In the Beddawi refugee camp on the outskirts of the Lebanese city of Tripoli, a young Palestinian man named Muhammad sat next to a barricaded entrance manned by soldiers. He was chatting with friends in front of his family’s shop that sold chickens, roosters, kittens, and a caged capuchin monkey for $500.
When I asked him about Lebanon’s parliamentary elections, which took place last month, Muhammad — who declined to give his surname — gave a terse response: “It’s none of our business.”
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It’s a sentiment many Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon share. For many young Lebanese and activists, the election results were a cause for joy amid an ongoing economic crisis and rampant corruption: 14 anti-establishment independent candidates were elected to Parliament, marking a small but significant shift in Lebanon’s political landscape, which has been dominated by the same political dynasties for decades. But the country’s refugees, who face discrimination in nearly every aspect of daily life, didn’t share this momentary euphoria. For them, the elections have no silver lining, especially as the Lebanese pound loses value by the day.
In refugee enclaves throughout the country, from Beddawi and other Palestinian refugee camps to informal settlements for Syrians, refugees expressed the same hopelessness. They have long given up on their futures in Lebanon. “There is no sign that the elections will improve things,” said Osama al-Ali, the president of the Palestinian cultural club in Beddawi, “so I am not optimistic.”
The reasons for this despair are no secret. Beirut has largely refused to grant legal status to Lebanon’s refugee population since Palestinians entered the country after being forced from their homes during the 1948 war that led to the creation of Israel. Now, in addition to the country’s approximately 192,000 Palestinian refugees, Lebanon hosts nearly 1.5 million Syrians, who first came over to flee war in 2011. As of 2020, more than 80 percent of these Syrian refugees lacked legal residency.
Refugees make up around a quarter of the country’s total population — the largest refugee population per capita in the world. And that quarter lives with restricted access to employment, housing, education, and health care. Among other restrictions, refugees are barred from opening practices in most professions, from medicine to law, and they cannot buy property under their own names. Cash assistance programs from United Nations agencies through monthly transfers, often in U.S. dollars, have enabled them to keep their heads above water, but many Palestinian and Syrian refugee families have found themselves in increasingly desperate situations with the economy’s rapid deterioration.
This past election cycle, the few new independent candidates offered little hope to refugees, largely ignoring them and focusing instead on the economic crisis. Indeed, refugees — who were once scapegoated by traditional politicians for allegedly stealing jobs, burdening the civic infrastructure, and living off government subsidies — have been mainly absent in political discourse since Lebanon’s currency plummeted in late 2019. Still, persistent government-imposed discrimination is never far from sight.
On May 14, the day before the election, Nabatieh governorate and West Bekaa district ordered all municipalities to forbid Syrian refugees from leaving their homes for 38 hours in an unofficial “lockdown.” The rhetoric of the decree, referring to Syrians as “immigrants” and not “refugees,” played into the fearmongering about Syrians threatening citizens’ jobs. Later that month, a newly elected member of Parliament, Cynthia Zarazir, who emerged from the 2019 protest movement, was criticized by activists and academics for a tweet she wrote in 2016 advocating for the genocide of Syrians. In a recent interview on local television, she apologized for her choice of words but not for her position toward Syrian refugees.
Although condemned by rights groups as racist and discriminatory, curfews are frequently imposed on Syrians in Lebanon during sensitive periods, such as the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and during Ashura, when Muslims, especially Shiites, commemorate the death of Imam Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson. Hassan Fakih, the governor of Nabatieh, claimed in an interview with the Abu Dhabi-based National newspaper that curfews are a “normal procedure” and “not racist.” “This is a precautionary measure because there’s many Syrians here,” Fakih said. “We don’t want any problems.”
Mahmoud al-Kanu, a 27-year-old building security guard for a nearly vacant office space near Beirut’s port, was one of the Syrians ordered to stay inside with his family on election day in the coastal city of Saida. He had arrived in Lebanon in 2008 not as a refugee but as a construction worker. Over time, he felt lucky. Through grit and luck, he managed to receive a certificate in engineer drawing from a local academy. Three years ago, after nearly a decade of toil, he achieved his dreams. He worked as a foreman supervising six buildings for a real estate company that provided him with a car, a house, and a high salary of $1,400 per month. But as Lebanon fell deeper into economic crisis and inflation worsened, his salary began to dwindle. Then, on Aug. 4, 2020, nearly 3,000 metric tons of ammonium nitrate exploded at Beirut’s port and killed at least 218 people — including his 15-year-old sister, Cidra, and at least 40 other Syrians.
Shortly after his sister’s death, Kanu’s family moved to Saida, but he stays and works near Beirut’s port five days a week. On top of the trauma, Kanu struggles to pay for the expensive costs daily medicine that his family members, who were injured by the blast, need. “I don’t have a choice but to work, pay off my debt, and try to leave to the West,” he said, staring into the distance as his legs rattled against a plastic chair inside the building where he works in Beirut. “It was only after the explosion that I thought of leaving and registered as a refugee.” (Being registered qualifies him for an asylum application, improving his chances to leave the country.)
Despite not technically being a refugee prior to the blast, Kanu was still a victim of anti-Syrian vitriol but tolerated it because of his comfortable lifestyle. After the blast, however, he came to realize what most refugees have long felt: that there is no security in the country. On the day of the blast, he struggled to find a hospital to treat his wounded family members due to Lebanese receiving preferential treatment in a country already struggling with limited resources.
Even though Syrian refugees receive little support from the Lebanese government, poor Lebanese across the country frequently complain that Syrians get more assistance and live better than they do, since they often receive U.S. dollars from international organizations, including the U.N. refugee agency, or UNHCR. Since the 2019 economic crash, Lebanese society has been divided between the few elites who have dollars and the majority of the population who have to use an unstable Lebanese pound, which has lost between around 80 and 90 percent of its value in the past year depending on the daily black market exchange rate. Yet claims that refugees are living better than poor Lebanese are hard to back, since the amount refugees receive is usually barely enough to get by and depends on many factors, including how many humanitarian organizations they are registered with. In addition, some organizations provide them with Lebanese pounds, not dollars.
Parallel suffering between poor Lebanese and refugees is particularly visible in Arsal, a town on the border near Syria’s Qalamoun Mountains. As I crossed into town in an SUV belonging to a humanitarian organization, the soldier manning the town’s checkpoint joked that he wished he were Syrian so we could help him.
Many refugees crossed the Qalamoun Mountains to reach Lebanon at the beginning of Syria’s war, eventually outnumbering the Lebanese population living near the border. (The rugged mountains are notorious for becoming a home base for several Syrian Islamist rebels — including Islamic State fighters who were kicked out when the Lebanese and Syrian armies, alongside the militant group Hezbollah, launched a major offensive in 2017.)
Among the large numbers of those who crossed over is a small community of Lebanese returnees, who are only Lebanese on paper. After spending their whole lives in Syria, these Lebanese citizens returned alongside Syrian refugees when the war started in 2011. Now, they feel like refugees in their parents’ country, and, unable to pay for housing, some have built tents outside the informal settlements typically inhabited by Syrians scattered across the landscape.
They say there are at least a couple thousand Lebanese returnee families like them in similar positions and that the Norwegian Refugee Council has been the only humanitarian association receptive to their complaints, providing them with wood and plastic sheets to build tents. Their exact number is unknown, but in 2015, humanitarian organizations registered more than 28,000 Lebanese returnees.
When I asked a Lebanese family of 13 who had recently moved into a tent if they felt Lebanese, Aziza Faris, the mother, looked at me and replied sarcastically: “Is this how Lebanese live?”
She was referring to the bare tent. A small, rusted stovetop lay on a bare concrete floor attached to a gas canister and two teapots — no sink. Unlike Syrians, Lebanese returnees do not receive support from UNHCR because they have Lebanese passports. On the other hand, local municipalities do not prioritize them because they consider the returnees part of the refugee community.
They are only acknowledged in the forms of promises and bribes by some politicians from traditional parties when it is election time because of their ability to vote.
Aziza Faris’s husband, fellow Lebanese returnee Ahmed Faris, who works in a rock quarry despite recently having open-heart surgery, explained that in 2018, he and his wife voted for Sunni candidate Bakr Hujeiri, who was allied with then-Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri. Hujeiri promised to help the family find Faris’s brother, who was arbitrarily arrested in Syria early on in the war. His whereabouts are still unknown almost a decade later.
“Why would we vote this year? They didn’t help us at all last time,” Faris said.