of the dispute, he learned that his Lebanese boss had begun to push and hit his cousin, following his cousin’s refusal to pick up rocks in the field. Bashir suggested to his cousins that they leave their work for the day because of how their boss was treating them. But the boss responded by threatening to shoot them if they walked away.

When Bashir and his cousins still tried to leave, the boss ordered his son — who was also helping manage the farmhands that day — to shoot the three men. The boss’s son shot three times towards the ground, then aimed the fourth at Bashir. The bullet pierced straight through his abdomen.

“He wasn’t just trying to scare me,” Bashir said two weeks later, sitting in a hospital bed in Baalbek. “He was aiming to kill me.” 

Bashir and his family fled the Hama countryside, in Syria, at the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011. They have since worked as farmhands on a Lebanese family’s land.

Violence Increasing

Around 1.5 million Syrian refugees and some 11,645 refugees of other nationalities currently reside in Lebanon.  Smaller than the US state of Connecticut, the country hosts the largest number of refugees per capita and per square kilometer in the world.

Lebanon is also in the midst of one of its worst socio-economic crises. Although refugees like Bashir and his family endure many of the same hardships as others, including rising poverty and the decline of basic services, Lebanese politicians have meanwhile blamed them for the country’s economic woes.

He was aiming to kill me.

– Bashir*

According to the Access Center for Human Rights (ACHR), a human rights organization based in Beirut and Paris, these campaigns have intensified since April 2023 and have caused public tensions to escalate, ratcheting up violence against Syrian refugees.

The bullet broke Bashir’s pelvis, and he has severe internal damage to his organs. Even if he is able to walk normally again, his injuries will put him out of work for three to six months.  Without steady work, he won’t earn any money, he said, noting he was earning about $10 a day. Worse still, like most Syrians in Lebanon, Bashir doesn’t have insurance, so the hospital fees will cost him around $6,500.

Bashir has a broken pelvis bone and suffered severe organ damage as a result of the gunshot (Hanna Davis)
Bashir has a broken pelvis bone and suffered severe organ damage as a result of the gunshot (Hanna Davis)

“If I was Lebanese, he wouldn’t have shot me,” he added. “This is the first time I was shot, but it happens a lot to Syrians here. We don’t just hear about violence [by Lebanese]; we see it.”

Anti-Refugee Incitement

Part of a campaign to target Syrians in the country, anti-refugee billboards now line Lebanon’s roads and major highways. A series of videos broadcasted on social media and television have accompanied the campaign. Sami Saab, one of the organizers, recently told the Arabic-language outlet al-Hurra that the campaign “shed[s] light on a serious issue, which is the presence of displaced Syrians.”

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, an official within the Lebanese Forces party insisted that Lebanon isn’t “against the Syrians.” The official said, “We are doing all that we can to make sure they have the best living conditions, but unfortunately, we are in a crisis ourselves.” 

The LF official described Lebanon as a “very tiny country” that “cannot sustain” the number of refugees it hosts. He added the larger and richer Arab and European countries should do more to help: “They put the blame on us, but no country in the world has dealt with Syrians the way we have accepting 1.5 million refugees in a country of just four million.”

He echoed other Lebanese politicians, adding: “They can return to Syria; Syria is no longer in a state of war.”

However, rights groups have documented the arbitrary detention, torture, enforced disappearance, and other gross human rights violations Syrians have faced upon returning to their country.

“Racist Campaign” 

President of the Center for Lebanese Human Rights (CLDH), Wadih al-Asmar, described the “UNDO The Damage” campaign as “a pure racist campaign done by someone with politically-motivated intentions.” He said that since the onset of the economic crisis in 2019, politicians have been placing the blame on Syrians as their “best escape route for all their political and economic failures.”

Al-Asmar added that the racist rhetoric against has a “direct link” to the rise in hate crimes and bias incidents towards Syrians on the streets. “At the end of the day, when you spread hate from the top level, definitely, on the ground you will have people going to act,” he said.  

Billboards from the “UNDO The Damage Campaign” along the Beirut-Damascus International Highway (Hanna Davis)
Billboards from the “UNDO The Damage Campaign” along the Beirut-Damascus International Highway (Hanna Davis)

One young Syrian man who recently endured an attack said racist gang-like groups patrol certain neighborhoods, leaving them “off-limits” to Syrians. Lebanese security forces often simply ignore these acts of violence. Other times, they are themselves complicit in the abuse of Syrians. 

Rights groups have documented five incidents since the beginning of this year of Lebanese citizens assaulting Syrians in the presence of security forces. In a recent incident on March 8, assailants tied a Syrian refugee to a pole in Beirut, then beat and dragged the victim in a humiliating way to a security forces vehicle, according to ACHR.

A recent ACHR investigation also found that the Lebanese army subjected Syrian refugees to cruel and degrading treatment, such as torture and sexual harassment, during their arbitrary detention as part of the army’s ongoing deportation campaign.

No Protection 

In 2015, the Lebanese government ordered UNHCR to stop registering Syrian refugees. The government has since imposed strict regulations that have made it extremely difficult for Syrians to renew their residency papers. The vast majority, or around 80%, of Syrians in Lebanon, do not have legal residency, which poses a host of legal challenges when they face attacks. “If they go to file a case, they could be arrested because they don’t have [legal] papers,” al-Asmar said.

For his part, Bashir said he is under pressure not to press charges against his boss, who his family depends on for their employment. “We don’t have anyone other than him,” he explained. “We can’t return to Syria.” 

He said his boss offered to pay for the hospital fees if he doesn’t press charges, but guarantees remained elusive.

Bashir’s wife holds their newborn child beside their oldest daughter (Hanna Davis)
Bashir’s wife holds their newborn child beside their oldest daughter (Hanna Davis)

Meanwhile, Bashir has a wife, young daughter, and a newborn baby girl at home who depend on his support.

“I’ve lost my pride,” Bashir said. “How could this situation happen to me? If I don’t work, will I get shot and killed?,” he asked with frustration. 

Danger and violence surround Bashir and his family from their hometown of Hama to the Lebanese Bekaa Valley. A few miles away from the field where a bullet tore into Bashir, the Lebanese army has been violently raiding camps and deporting Syrian refugees by the dozens. 

Even while receiving treatment in the Baalbek hospital, Bashir was not safe. Bashir’s bed shook when an Israeli airstrike hit just steps away from the hospital last week — Lebanon also embroiled in the Gaza war. “On top of getting shot, we got bombed right next to the hospital,” Bashir said. “Wherever we go, we have problems.” 

*With additional reporting by Yasmina Andary.

Hanna Davis

Hanna Davis is a freelance journalist reporting on politics, foreign policy, and humanitarian affairs.

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