On the corniche in Beirut, the Lebanese capital’s seaside promenade, I recently witnessed the following scene: four Syrian boys who looked to be in their early teens were harmlessly partaking of some snacks on a bench when two members of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF) descended upon them on bicycles. Identity papers were demanded, one of the boys was physically searched, and another was made to get down on his hands and knees and painstakingly collect every last sunflower seed shell that had accumulated at the group’s feet while one of the cops inexplicably took photographs of him. (They’ll surely make a great addition to any future brochure showcasing the ISF’s services.)
When my companion approached the boys afterward to ask for details, they claimed the intervention was triggered by their Syrian accents — a plausible hypothesis given the fact that the Lebanese present on the corniche continued to blissfully scatter remnants of their own snacks without meriting attention from the forces of law and order.
The boys added that the police had asked them if they also littered in their own country — to which they had appropriately responded that they could not properly dispose of the sunflower seed shells because the Lebanese government had nowhere to put Beirut’s trash. Indeed, willful incompetence on the part of the state has resulted in an ongoing rubbish crisis, which has meant that, for the past several months, sizable sectors of the capital and environs have found themselves inundated with festering garbage. Needless to say, much of this waste is far less biodegradable than sunflower seeds.
Profiling and harassment are only two of the ways the Lebanese government has complicated Syrian refugee existence. Last October, for example, it flat out stopped admitting refugees, and now requires the ones already present to pay an annual fee of US$200 to remain in the country. A host of other requirements further defy logic: refugees must provide a notarized pledge not to work in Lebanon, as well as copies of a lease agreement or property deed. For refugees who are both poor and forcibly jobless, it’s anyone’s guess where the money for housing — or the US$200 — is supposed to come from.
The state’s selective xenophobia has naturally been replicated by sectors of the Lebanese citizenry. Syrian-specific curfews have been intermittently enforced by vigilantes in certain areas, and some tented settlements for refugees have been victims of arson. Less hands-on opposition to the refugee presence is practiced by elite bar and restaurant patrons who limit themselves to bemoaning the unaesthetic landscape of Syrian child beggars.
It’s thus not exactly clear which “Lebanon” the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, is talking about in its 2015 country operations profile, where it applauds “Lebanon’s exceptional hospitality” and “pro-active engagement in refugee issues.” The profile also makes the bizarre contention that “refugees have access to most basic services through public institutions, where the authorities continue to play an active role in facilitating response coordination and planning.” In reality, access to basic services is something that can’t even be said for much of the Lebanese population itself—and forget coordination in a place where authorities haven’t been able to choose a president since May 2014.
Among the U.N.’s own current services in Lebanon is the monthly allotment of US$13.50 to each registered refugee for food purchases — i.e., approximately one-gazillionth of the salaries some U.N. personnel have been known to earn in the country. For various reasons, many refugees are unregistered, like these 200 people living in the dark basement of an abandoned factory amidst pools of water.
The UNHCR profile stresses that “an effective display of international solidarity and support is vital for Lebanon” to adequately carry out refugee-hosting responsibilities. But the problem with this formula is that much of the solidarity that arrives in the form of aid money is swiftly funneled into the pockets of politicians — an unsurprising state of affairs given Lebanon’s institutionalized corruption. As for other ostensibly philanthropic efforts, refugees I spoke with recently in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley gave less than rave reviews to many of the NGOs operating in the area, which they described as inept at best and overtly profit-motivated at worst.
As I noted in an article for Middle East Eye, refugee troubles begin at the very start of the life cycle. At several Bekaa Valley hospitals, 75 percent of the costs for delivering the babies of Syrian refugees are covered by the UNHCR, but the inability of many families to make up the difference can lead to the confiscation of the mother’s refugee card until the bills are paid — or, in some cases, the in-hospital detention of the newborn itself.
Meanwhile, returning to Syria to either give birth or register a birth means the mother is barred from re-entering Lebanon with refugee status. A 2014 survey cited by the UNHCR found that 72 percent of 5,779 Syrian newborns in Lebanon lacked an official birth certificate, adding to the agency’s estimated “tens of thousands of stateless people” in the country.
At the moment, Lebanon is home to some 2 million Syrian refugees, both registered and not, which means that refugees now comprise a full third of the entire Lebanese population. It remains to be seen what sort of future is in store for a country that regularly dehumanizes and criminalizes such a substantial chunk of its populace, but for the time being it’s safe to confirm Lebanon’s status as a non-refuge.
Belén Fernández is the author of “The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work,” published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.