Syrian refugee settlement,
Bekaa valley, Lebanon
The sign placed by Lebanese General Security and Tourism officials on the western side of the Masnaa border crossing from Syria to Lebanon greets arrivals. It reads: "WELCOME TO BROTHERLY LEBANON."[tag]
Well at least it used to. That is until some obvious miscreant recently defaced the fine sign and wrote with a red magic marker: "These words are a sick joke and an obscenity!" She or he apparently felt obliged to correct the sign, so for now at least, Lebanon's Welcome sign at the Masnaa border crossing corrupts a bit St. Matthew's 11:25-30 account of Jesus Christ ministering to refugees and reads: 'Abandon all hope ye from Syria and Palestine who travail are heavy laden and who seek refuge here."
For the past year or longer, Lebanese officials have been unwittingly metastasizing Da'ish (ISIS) inside Lebanon from the border of occupied Palestine south up to Tartus Syria up north. This is one, but not the only consequence of Lebanon's intensification of its multifaceted and self-destructive assault on refugees from Syria who are fleeing here for their lives. Many Lebanese officials from across the fragile sectarian spectrum are neglecting their legal, political and moral obligations, remaining silent when one of their grandstanding cabinet colleagues proclaims to applause that "Refugees from Syria give off a 'terrorism radiation' and we don't want them." When a government's own refugees minister labels Syrian refugees a "gangrenous and radioactive terror threat", jihadists rejoice, shouting "Allah Akbar!", and more black ISIS flags flutter in Lebanon.
Three months ago, Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas, avoiding even the R-word ("refugee") which he claims makes him gag, announced that Lebanon "no longer officially receives any displaced Syrians". He advised AFP that "the new visa requirement is intended to prevent Syrians from taking refuge in Lebanon." Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center sharply demurred arguing that the visa measures were a result of Lebanon's own failure to implement a refugee policy early in the Syrian conflict. Khatib said Lebanese concern about the refugee influx was "both real and exaggerated." Admitting that wages have gone down and rents have increased, but also that Lebanese employers have exploited Syrians willing to work for lower wages. The BBC's Middle East correspondent Paul Wood reported recently from Mashha in northern Lebanon that one resident told him" "I used to earn $1,000 a month. They (Lebanese employers) sacked me, and hired four Syrians instead."
Unlike Jordan and Turkey, Lebanon has rejected the advice of the UN and has refused to create refugee camps, meaning refugees are dispersed throughout the country and setting the stage for a humanitarian nightmare. Lebanon's complex sectarian make-up also plays a role given that most Syrian refugees are Sunni Muslims, like the Palestinian refugees before them, raising fears they could change the country's delicate sectarian balance. This fear is irrational. The reason is because neither Palestinians nor Syrian refugees want to stay in Lebanon with its fatal sectarianism and it is estimated by UNWRA and UNHCR that more than 95% of each group of refugees will depart Lebanon for Palestine and Syria just as soon as they can go home.
This week Lebanon is doing jihadists another favor while adding to its own already deeply deplorable record of human rights abuses toward women, children, domestic workers, and Palestinian refugees, among others. Deprivations of elementary civil rights that are making Da'ish (ISIS) somehow more appealing in the eyes of many Sunni refugees seeking temporary sanctuary from a conflict that has killed more than a quarter million of their countrymen and displacing at least ten million according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.
Until seven months ago Syrians who entered Lebanon through an official border crossing, and who were in possession of a passport or Syrian ID card, could receive a free six-month visa, renewable one time, and a residency permit without charge. Subsequent renewals required payment of a US$ 200 fee, and many who could not return to Syria or afford the new fee were forced to stay on illegally. On 2 June 2014, the Lebanese government changed the entry requirements for Syrians and blocked entry to all Syrians except those who could provide proof that they came from areas where there is fighting near the Lebanese border. Anyone who returned to Syria from Lebanon lost their refugee status and could not return.
Syrian refugees have been denied the right to seek asylum and some have been forcibly returned to Syria by the Lebanese authorities without even a grace period. The new unannounced changes led to families being separated, gain in violation of international refugee law.
As of this week, and for the first time since its independence in 1943, Lebanon requires a visa for Syrians, Something Syria has historically not required from any Arab country. This means that more than 90% of Syrian refugees fleeing for their lives and appearing at the Lebanon border will be forced back to Syria to face their fate. Lebanon is imposing unprecedented new restrictions on the entry of Syrians, requiring them to provide the length and intention of their stay with nearly impossible to satisfy Kafkaesque restrictions, in an effort to block them from entering. UNHCR, the UN's refugee body, fears the measures mean that Syrians fleeing violence in their own country are now blocked at the border.
As of this week, all Syrians must apply for one of six types of entry visas in Lebanon: business, medical, student, tourist, transit and "short stay." The key omission, and in fact the real reason for these new visa requirements, is that Lebanon has just eliminated the very concept of a refugee entry visa for Syrians. Ron Redmond, a senior UNHCG representative, advised the media yesterday that "The UN understands the reasons Lebanon cites for doing this, but at the same time our job is to ensure the refugees aren't pushed back to someplace where they may be in grave danger."
Omar Ghannoum, who works for an international aid organization that offers legal advice to Syrian refugees, told Germany's broadcaster Deutsche Welle recently that Syrians in Lebanon cannot move around freely anymore. These refugees live in permanent fear of being caught by the police. They tend to stay at home, which means that they cannot go to work and thus cannot pay their rent. It's a vicious circle."