Refugees Deserve a Place in Lebanon’s Uprising

An anti-government protester walks with a Lebanese national flag past a broken window in downtown Beirut.

Source IBRAHIM AMRO/Getty

Why you should care

Because solidarity cuts both ways.

Lebanon’s nationwide revolt that erupted last month has spawned street parties, mob attacks and a rare display of solidarity that has defied sectarian lines. Yet despite the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri last week, the revolution won’t be complete until the entire political system changes.

In Lebanon, the system dates to 1943, when Muslim and Christian political elites came together to form the National Pact. The document allocated the office of the president, prime minister and speaker of Parliament to a Maronite Christian, Sunni Muslim and Shiite Muslim, respectively. Seats in Parliament were also distributed along sectarian lines to reflect a faulty demographic census from 1932.  

For decades, the Constitution made Lebanon susceptible to foreign meddling, state paralysis and acute political tension, culminating in the 15-year civil war (1975–1990). The Taif Agreement, which ended the war, restored the fractured political system — with few modifications — as warlords and oligarchs assumed power.

Nearly 30 years later, Lebanese citizens from all religious faiths stand largely united in ushering in a post-sectarian political order: And Palestinian and Syrian refugees are standing behind them.

As one of the biggest victims of Lebanon’s sectarian system, refugees have a legitimate claim to protest, not just as allies, but as people whose fates are at the mercy of the system.  

Lebanon, after all, hosts nearly 1.5 million Palestinian and Syrian refugees combined. It’s a figure that amounts to a quarter of Lebanon’s population and puts the United States and the European Union to shame for how few refugees they have resettled in recent years.

But since the end of Lebanon’s civil war, the political class has scapegoated refugees to distract from its failure to provide basic services, stimulate the economy or mitigate the rampant mismanagement of state funds. And with parliamentary seats distributed equally among Christian and Muslim MPs — as stipulated in the Taif Agreement — politicians have continued to frame Syrians and Palestinians as a demographic threat.

In their view, any effort to improve refugees’ lives could encourage their permanent settlement, thus tipping Lebanon’s delicate sectarian balance in favor of Sunni Muslims.

Politicians have used that argument to justify banning nearly 200,000 Palestinians from working in 25 highly skilled professions, owning property or making basic repairs in the camps. Just consider that, on average, one Palestinian living in Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp dies each month from getting entangled and electrocuted in a web of dangling high-voltage wires. Such preventable deaths are common in the camps, while employment restrictions also push youths to join militias and gangs.

The situation for Syrians isn’t much better. Most are excluded or exploited in the labor force and face multiple barriers to obtain legal status. And just last month, Human Rights Watch reported that at least 2,731 Syrians were deported between May 21 and August 29 for entering Lebanon through an unofficial border.

Three of the men returned to Syria were reportedly detained by President Bashar Assad’s regime, which is notorious for interrogating, jailing and torturing perceived dissidents.

Yet despite lacking legal status, Syrians have joined demonstrations across the country. Those with legal status have done the same, although they fear they could lose their residency permits for opposing the government.

For a young woman named Maryam, who asked me not to disclose her last name for fear of reprisal, partaking in demonstrations is worth the risk. Since fleeing Syria five years ago, she believes she has a right to protest because she’s suffering from the same issues as her Lebanese counterparts. She also said that it’s a matter of principle to express solidarity with people across the region pushing for change.

“The Lebanese revolution is part of the Arab revolutions, and we have to stick together,” she told me.

For the most part, refugees have been welcomed in the protests, yet some argue that the political system that follows sectarianism should first and foremost benefit Lebanese citizens.

But the simple truth is that ending sectarianism could lead to the removal of crippling legal restrictions against refugees, while also ushering in a government that is genuinely concerned for its citizens. The very absence of sectarianism eliminates the argument that refugees pose a demographic threat and opens the possibility for Palestinians and Syrians to settle in Lebanon if they choose.

Refugees like Majdi Adam, a 44-year-old Palestinian, have long considered Lebanon home. But while he’s contemplated going to the protests, he has elected to stay on the sidelines for now. “More Palestinians want to join, but we’re afraid that Lebanese people will ask us, ‘What is your business here?’” he told me inside the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut.

Palestinians and Syrians also fear that politicians will scapegoat them for instigating demonstrations. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has already accused protesters of receiving foreign support and participating in a wider conspiracy to weaken Lebanon. The irony is striking considering that the Shiite militant group is financed and supported by Iran.

Some Lebanese protesters nonetheless appeared shocked by the accusation, but many Palestinians and Syrians weren’t surprised. As refugees, they have long been framed as a security threat and robbed of their political agency. I only hope that as Lebanon gears up for more protests, refugees are heard and embraced on the streets.

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