Lebanese Perceptions of Syrian refugees in Lebanon
How can the observer of Lebanese politics not be sensitive to the repercussions of the Syrian civil war in Lebanon, which has been ongoing now for nearly three years ? Not only do these issues generate constant media and political debates, they are a central influence in the formation of the Lebanese government itself. More than one million Syrians are living in Lebanon (out of approximately four million Lebanese people), more than 800,000 of them are registered with the UNHCR as refugees. While these “displaced” are welcomed, helped and supported by Lebanese families, NGOs and municipalities, they also suffer from the prejudices, discrimination, exploitation, and violence that is rife in the Lebanese republic. The Fafo Norwegian Institute for Labour and Social Research produced a survey, in partnership with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at AUB, whose results allow us to present and criticise Lebanese perceptions of Syrian refugees. Results are available online at the following link : http://www.Fafo.no/ais/middeast/lebanon/91369-syrian-refugees.html.
Main results and historical context
Despite the inherent limits of any opinion poll, this survey has the advantage of collecting a vast array of socio-economic data on a national scale (a sample of 900 individuals composed of 56 % male and 44 % female). The study examines standard sociological variables (governorate, gender, age, religious community, employment status, level of education, family income, various forms of assistance, the number of employed family members) with perceptions of Lebanese citizens regarding satisfaction with standards of living, trust, security, and prospects for the future.
The survey reveals that Christians, Sunnis and the category of “other Muslims” (neither Sunnis nor Shiites) as well as those Lebanese in the lowest income bracket, the mohafazat of North Lebanon, and the Lebanese between the ages of 18-24 express the most vindictive perceptions towards Syrians compared to other surveyed Lebanese groups. In contrast, having received social welfare assistance, having been employed or not during the last four months, or gender categories were found to be irrelevant variables in explaining behaviours towards Syrians. Furthermore, 23 % of surveyed Lebanese mistrust “unknown people” but 40 % of them mistrust Syrians in general. However, the most relevant indicator of Syrians’ integration in Lebanon lies in mixed marriage. Yet, 82 % of Lebanese are not comfortable with marriage between Lebanese and Syrians despite the fact that the study makes no mention of gender of those married, nor their religious community.
These perceptions were produced by the recent history of Lebanon and Syria’s relations, two countries created in 1920 from old territories composing Bilad ash-Sham. Different ideologies and political interests opposed the two countries about identity issues, and from the 50’s onwards, a growing number of unskilled Syrian labourers arriving in Lebanon added a social dimension to the identity conflicts (Amnesty International counted between 400,000 and 600,000 Syrian workers in Lebanon in 2005). The different phases of the Syrian occupation (1976-2005) transformed the underlying disregard for Syrians into a larger rejection of their presence in Lebanon.
The second part of the survey presents stereotypical notions to those surveyed, revealing that the Syrian crisis completes these two perceptions with a third one : “the Syrian as a social outcast”. Economically speaking, 93 % of the Lebanese surveyed consider that Syrians are a drain on Lebanon’s natural resources. 98 % think that Syrians steal the jobs of Lebanese. 63 % see assistance to Syrians as unfair. According to the report, some refugees manage to offer their labour below market price due to the forms of assistance they receive. The Syrian workforce is cheap compared to the Lebanese one, therefore, those Lebanese from high income brackets are relatively more tolerant towards Syrians as opposed the poorer income brackets who use them as scapegoats for social issues they face.
Political insecurity risk : the ghost of the Palestinian experience
64 % of Lebanese people consider Syrians as a threat to national security and stability. If 51 % of them want the State to set up refugee camps, 70 % want these camps to be administered by the United Nations and 72 % want to prevent Syrians from living in Palestinian camps. But if the Lebanese refuse to sustain costs of refugees any longer by controlling their arrival in Lebanon, they also refuse to abandon them to their fate. The Lebanese surveyed would rather the international community pay the costs of accommodating refugees (95 %).
71 % of them say they fear sectarian strife while 67 % fear a new civil war. Thus, most of the surveyed Lebanese people consider that a deepening social crisis will repeat the crisis of 1975. Massive arrivals of Syrian refugees resonate to Lebanese as a repeat of the Palestinian refugee experience. From a temporary status of refugees, the PLO used Lebanon as a base for its operations against Israel and Palestinians and became central actors in Lebanese politics, ultimately posing a challenge to the political consensus between Christians and Sunnis at the time. If the current equilibrium between Lebanese political factions is no longer defined by opposition between Sunnis and Christians, the issue of support to the Baathist regime divides the two main Lebanese political alliances formed in February 2005 between the “8 March” and “14 March” camps.
The survey reveals that the feeling of insecurity is not linked to criminality but to political events despite the fact that criminality affects the general population to a larger degree in everyday life. These assertions are directly related to the following results: 89 % of Lebanese are against the free entrance of Syrians in Lebanon and 98% of them want to increase border controls.
Despite obvious xenophobia, several hypotheses are invalidated by the report’s results. The Shiite community along with Shiite regions (South and Bekaa) are more tolerant towards Syrians than the average Lebanese person whereas the main Shiite party (Hezbollah) is militarily involved in Syria with the regime and the arrival of more Syrians could reinforce the Sunni community in Lebanon.
Another preconception is challenged: that common Sunni communitarian affiliation brings Lebanese and Syrians closer. On the contrary, the North Governorate, and Sunnis in general, are as intolerant as the average Lebanese person who took part in this survey. The poorer populations in the North (predominantly Sunnis) sustain the high costs of Syrian refugees due to their very communitarian affiliation. However, 69 % of Lebanese would share their place of worship with Syrians although the report does not mention if a common religious sect is implied in this question.
We could imagine that the Lebanese would see Syrian refugees as new Palestinians who are expected to stay in Lebanon. Nevertheless, the study shows that 55 % of Lebanese consider that Syrian refugees will return to Syria in the next years (1 to 10) whereas only 15 % of them think that they will never go back home. However, as the Syrian civil war remains in long term conflict, numerous Syrian families could choose to settle in Lebanon thus changing these perceptions.
Finally, although Syrians are subjected to widespread xenophobia, this study suggest a more complex picture. While the Lebanese are obviously unable to take any more, they also refuse to abandon Syrians refugees to a tragic fate.
This report produces more of a snapshot of the May 2013 Syrian crisis than an in-depth analysis. The recent series of bombings targeting the Shiite community and Iranian interests in Lebanon (bombings in Dahiyeh and the bombing of the Iranian embassy in Beirut) remind us that the security situation is rapidly worsening. Perceptions of key figures and their situations may change as the crisis continues.
Mona Christophersen, Cathrine Moe Thorleifsson and Åge A. Tiltnes, Ambivalent Hospitality. Coping Strategies and Local Responses to Syrian Refugees in Lebanon, Fafo-report 2013:48. http://www.fafo.no/pub/rapp/20338/20338.pdf.
Jean-Baptiste Pesquet is a doctoral candidate in political science. He has studied in France, Lebanon, Canada and the United Kingdom. Since January 2013, he has been conducting a field survey dealing with Syrian refugees living in Lebanon in which he tackles the spiritual and existential dimensions of their political engagement. His studies also focus on islam and secularism in liberal societies.