BEIRUT — Ali, owner of a small aluminum-fittings factory in the southern suburbs of Beirut, is missing his Syrian laborers.
“Syrians gave you good quality work, and you paid them less,” he said.
In recent weeks, rising tensions have forced Syrian workers out of the Shiite Muslim-dominated neighborhood, and businessmen such as Ali have had to hire Lebanese hands at double the cost. His business “cannot make it,” he said gloomily. “I’m thinking about leaving the country.”
The Syrian workers who once thronged Beirut’s southern suburbs have fled, local residents say, in what analysts see as a disturbing sign of how the uprising is spilling over into other countries in the region.
“Syrian laborers have been harassed in Shia areas, and I understand that many of them have left the deep south and the southern suburbs of Beirut,” said Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.
No reliable statistics are available on the size of Lebanon’s Syrian labor force, which has historically moved back and forth across the border. But long before the present political crisis eviscerated the Syrian economy, hundreds of thousands of Syrians — a majority Sunni Muslim population — worked in neighboring Lebanon, especially in the booming construction sector.
Ironically, many felt safer in areas controlled by the Shiite group Hezbollah, closely allied with Damascus, after the 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s popular Sunni former prime minister, Rafiq al-Hariri, a killing widely blamed on Syria.
The uprising in Syria introduced tension into the relationship between migrant laborers and Lebanon’s Shiite parties, who still retain close links with the Syrian regime. Even if laborers were not politically active, many are said to have come from the poor rural areas that have driven the Syrian revolt, such as Daraa, Deir al-Zour and the countryside around the northern city of Aleppo.
The kidnapping of 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims in a rebel-controlled area of Syria in May exacerbated tensions, which remain high. This week, relatives of the hostages, who are still in captivity, staged a protest in southern Beirut calling for their release.
One Syrian migrant worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, was returning to his home in the southern suburbs the night of the kidnapping. He said a man got on the bus and asked the driver whether any Syrians were on board. The driver pointed toward him and another passenger, and they were taken off the bus. He said he was held for more than an hour while his captors talked about whether to kill them. “One was saying, ‘We are going to slaughter you,’ and then the other would say, ‘No, let’s not kill them,’ ” he recalled.
That night he and some other Syrians slept in a building together for safety, but people were shouting taunts outside their window. Eventually, he said, a Lebanese friend came to rescue him, and he hasn’t been back to the area since.
After the kidnapping, Hasan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, forbade revenge attacks on Syrians, a message that seems to have reined in abusive behavior in the short term, but local business owners say their staff no longer feel safe enough to stay in the southern suburbs.
“Too many got beaten up,” said a cafe owner who has lost his Syrian workers. “Before, if you wanted a hundred you could have them in a minute. Now, politics is playing a role.” Some of those now fleeing the Hezbollah-controlled suburbs are said to have gone back to Syria, while others are thought to have moved to other areas in Beirut.
In the overcrowded working-class neighborhoods of politically volatile Lebanon, however, being an outsider of any kind means being vulnerable, even among people of the same sect.
“If a Syrian had a personal problem with a Sunni, other Sunnis would gang up against him with the Sunnis from that neighborhood,” said another Syrian man who has been moving through different areas of Lebanon in search of somewhere he can feel safe. “Wherever I go, I’m getting beaten up, and I cannot escape this fact.”