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Beyond bakery queues, a spike in scapegoating Syrian refugees in Lebanon

In cash-strapped Lebanon, discrimination against Syrians in bakery queues during recent weeks of bread shortages was the latest symptom of growing anti-refugee rhetoric and scapegoating.

8 August 2022

BEIRUT – In the Lebanese capital, Arabic bread is back on bakery shelves. The long lines of recent weeks are gone as wheat shortages have eased, but tensions between Syrian refugees and Lebanese locals unleashed after a month of bread scarcity still linger in the air.

In the past four weeks, bread shortages in Lebanon led to discrimination at bakeries, as people queued for hours. In Zahle, workers at the Wooden Bakery prevented Syrians from buying bread and gave priority to Lebanese residents. In Burj Hammoud, north of Beirut, a young Syrian was assaulted while waiting in line. And in Beirut’s southern suburb of Hazmeyeh,  Keyrouz Bakery segregated lines: one for Lebanese, another for Syrians.  

While these incidents only occurred at some bakeries, they were symptoms of a broader spike in anti-refugee rhetoric in Lebanon, a country experiencing a devastating economic crisis, and which has the highest ratio of refugees per capita in the world.

On a quiet morning late last week, Nisreen quickly served the few customers in the bakery where she works, Furn al-Rahib, in Sin El Fil, a suburb northeast of Beirut. The scene stood in stark contrast with the tensions of previous days. “We had bread shortages for about a month, and were selling one or two bundles of bread per person,” Nisreen said. She said she did not treat Syrians any differently than other customers. “We didn’t differentiate between nationalities. Customers are customers. I didn’t ask for ID, but there was some tension in the queues,” she said. 

Over the past three years, cash-strapped Lebanon has seen shortages of medicine and fuel, due to sharp currency devaluation. Last month, state-subsidized flatbread—a staple food across the region, particularly among vulnerable populations—also ran low. Lebanon’s wheat imports have been hit hard by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as it imports most of its wheat from those two countries.  

But for Ibrahim, a coffee shop owner who sat facing Furn al-Rahib last week, the cause of the bread crisis was simple: Syrians. “For a month, we, the people of Sin El Fil, weren’t able to buy bread. Why? Because of the displaced Syrians. More than 200 Syrians from other neighborhoods came here,” he said, adding that unspecified “problems” took place on the last day of shortages. 

Ibrahim accused Syrians of bringing their “10 children to each take a bundle of bread, and then sell it in other neighborhoods for a bit more money.” He did not personally witness any such incidents, however. “I saw it on videos,” he said.

Overhearing Ibrahim’s answer, Maroun, a bakery worker at Furn al-Rahib, jumped in. “In the line, I would let [in] 10 Lebanese people and give them two bread bundles [each], and then I would let one Syrian pass and give them one bundle. Of course we have to prioritize the Lebanese, the people in this neighborhood,” he said. 

Lebanese human rights organizations have denounced discriminatory attitudes and incidents in bread lines. “It is against human rights to give bread to a person just based on nationality. Domestic laws do not protect any business having these discriminatory acts,” said Fadel Fakih, Executive Director of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH). “It’s not logical to say that because you are Syrian, you’re not allowed to buy bread, this is against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which Lebanon is subject to,” he added. 

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said in a July 29 press statement that following an “increase in tensions” leading to “localized violence in the streets, including against refugees” they were “increasingly concerned with restrictive practices and discriminatory measures based on nationality that are being introduced and impacting refugees, among others.” 

Stephanie Abboud, Advocacy & Policy Coordinator at the Lebanese NGO ALEF Act For Human Rights, pointed out that besides Syrian refugees, “other vulnerable communities like migrants or some Lebanese perceived as weak” also faced discrimination. “This type of discrimination is between [the] powerful and non-powerful, with refugees falling in the latter category like other vulnerable groups,” she said. 

In previous crises, like the fuel shortages in 2021, more vulnerable people were not as affected since many cannot afford a car. “But now with bread, a universal staple, it is more visible,” she said. 

A few meters down the street from Furn al-Rahib, Abdelrahman, a 23-year-old Syrian, kneaded bread dough at the bakery where he works. “During the shortage, they banned Syrians from getting bread. I don’t understand why, they are paying for the bread like any other person,” he said.  

Abdelrahman came to Lebanon four years ago after his house in Idlib was destroyed. Since then he’s been working at this bakery in Sin El Fil, but as the economy worsens it becomes harder to make a living. “Before, I worked eight hours [per day] and got by. Now, I work 14 hours and I can’t make ends meet,” he said.

He hopes to be able to return to Syria. “If the war ends, I will go back, I have hope to return, but not in the short or medium term,” he said.  “I wish I could return to Syria, no one wants to stay in Lebanon. You feel the racism here.”

The bread crisis explained

Although simplistic narratives blame the bread crisis on the presence of refugees in Lebanon, the reality is far more complex. Lebanon imports 80 percent of its wheat, but the plummeting value of the Lebanese lira makes importing increasingly expensive. To ensure bread is affordable, the government subsidizes wheat. 

“Maintaining wheat subsidies is much cheaper for the economy, we are not talking of billions of dollars like it was being used for the fuel and medicines,” said Alex Harper, Team Leader at Mercy Corps’ Lebanon Crisis Analytics Team.

“Subsidies can keep the costs down,” but this policy can create an “economy of dysfunction,” Harper said. During the latest shortage, bakery owners accused the government of not giving them enough subsidized wheat, while the government accused bakeries of hoarding wheat and waiting for prices to go up, using it instead to produce other products more profitable than bread—such as croissants—or smuggling it to Syria. 

“When you are artificially keeping prices down and people try to make [a] profit on the margins, you’re creating these economic incentives that undermine the objective of the subsidy,” Harper added. 

In addition to the impact of the war in Ukraine,  damage to the Beirut Port grain silos in the 2020 explosion cut Lebanon’s storage capabilities from 6 months to approximately one month, Harper explained. As a result, Lebanon has no “ability to insulate itself from the international chaos.”

A $150 million World Bank loan to import wheat, approved by Parliament on July 26, is expected to provide stability for the next six to nine months. “The World Bank said very clearly that one of the reasons Lebanon is getting this loan is so they can continue to feed Syrian refugees and other residents of Lebanon, such as the Palestinians,” Harper explained.

The foreseen arrival this week of the first vessel (Razoni) carrying grain from Ukraine since the Russian invasion is being received as a sign that the trading route is being reestablished after a months-long interruption. 

Foreseeable scapegoating

Lebanon’s economic crisis, one of the most severe globally since the mid-1800s, has pushed 2.1 million Lebanese residents and 1.3 million Syrian refugees into food insecurity. More than half the country’s population is now below the poverty line, according to the World Food Program (WFP) and the World Bank. In January, food inflation reached 483 percent, according to the World Bank.  

Under the stress of the economic crisis, pre-existing social fissures are widening. “Since 2019, when the  Lebanese uprising started, we knew that there is a risk of an increase in human rights violations,” CLDH director Fakih said. “Whenever there is a deterioration in the socioeconomic aspect in any country, human rights violations and racism increase.” 

Abboud agreed that an increase in tensions was foreseeable, given the economic crisis and growing anti-refugee rhetoric. “The more the authorities are looking for someone to blame, the more they will scapegoat refugees and remove responsibility from their hands, the more tensions will increase,” she said. 

As an example, she mentioned TV appearances by government officials blaming Syrians for buying too much bread, or for increasing crime rates. This narrative spreads through videos on social media and organizations calling for refugees to go home and portraying them as a plague. 

This rhetoric, and the idea that refugees have access to humanitarian support that the country’s citizens do not, has found traction among a part of Lebanese society. “Syrians get $28 per child, and the Lebanese get nothing, they are in a better situation than Lebanese,” said Maroun, the bakery worker from Sin El Fil. “If the Syrians returned to their country, we wouldn’t have a crisis in Lebanon,” Ibrahim added.

Lebanon, a country of only six million people, hosts 1.5 million Syrian refugees, which has added pressure on its already strained infrastructure. But Lebanon has received over $8.2 billion since 2015 in support for displaced Syrians, vulnerable Lebanese people and Palestinian refugees under the UN’s Lebanon Crisis Response Plan (LCRP).

A plan to deport 15,000 Syrians per month

In a significant escalation in anti-refugee rhetoric, in July, Caretaker Minister of the Displaced Issam Charafeddine announced a plan to return 15,000 Syrians per month to Syria, stating that it was “totally unacceptable that the displaced not return to their country after it has become safe.”  

Charafeddine also said the Lebanese government plans “to form a tripartite committee with the Syrian state and the UNHCR.” The UN Refugee Agency denies this. “UNHCR is currently not part of negotiations on returns. Voluntary return home in safety and dignity is a fundamental right of every refugee,” UNHCR spokesperson Paula Barrachina told Syria Direct.

“The plan is not operational yet—they went on TV and said we have a refugee return plan, but all that exists is the roadmap developed by [former Prime Minister] Hassan Diab’s government in 2020,”  Abboud said.

If the government goes ahead with the plan, Lebanon would be breaching its international obligations, including the principle of non-refoulement. The Syrian Network of Human Rights (SNHR) has documented, since 2014, 3,057 cases of arbitrary arrest among returnees, of whom 813 qualify as forcibly disappeared. 

“The Lebanese government would be violating Article 3 of the Convention Against Torture by deporting Syrians to Syria, and this should have legal consequences for the government,” Fakih said.

“We are worried about the pushback environment inside the country, and what going on TV and saying ‘15,000 Syrian refugees a month should return’ will fuel in communities,” Abboud warned. 

Besides incidents at bakeries during the bread shortage, ALEF  documented several attacks against Syrian refugees in July: a 14-year-old Syrian died in Sarafand after being attacked by a Lebanese man and his son; residents of Tal Hayat in Akkar burned tents in a refugee camp in retaliation for the death of one of their relatives; and a Syrian man was slain in a refugee camp in the Beqaa town of Shaat.

In addition to interpersonal violence, Syrians in Lebanon face structural violence. Only 16 percent of Syrians have legal residency, leaving them in a vulnerable position with Lebanon’s security bodies. In 2021, the Access Center for Human Rights (ACHR) documented 139 cases of Syrians being arbitrarily arrested or detained, most of them at checkpoints or in army raids on refugee camps.

According to CLDH, at least three municipalities have established a wage cap for Syrians. For instance, the Ras Baalbeck municipality decided last November that Syrian men could not earn more than 40,000 LBP per day (approximately $1.30 at the parallel market rate) and Syrian women 10,000 LBP ($0.32) per hour. Moreover, as of 2020, 328 Lebanese municipalities had established some kind of curfew for Syrians, banning them from being in the streets at certain hours. 

The Lebanese authorities’ initially open approach towards Syrian refugees has been tightening throughout the years. “Once the crisis started in Syria in 2011, the Lebanese government adopted an open visa policy,” explained Genoa Saabi, a legal researcher at CLDH. But that policy stopped in 2014, when Syrians were required to enter through “work, tourism, or sponsorship [visas], or through the UN,” she added. 

In 2019, the Higher Defense Council, a government body in charge of national security, issued a decision to deport Syrian refugees who entered Lebanon illegally after April 24, 2019. The move allowed the authorities to “base the deportation on the [HDC] decision and not wait for a judicial decision to deport them; it became an administrative procedure,” Saabi said. Legal Agenda, a Lebanese rights watchdog, described it as a “ flagrant violation of the Constitution, Lebanese laws and international conventions.” As of September 2021, 6,345 Syrians had been forcibly “returned” under the Higher Defense Council’s decision. 

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