On the Syrian Tourism Boom in Lebanon
by Sandra Hetzl
(original German first appeared earlier this month at the website of the publishing house Mikrotext, on the occasion of their release of the book by Assaf Alassaf, Abu Jürgen: My Life with the German Ambassador, in Sandra’s German translation)
“These migrants aren’t coming to us from warzones. They are coming from camps in the states neighboring Syria[…] They were safe there.”
—Viktor Orbán, September 2015
Never read the comments, goes the saying. Especially not the ones that promptly stack up under articles about refugees or Syria. In these horrendous pileups, the same few key words and arguments crop up over and over again, and have attained a widespread currency that demands they be dealt with.
For example, there is the fatuous debate around suspicious sightings of…smartphones, of all things, which are apparently an index for judging the wealth of their owners. Or the well-circulated tales of well-fed, well-dressed, mostly young and male refugees.
Here is one such example, a reader’s comment under an article in Der Freitag (“Die falsche Freundin,” 11 September 2015):
“Please don’t get me wrong: YES to the women and children fleeing warzones. NO to the strong young men. They should stay and fight.”
Some commenters go so far as to accuse Syrian refugees of cowardice for leaving their wives and children behind in a warzone. Others even speak of desertion and treason.
As nonsensical as it is to get upset about the online excretions of strangers, these, in all their ignorance and antipathy, point to real and actual gaps and cracks in the current discourse around asylum.
It shouldn’t come as much surprise when these kinds of spurious assertions filter into the speeches of radical rightwing politicians. But even in the counterarguments deployed by the left, these myths are not entirely disposed of; certainly not in the many recent attempts newspapers, television programs, and online media have made to confront the most widely proliferating false arguments around the issue of refugees and break them down with facts.
Until winter 2014, Syrian war refugees in possession of valid travel papers could receive a six-month tourist visa at the border. The Syrians who fled to Lebanon before winter 2014 were, officially, tourists.
Indeed, the three myths that I find most enraging are brought up in every such attempt, and are never completely dealt with, easy as it would be to neutralize them for good with thorough information.
The problem seems to be blind spots, gaps in knowledge, and logical errors that pervade the entire asylum debate—in all public discourse, in the media, and in politics. So I am reluctantly wading into the fray. In the following essay, I will take up three recurring theses about refugees and break them down once and for all using local context that seems to have escaped the attention of most.
“They’re rich! We’re getting taken for a ride!”
One argument we hear over and over again from those who are leery of or opposed to admitting refugees into Europe is the smartphone argument: “But they all have smartphones. They’re not that bad off.” Stylish clothing and outward good health, also evidently symbolizing prosperity, are also often cleverly mentioned as indicating that these refugees aren’t in as dire need of help as they are often portrayed. This is meant to suggest, of course, that they have no real claims to asylum.
So let’s talk about asylum. In actual fact, poverty does not appear among the grounds for asylum enumerated in the United Nations’ 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or in Article 16a of the German constitution, which two documents serve as the legal underpinnings of the asylum process, to take the example of Germany. So the economic situation of a refugee does not factor into the decision to admit or refuse him. (As will be discussed later in this essay: at least when we are talking about Syrian refugees in Europe, it is most often a “him.” Please withhold judgment for now).
On the contrary: the supposed wealth in question here, evidenced by the inane presence of a smartphone, would seem to run counter to all the allegations, made by many of the same critics, around questions of so-called “economic migrants.” This is a political catchphrase used mostly as a term of derision, similar to the idea of a “sham refugee,” meant to downplay the seriousness—or even deny—refugees’ reasons for fleeing as well as to imply that they are breaking the law and abusing the asylum process.
I admit to finding this all somewhat confusing: this line of reasoning, smartphone = wealth = in no need of protection = economic migrant, is a paradox at every step.
Still, the current counterarguments, while they may not be wrong, entirely, buy into and in effect concede this illogic.
“No, they are poor! That’s why we’re helping them!”
It is commonly objected that a) the refugees’ smartphones aren’t expensive and therefore don’t indicate wealth; b) that beyond the precious smartphones, refugees have no other belongings at all (in other words, one can fine well be poor and in need of help and still own a smartphone); and c) that a smartphone is the only way for a refugee to stay in touch with family and to stay oriented during his perilous journey. This is the way, for example, that Die Zeit attempted to dispense with the smartphone mythology in the 13 September 2015 article “Fact-Checking Common Prejudices Against Asylum-Seekers.”
In trying to relativize something that need not be relativized, one gets pulled into the twisted argumentations of the right, and forgets to defend what really needs defending: the right to asylum.
The definition codified in the UN Convention on Refugees, which determines who “counts” as a refugee, doesn’t contain a single thing about whether someone is rich or poor. Here are the words of Article I of this Convention, which is, once again, the foundation of international asylum law. It defines a refugee as a person who, “owing to a well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or…unwilling to return to it.”
Someone fleeing persecution has the right of asylum, even if he owns an iPhone 6S. Even if he were a millionaire.
Two Syrian friends of mine, who fled Lebanon for Turkey a few months ago in order to take an inflatable raft from there to Greece, made sure to get waterproof smartphones in case the boat sank (they have arrived in Germany, by the way, and their asylum status is in process, irrespective of their not-so-affordable underwater phones).
On 8 September 2015, a twitter user aptly wrote, “I don’t understand how owning a smartphone makes someone a less convincing refugee. They are fleeing war, not visiting from the 18th century.” Perhaps the core idea behind smartphone-resentment can be summed up like this: We don’t want them here because they’re from the Middle Ages. Oops. They have phones. So maybe they’re not from the Middle Ages. What do they want from us, then, if they’re not from the Middle Ages? We don’t want them here because they’re not from the Middle Ages.
At any rate, the criteria codified in the UN Convention on Refugees theoretically apply to every person who fled Syria, regardless of their economic situation. This is also reflected in the admission rate of Syrian asylum-seekers in Germany, which stands at nearly one hundred percent. And since 2014 (if not earlier), Syria has been the main country of origin of asylum-seekers in Germany, with no close contender for second place.
II. “Economic Migrants”
Again and again, the idea has been spread around by supporters of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and PEGIDA, as well as by so-called “concerned citizens” of all stripes, that most asylum-seekers in Germany are actually “economic migrants” (see above). Some time in the last few months, though, it seems to have finally broken through to most of them that the largest number of asylum-seekers in Germany come from Syria…and some of them may have heard something about what’s going on there.
Orbán Says So
But some forge ahead, undeterred by the recognition that the largest proportion of refugees are indeed fleeing the greatest humanitarian catastrophe since the Second World War. Reading rightwing commentators and bloggers, one increasingly encounters the assertion that one hundred percent of the Syrian refugees coming to Europe are to be regarded as economic migrants, because they were not beamed directly to Europe from the war, but had settled safely in a neighboring state.
As long as these Syrians stayed in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, or Iraq, they were, if I understand correctly, war refugees and had legitimate claim to asylum. But once they set out from those places towards Europe, their further flight could only be for economic reasons. Even Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán says this—and the Bavarian minister-president Horst Seehofer seems to agree—in an attempt, again, to play down people’s claims to asylum as provided for in the UN Convention on Refugees.
Of course, it is tempting to say, “Well, who listens to Orbán or Seehofer or those wackos from Britain First?” Still, I feel the problem lies with us: what, besides insisting moralistically that people should in principle be welcome anywhere, can we logically put up against these claims?
Making the formulation of a proper counterargument that much harder, it is constantly pointed out that Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey have “taken in” millions of refugees. This point is often used polemically, to underscore Europe’s absurd overreaction to the tiny sliver of the total population of people displaced by conflicts in the Middle East and Africa that have actually reached its shores. But it also happens to be correct, as the numbers confirm:
Every second Syrian is in flight. Two thirds of them, around 6.5 million, are internally displaced within Syria; 4.1 million have fled to neighboring countries—1.9 million in Turkey and roughly 2.1 million distributed among Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan. Lebanon, considering its small geographical area and population of only 4.4 million, has taken in an especially large number of refugees; they now make up a third of the entire population. Between April 2011 and June 2015, on the other hand, only 311,349 Syrians applied for asylum across the 28 European countries. Current numbers are periodically released by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), but it is clear at a glance that Syria’s neighboring countries have taken in vastly more refugees from Syria than all of Europe combined.
But what does “take in” actually mean here? And what do the shocking images coming out of refugee camps in Syria’s neighboring countries tell us? Are the people there living in misery because these countries are “overwhelmed?” Because these countries are “failing to integrate” refugees? Is that the explanation? Or is it because they can’t offer refugees work, being poor countries and all?
In January 2015, new legislation went into effect in Lebanon, the purpose of which was to dam the flow of refugees. For the first time in the history of either country, Lebanon imposed visa restrictions on Syrians.
Now, the countries bordering Syria, at least Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, can’t really be called “poor.” They are wealthier than some Balkan states within Europe. Perhaps, then, the refugees don’t want to work? Maybe they aren’t made of stern enough stuff to scrape together a living in these—admittedly—rougher conditions? Isn’t it, then, the reputed prosperity of central and northern Europe that ultimately motivates these people to move on? Is it the social welfare systems?
The answer is clearly no. It is the European asylum system. For most Syrians who have fled to Lebanon and Jordan, Europe offers the only possibility to come into possession of a valid residence permit (and the protection that this brings with it), a document that allows one to stay legally in a country not one’s own. This is one of the main reasons for the further flight to Europe.
No Accountability on the Eastern Front
Since I live in Lebanon myself and since a large number of the Syrians fleeing to Germany have had a detour through Lebanon, I will focus mostly on the situation here in particular. Lebanon is one of the countries that neither signed nor ratified the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in Geneva in 1951, and is thus for all intents and purposes not accountable for its implementation. The result is that Lebanon has no asylum process, nor any procedure resembling one, through which one can get recognized as a refugee. The same goes for Iraq and Jordan—and Turkey as well, with a few caveats.
At any rate, among the rights codified in the UN Convention on Refugees is the issuance of a travel permit for refugees (Article 28). There is no such thing in Lebanon or Jordan. Or Iraqi Kurdistan. Or Egypt. That millions of people fleeing Syria nonetheless live in these countries is only a mistake of geography, and only because the Principle of Non-Refoulement under international law ostensibly prevents these countries from simply deporting them (since this rule isn’t really binding, it is repeatedly broken, without repercussions, especially by Jordan and Egypt).
Tourism is Booming
What is the manner in which these refugees cross the Syrian-Lebanese border, and what is their status upon doing so? Until winter 2014, Syrian war refugees in possession of valid identification papers could receive a six-month tourist visa at the border, no questions asked. That was just the long-standing procedure; it was not a discrete response to the war situation. This means that the Syrians who fled to Lebanon before winter 2014 were, officially, tourists.
As a tourist, one had the option of having one’s visa extended every six months by General Security, a multifarious Lebanese bureaucracy which, besides just issuing passports and IDs, includes among its other functions the tasks of an intelligence service such as information gathering and threat analysis.
As a tourist, one could also look for work. Still, Lebanese law only allows foreign workers, Syrians included, to operate in three sectors: agriculture, sanitation, and construction. Anyone pursuing a career outside of these branches, whether as a bartender or a dentist, is working illegally and risks punishment. Repression of informal economies only occurs sporadically in Lebanon, in the form of raids targeting illegal workers. But anyone caught up in one of these raids faces detention and possibly physical violence.
That’s what happened to a Syrian colleague of Assaf Alassaf who had been working as a dentist: after the police dragged him out of his office, he (a father, it bears mentioning) spent several weeks in custody and was repeatedly beaten.
They are even more strict in Jordan, where there is a blanket ban on work for Syrians which is rigidly enforced. Anyone caught working faces prison and even (illegal) deportation. Further, Jordanian law governing refugee camps forbids the Syrian refugees living in them to leave. Here as well, anyone caught in violation—by their mere presence outside camp—faces incarceration.
Within the camps themselves, working is allowed. How magnanimous.
An Expired Passport, and Foreign Representatives that Don’t Represent You
Back to the refugees in Lebanon.
Most Syrian refugees left the country as a result of an emergency that arose rather suddenly. Their flight to Lebanon was often unplanned and hasty. In the best case, perhaps they had a valid Syrian passport, maybe arranged during peacetime, perhaps for foreign study or other travel. But a Syrian passport, like any other, has an expiration date—and indeed its lifespan is much shorter than that of a German passport: maximum six years, or two years for men of military age. It is also uncommonly expensive: Syrian authorities demand $400 for a new passport and $200 for a (maximum two-year) extension.
So what is one to do when one’s passport expires while one is abroad in Lebanon and cannot return? Right, you go to the Syrian embassy in Beirut. But there you are confronted with one of the many problems that vex especially politically persecuted Syrians and dissidents in the absence of a real asylum process and the possibility it would offer (a refugee’s travel permit). Those who are politically persecuted will naturally be checked into at the Syrian embassy. If one is recognized as a dissident or otherwise politically unsuitable, a passport extension will simply be refused. The unhappy applicant is often cynically advised to go to Syria and appeal to the authorities there.
As a passport’s expiration date creeps ever closer, the risk of slipping irretrievably into illegality becomes ever greater: once the passport expires, one is no longer able to fly to any country that (in contrast to Lebanon) has an asylum process, where one could obtain a travel document (I am referring, of course, to Europe). At that point, you could attempt, through bribes, to have a counterfeit extension pasted into your passport.
But even this appears to be an unworkable option. Several acquaintances of mine who, in their desperation, shelled out the exorbitant cash for such a thing didn’t make it very far: each was arrested at the Beirut airport. They were each released after a few days—but they also had their passports revoked. Now they sit trapped in Lebanon without a passport to which a temporary Lebanese residence permit could be attached, were that reasonably attainable.
Deserting soldiers mostly enter the country without any papers, and thus “illegally.” But many Syrians without any exceptional political background find themselves in the same situation of illegality. When you are fleeing war, it could very well be that you do not bring any documents along—perhaps, for example, because they are buried in the rubble of the house you fled.
Just a Piece of Paper
For all the categories of people who, lacking the necessary documents, fall through the cracks of the Lebanese tourist industry, there is one hope left: to register as a refugee with the UNHCR (such a registration is also a requirement of any humanitarian admittance program bringing refugees to Europe and Canada). There you receive a document indentifying you as an internationally recognized refugee, though it does not grant you legality within the country the same way, for example, a refugee ID would in Germany.
This means it serves as a substitute for neither a valid ID nor a temporary residence permit in Lebanon, and does not protect you from arrest during police checks. In Turkey, where otherwise things function slightly better than in Lebanon and Jordan, this UNHCR paper is downright worthless.
I will come back to the theme of living illegally in Lebanon a little later. But so far I have only listed the various (and clearly illusive) legal routes to residency which were valid until January 2015. Then things changed.
“Please, only the prosperous Syrian tourists.”
In January 2015, new legislation drafted in October 2014 went into effect in Lebanon, the purpose of which was to dam the flow of refugees. For the first time in the history of either country, Lebanon imposed visa restrictions on Syrians. They are very strict and also apply retroactively to all Syrians who entered the country before January 2015, from the moment their last six-month residence extension expired (a condition fulfilled, mathematically speaking, by all Syrians in Lebanon as of July 2015 at the latest).
Since then there are nine distinct new kinds of entry visas for Syrians, each predicated on a certain demonstrable “purpose of travel.” The permits issued allow, depending on the type of visa, for periods of stay ranging from 24 hours to at most six months.
Recognized purposed of travel to Lebanon (from Syria, for god’s sake!) could be, for example: a flight abroad from Beirut airport (in this case an airline ticket must of course be presented); an appointment at a consulate (which must be proven by showing prior written correspondence confirming the appointment); a hospital visit (of course only by presenting the faxed appointment confirmation from the hospital); or for study (if you can prove having been admitted to a Lebanese university).
On top of that, you must also be able to demonstrate that you have sufficient funds at your disposal to finance your visit. Often accommodation is also a prerequisite, in which case you can simply show the hotel booking that you surely made from Syria before departing.
Although in the early years of the war all Syrian tourists were able to travel freely to Lebanon, now only especially prosperous-looking ones can. Now a refugee has to put on a strange disguise, that of a prosperous tourist, to get into Lebanon.
Work Ban For All
Anyone who has been able to produce the documents necessary for a visa and has made it into Lebanon could, once this visa expired, still go and get registered as a refugee at the UNHCR. And since the new legislation took effect, one can now take this UNHCR registration paper to the notorious General Security service and—for a fee of $200—apply for a residence permit, which must be renewed every six months. But there have been other consequential regulatory changes being made. In January a joint resolution of the interior and foreign ministries, released by General Security, forbade the UNHCR from registering any more refugees…a resolution with which the UNHCR has complied since May, when it completely shut down the registration program in Lebanon. You can’t get registered as a refugee anymore. Further, anyone who made it both into the country and onto the UNHCR’s refugee rolls has had to sign a pledge never to work in Lebanon. Not even in the three branches permitted for Syrians.
Assuming everything has gone smoothly, then, and you’ve got a six-month residence permit as a UNHCR-recognized refugee in your pocket, you still cannot work in Lebanon. This applies retroactively as well to the 1.2 million people who have entered Lebanon as refugees over the past four years.
“How are we supposed to pay the rent on our tent?”
So if you can’t work, does that mean that you, as a UNHCR refugee, get some kind of financial support? Say, from the Lebanese state or the High Commission on Refugees? Unfortunately not.
For “families at extreme risk” (although the criteria for this designation are never explained), there is, I shit you not, a $13 per person per month dispensation for food. Stand-alone individuals are excluded from this, quite naturally. Here it must be mentioned that the cost of living in Lebanon is not low by any stretch of the imagination.
The poorest among Syrian refugees, those living in tents along the Lebanese-Syrian border, have to pay rent for their tents. In January 2013 I visited one of these camps, in the mountains just past Tripoli. Back then about 900 families lived there, all of them from Deir Baalba, a neighborhood in Homs. They had all fled from the very same massacre. And they had had to pay $150 per tent to the owner of the land the camp is on. Not so cheap, even if you are among the fortunate souls who receive that whopping $13 every month.
Cost of living in the city of Beirut, just to say, is about equivalent to that of Munich.
Back to the Lebanese residence permits on the basis of UNHCR registration. As though all of this weren’t enough, things can go up the spout here as well. Thousands of Syrians who, since the revisions at the UNHCR in May, have signed their no-work pledges and have gone with these (and $200) to General Security in order to get their temporary residence permits, have reported that the officers there (who often suffer from sadistic tendencies) submitted them to a “palm test.” That is, hold up your palms, so that the officer can stroke them with his soft fingers and attest, “There are calluses! You have worker’s hands. Your no-work pledge is an obvious lie.”
Anyone at all, citing these new municipal initiatives, can engage in vigilante justice, chasing out or attacking Syrians as they like.
You are denied a permit. Thus, this attempt at compliance comes to nothing, and the coveted UNHCR registration is nothing more than a piece of paper.
“Sponsorhips,” in Lebanese
Just so I don’t leave anything out, I should add that the 2015 law provides another possible way to get a residence permit in Lebanon, which may be familiar to German readers: a declaration of “sponsorship.” This can be submitted to General Security by a Lebanese sponsor: a relative, landlord, or employer. On the basis of this document, you could get a permit good for an entire year. Of course, if the sponsorship is submitted by an employer, beware of other applicable laws, which allow Syrians to work only in the three professional fields mentioned above.
And, since the person signing this sponsorship (in contrast to in Germany) does not have to vouch for you in any way and bears no responsibility for you, a large black market has sprung up around these documents. Lebanese opportunists charge on average between $200 and $1,000 to the Syrians they “legalize” in this manner.
Here is what I consider a revealing anecdote. As I am writing this, a friend who happens to be here visiting got a phonecall from her brother. His Syrian roommate, who is currently waiting for his student visa to Mexico to come through (as he has been given a scholarship by the Mexican government), wanted to regularize his residence in Lebanon to avoid any potential hangups. He paid a Lebanese person to sign a sponsorship, and together they submitted all the necessary documents to General Security, applying for a temporary residence permit.
The day before yesterday, he got a call from General Security headquarters: Your permit is ready. Please come by in the morning and pick it up. This he did, early yesterday morning—and he hasn’t been seen or heard from since. All that his friends and roommates have been able to find out is that he was arrested at General Security headquarters and has since been in custody.
What Lebanon Is Like When You’re Illegal
So what is it like for a Syrian to live illegally in Lebanon? As an “illegal,” there is little chance anyone will rent you an apartment. You can’t sign any contracts. And you can’t send your children to school—at least not by Lebanese law, ever since education minister Elias Abu Saab decided in 2014 that only parents in possession of a residence permit can send their children to Lebanese schools. According to the UNHCR, however, even children without proper documents have a right to go to school, as long as they are under fifteen years old.
This issue get kicked back and forth between the UNHCR and Lebanese authorities endlessly in more or less these terms; meanwhile many schools within Lebanon’s already dilapidated public school system refuse to take Syrian children. And as a result of the education minister’s resolution, those schools that do take Syrian children may not issue them grades, exams, course transcripts, or other officially recorded documents. Because of this, some children go on their own to Syria to stand exams. Imagine.
It was the same Elias Abu Saab, by the way, who on 14 September, when David Cameron was on a state visit to Lebanon, obliquely advised the British prime minister against taking in Syrian refugees by warning him that two of every hundred Syrian refugees in Lebanon belonged to ISIS. According to the estimates of the Lebanese ministry of education itself, there are around 200,000 Syrian children of schooling age (under fifteen) in Lebanon, of whom 70,000 are of primary school age. Following Abu Saab’s calculations, around 4,000 Syrian schoolchildren belong to ISIS.
I guess in that case it makes sense to exclude them from education. All the while, of course, making money off of them, as long as they stay in Lebanon, in the form of eager aid from IS-child-fearing European governments. More on that in a moment.
If Only Lebanon Were in the Caribbean!
But even beyond this Kafkaesque madness, beyond the labyrinth of impossibilities I have attempted at length to describe here, there is a further problem facing Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, especially those doing so illegally: the lack of safety. Even if Mr. Orbán sees it differently. And I don’t mean simply the (not so unjustified) worry that war could break out in Lebanon—or the armed conflict in Syria could spill over into Lebanon—at any moment (ISIS is fond of claiming, meanwhile, that they are already massing at the border).
No, I am talking about the risks you take and the danger you are in every day walking around a checkpoint-saturated country without proper documents. But even this terrifying gauntlet would be bearable if this country were in, say, Latin America: somewhere far away from the war you have just fled, a neutral and disinterested bit of earth.
Unfortunately, Lebanon is not only not neutral but is actively participating in the armed conflict in Syria. Militias from Hezbollah, the Amal Movement, the Hizb ut-Tahrir, and the Syrian Social-Nationalist Party are only a few of the Lebanon-based groups participating militarily in the Syrian war. Untold thousands of Lebanese, therefore, are fighting on various fronts in Syria.
Depending on where you come from in Syria and where you now live within Lebanon, you can easily get caught on the wrong foot—at any time, but also and especially at military checkpoints. And all of that without papers! Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq, incidentally, are no less involved in this same rotten business.
For Syrian refugees in Lebanon, curfews and forced evictions have become a daily occurrence. The foundation for this development was already laid in 2013, under the former Lebanese Minister of Interior and Municipalities, Marwan Charbel. In the course of a major national assembly, which he himself had called, and at which over 800 local councilpersons were present, he distributed an open letter of sorts to all municipalities. With far reaching consequences.
This document gave municipalities permission—and encouragement—to train and arm their own police units. Furthermore, local governments were enabled to hire, train, and arm auxiliary security personnel, such as a night watch, in cooperation with General Security. Ever since, more and more municipalities, countrywide, are imposing curfews on Syrians.
Sometimes these curfews are announced with banners hanging over streets; sometimes entire sections of town get plastered with posters warning that Syrians out of doors between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. will be arrested.
Here’s a pretty, eye-catching example from my neighborhood:
Enforcement is handled by the freshly armed local police as well as by other motivated people who are armed through the allowance of the interior ministry: the “neighborhood watch.” In actual fact, anyone at all, citing these new municipal initiatives, can engage in vigilante justice, chasing out or attacking Syrians as they like.
So anyone who overlooks the posters and banners, or perhaps returns home from work a little too late at night because he works (under the table, clearly) as a bartender, for example—or anyone who just ignores the warnings altogether and chances a carefree jaunt around the block—is facing the potential for arrest, beating, and if it goes especially wrong, even stabbing by the local civil defense or assorted “concerned citizens.” It is especially young Syrian men, by the way, who are most vulnerable to these kinds of aggressions.
This is how, for example, it came to a rash of knife and club attacks by Lebanese youth gangs on Syrians on their way home from work over several days (and at and times suggesting coordination, occurring simultaneously in multiple neighborhoods of Beirut) during the summer of 2014. The attackers vindicated their actions each time under the protection of local civil defense law.
That many decide not to bring wives and children on this kind of trip–and that many mothers decline to put their children on a rubber raft–is something that everyone should be able to understand.
It’s even a touch more awful in localities in the Lebanese-Syrian border region, where an especially high proportion of the most impoverished Syrian refugees live. For example, in the Akkar district of northern Lebanon, ever since a blanket curfew for Syrians was imposed in all cities and towns under the Akkar governorship in August 2014, young men “from around the neighborhood” have been seen patrolling with machineguns to enforce it. With the blessings of the interior ministry, of course.
Forcibly Evicted Into Defenselessness
On the morning of 23 June 2015, a Syrian friend (and trans person, incidentally) called me, upset. He was living with many other Syrians in a cheap motel in the Beirut neighborhood of Gemmayzeh. Some unknown persons had distributed a warning, in the form of a hand-copied flyer, to a variety of motels and flophouses.
In this warning, they referred to a video that ISIS had recently released. On the flyer I hold in front of me is printed:
From the Youth of Gemmayzeh,
Since the terror organization ISIS, as a reaction to the leaked videos of torture in Roumieh prison, has threatened to kill kidnapped Lebanese soldiers in their custody, we wish to make matters perfectly clear, and just this once: this barbarity will not be without consequences. The price will be horrendous, and will be paid in the blood of Syrian refugees, regardless of what side they’re on.
Should ISIS make good on its threat, our squads will not hesitate to execute every single Syrian we get our hands on. This warning is to be understood as a direct death threat. We have warned you.
But my friend was less upset by this warning slip than by the fact that the owner of the hotel had responded to it by kicking all of the Syrian tenants to the curb, with the full backing of officials from the health department and the local police. Six other motel owners in the neighborhood did the same.
When my friend ultimately fled, panicked, to stay with friends of his in the neighborhood of Sedd el-Boucherieh, they got another surprise at midnight the same day. Young Lebanese men threw open the door to the apartment and threw at the feet of the terrified residents the very same flyer, this time signed by the “Youth of Sedd el-Boucherieh.”
The next day they desperately tried to find an apartment in another neighborhood, no easy task when you are an illegal Syrian refugee and a trans person to boot.
Taxi Stories With Guns
The nonexistent neutrality of Lebanese society has the power to surprise in myriad ways. You don’t have to be a young man to be targeted for aggression. Women are plenty susceptible. A few months ago, a friend of mine hopped in a taxi that had stopped for her on the street—a completely mundane activity; taxis are a widely used mode of transportation here. She told the driver her destination, and he started driving. Almost as soon as he pulled away from the curb, he asked her, “Syrian?”
Of course in the few words exchanged between them he had identified her Syrian accent. She said yes. Then he asked, “Do you like Bashar al-Assad?” to which she replied no.
Suddenly he was holding a pistol to her temple. He said, simply: “If we were in Syria, I would empty this into your skull.” Then he drove into a tunnel and, in the middle of traffic, threw her out of the taxi.
By the way, do you know what else happened to this same friend recently? She also had the problem with the expired visa that I described above, and had bought—for pretty serious money—a counterfeit extension for it. Then, in the course of her work, she was meant to fly to Turkey (she consults for an international aid organization of some renown). Once again a familiar story: she was detained for 48 hours at the airport, and subjected to extreme verbal humiliation.
But all’s well that ends well: now, she also no longer has a passport. No identifying documents. Remember the checkpoint gauntlet.
On the Hit List
Oh, there was another thing I wanted to say. Ordinarily a Syrian without papers who gets controlled at a checkpoint will simply be locked up for 24 hours, knocked around a little bit, and then set free again. But one group of Syrians in particular is targeted for harassment and persecution by state security services: humanitarian workers.
Among these are Syrian employees of every single major, well-known, Western international aid organization doing work in Syria from Lebanon or in the refugee camps—and the very employees these organizations need most desperately to provide them access and reach into the camps and into Syria. Still, these workers are often arrested. Sometimes even taken out of their homes.
The charge: financing terrorism.
All of that to obliterate Orbán’s thesis that if someone decides to move on from Lebanon to Europe, they must do so for economic reasons. Incidentally, in Lebanon one would object to Orbán in a different way as well: here Syrians are regarded from the beginning as economic migrants, and are treated as such by the authorities. Orbán concedes, though, that Syrians in neighboring countries are real war refugees. Well, which is it?
Uff-da. It should be clear to anyone now why a refugee might want to get the hell out of Lebanon. And why the formulation “Lebanon takes in refugees” might be a bit imprecise.
Now I would like to dispose of a third and final general failure in the discourse around Syrian refugees. The following can also be extended to refugees fleeing many other countries as well.
III. Unaccompanied Young Men
Most of the Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe are young men. This is true. Current numbers from the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge or BAMF) confirms as much. There, only a third of the asylum applications submitted between January and July 2015 were from women.
Of course, as with smartphones, the preponderance of men among asylum-seekers is trotted out by the right as a vague indication that they are not truly in need of aid. Perhaps because, according to their way of thinking, men are stronger and less in need of protection than women. Aside from that, I have the distinct impression that many conservative German men fear Muslim men, and harbor, relatedly, slightly bizarre rescue fantasies about the Oppressed Oriental Woman. One encounters the proliferating sentiment among Germans, both men and women, that the Oriental Man’s hot-blooded passions pose a threat to German women as well. And so on.
Beyond that, as mentioned at the outset, also present in this rhetorical jumble is the charge that these fleeing males are cowards for having supposedly left their wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters behind, alone, shivering, and helpless, in a warzone instead of staying to defend them.
The common counterarguments to these thin rectal expulsions, which contain vile kernels of presumption and prejudice, are usually either a) photographs showing a few women and children after all, or b) the assertion that men are just as much in need of protection as women and children. Neither are wrong per se. But they do not really explain the preponderance of men eyed so suspiciously by “critics,” but rather attempt either to deny or to dismiss the fact.
Even newspaper articles on the topic seem unsure of themselves. Here is a passage from an otherwise very informative article in Die Welt which appeared on 10 September 2015: “That the unmistakable majority are young men is most likely because they have risked the dangerous trip in place of women in their families, who they will retrieve later.” Insecurity is betrayed by the likely. But there is no need to rely on presumption. There is a clear, comprehensible, and frankly scandalous chain of cause-and-effect behind this phenomenon.
By the way, as regards refugees’ “reasons for further flight” out of Syria’s neighboring countries, the abovementioned Welt article provides a well-meaning but equally wobbly explanation: “That more and more refugees want to come to Germany from Lebanon could be due to the small, religiously divided country being especially overwhelmed.” Here again they act as if assumptions are all we have to go on. At the UNHCR website, the numbers are easily accessible in black and white: of 2.1 million registered Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan—plus the 1.9 million in Turkey—49.9% are men and 50.5% are women (this as of 17 September 2015).
As the Welt article already alluded to, the discrepancy in gender distribution of refugees between Beirut and Berlin can be attributed to the difficult journey. What the author of the article still underplays, however, is that there is no other method of travel available to Syrians in Lebanon. Very few families are fortunate enough to be able to flee to a European country offering asylum within the safe and legal framework of an established admittance program.
If we only crack down on these illegal modes of transport without creating legal and safe alternatives, then our purpose is clearly not to prevent more deaths but rather to see to it that they happen further away.
You could, if you have a valid passport, theoretically go to a consulate and apply for a Schengen visa. That is, if you can get an appointment. Because without a visa you can’t board a plane. Even most of the luckiest few who know people or institutions in Europe that could officially invite them, vouch for them (by signing a sponsorship declaration, for example), set up all the necessary insurance, and even book them a return ticket (without a return ticket, no Schengen visa) still don’t receive a visa. The most common grounds for refusal given at the German embassy are, incidentally, “lack of will to return.”
There are offices in Lebanon making money hand-over-fist by charging exorbitantly for the preparation of forged documents purporting to prove this “will to return.” They simply found, for example, an invented company with invented capital in Beirut and then apply for Schengen approval of a “business trip” that their mark will be taking. This actually works only rarely. But in one case I heard about, this joke cost $3,000, and didn’t work.
Going through this kind of absurdity on a daily basis, at some point you give up and attempt, before your passport expires, to make it to Turkey in order to sail from there in one of the famous rubber rafts to Greece. This is the only way to get to a place with a legal framework which we could call an asylum process, through which you could possibly achieve legal status in a country not your own.
From Greece the journey continues, through field and forest, or packed into a refrigerated truck, over the infamous Balkan route towards Austria, Germany, or Sweden—in other words, countries one knows of as places where a new life can be built for one and one’s children.
That many decide not to bring wives and children on this kind of trip—and that many mothers decline to put their children on a rubber raft or in the back of a refrigerated truck—is something that everyone should be able to understand. Also that they elect, if it is somehow financially viable, to stick it out in the countries neighboring Syria and wait for the asylum process of a brave family member, who went on ahead for just that purpose, to be completed. If this person survives the journey, there is a possibility that he can retrieve the rest of his family legally and safely, as stipulated by family unification statutes in migration law.
This explanation for the preponderance of men is also confirmed by the scenes one sees in front of the German embassy in Beirut: it is almost exclusively women who are standing in line at the counter, whose male relatives have made it to Germany—most of the time illegally—and are able now to retrieve their families. Family unification is the one and only reason, by the way, that the embassy will issue a visa.
An Attempt at a Conclusion
Now I have the feeling I’m supposed to wrap things up with something clever, like by proposing solutions or some such.
I’ll make it quick. Politicians make lots of proposals for how states should be approaching the refugee crisis—especially when something particularly awful happens (which, in the present scenario, it is bound to. Repeatedly). When, on 28 August 2015, 71 Syrians were found suffocated in the back of a truck in Austria, a deeply affected EU politician, I can’t remember who she was, spoke on television. Visibly upset, she said that the incident proved once again that smugglers must be cracked down upon much more rigorously, and that smugglers now have the horrifying deaths of 71 more refugees on their consciences.
I find this avenue of thought rather illogical. Without any legal alternative, people fleeing shell out handsomely for dangerous (this should be our first concern) and illegal (further down the list) modes of transport. If we only crack down on these illegal modes of transport without creating legal and safe alternatives, then our purpose is clearly not to prevent more deaths but rather to see to it that they happen further away.
Why not go a different route? If we create safe and legal passages, the smugglers will be left without a market and there won’t be any more suffocations and drownings. Win-win.
There is another proposal that is repeatedly made by many politicians: to “fight the causes” of Syrians’ further flight from these oh-so-safe neighboring countries that were so nice to “take in” so many refugees. We should, instead of taking in more refugees in Europe, just provide much stronger financial support and cooperation to these neighboring countries.
I advise regarding these proposals with extreme skepticism. What use is it to give neighboring countries more money to deal with refugees without the absolute condition that their legal framework for dealing with refugees be changed?
I admit I find the prospects of such radical change to be rather slim, especially in a state with as long and questionable a history on refugee matters as Lebanon. Palestinians who fled to Lebanon in 1948 still today have neither citizenship nor any kind of civil rights, and there is a list of 25 careers that they are not permitted to pursue.
So what does it mean, without a radical change in the legal system, to give a state more aid money and cooperate with it more closely? Doesn’t there arise the danger that the systematic repression of Syrians will simply be carried out in a “more professional manner,” with tightened controls? It could develop along precisely the same lines as the Khartoum process, or similar plans with relation to Eritrea. In Eritrea, the EU is entertaining the prospect of cooperating on border security with the very military regime that people are fleeing—in other words, helping to trap people in the place they are being persecuted.
One last thing: even if Bashar al-Assad claims that the many refugees reporting having been the primary targets of his regime’s barrel bombs and torture program are lying; even if he says on Russian television that these refugees, newly landed in Europe, are only spreading “Western propaganda”; for the vast majority of those fleeing, whether they fled the regime or fled both the regime and ISIS is reflected in casualty numbers. As the Syrian Network for Human Rights (which keeps figures on human rights abuses, prisoners, and casualties across all fronts) has documented, between January and July 2015, 1,131 people were killed by ISIS in Syria and 7,894 were killed by the Syrian government. The ratio stands thus at one to 6.9.
That being the case, I regard the current focus within the painful conversation around “fighting the causes” of the refugee crisis—namely on ISIS, while erasing the cause of death and flight that is seven times greater, the Assad government—as utter lunacy. I can only understand the oft-proposed cooperation with Assad to “fight the causes” of flight, in a purely mathematical sense, as deliberate genocide.
Let me explain. Although I’m no math whiz, even my limited capacities are enough for a calculation this simple: A bunch of people are fleeing two murderers. One of the murderers is killing seven times as many people as the other. We wish that fewer of those fleeing these murderers were fleeing to us. So we decide to collaborate with the murderer killing seven times more people, in order to see to it that fewer people come to us. Makes a certain demonic sense.
I do not mean to suggest, obviously, that we should collaborate rather with the other, lesser murderer. We should not see it as sensible to put one murderer in front of another in the first place. But certainly not the greater murderer, and certainly not under the motto of “fighting the causes” of refugees in Europe.
Sandra Hetzl, September 2015
Translated by Antidote
On 22 October 2015, the week after initial publication, corrections and clarifications were made to this translation at the request of the author.
Featured Image: Refugees by Nizar Ali Badr. Source: Dawlaty.org (Facebook)