The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Syrian refugees in Lebanon are under pressure as never before. But they say Syria is still too unsafe to return.

Syrian refugees salvage belongings from the wreckage of their shelters at a camp in the northern Lebanese town of Bhanine that was set on fire Dec. 27 following a fight between camp residents and a local family. (Ibrahim Chalhoub/AFP/Getty Images)

BSHARRI, Lebanon — A heaviness hung in the windowless room where Abdul Hadi al-Mashhour, his wife, neighbor and several children and grandchildren were hiding, huddled around a heater.

“We are living close to death,” the Syrian refugee said.

A Syrian had allegedly shot a local man in this northern Lebanese town in a personal dispute two days before, setting off a wave of reprisals against the refugee community. Some 270 Syrian families fled after the November incident, according to the United Nations refugee agency. Mashhour’s family remained in their small apartment on the outskirts of Bsharri, afraid to show their faces.

The 52-year-old from Syria’s Idlib province has lived in Lebanon for seven years as a refugee from his country’s civil war. Life was only getting harder.

Millions of Syrians have sought safety in Lebanon and across the region since the Syrian uprising began nearly a decade ago. Now they are stuck between untenable options: ongoing instability and violence back in Syria as President Bashar al-Assad consolidates control, and deteriorating conditions in cash-strapped Lebanon, where politicians are pressing refugees to leave.

Mashhour misses home. But he has nowhere safe to go. From his view, an end to the Syrian crisis is nowhere in sight.

Compounding crises

Syrians have long struggled in Lebanon, where about a million refugees make up some 20 percent of the population. But 2020 brought a new cascade of problems. The country’s financial system collapsed, and the prime minister resigned, ousted by protesters fed up with endemic corruption. Then the coronavirus hit, followed by the devastating Beirut port explosion, of which many Syrians were among the victims. In less than a year, the currency depreciated by more than 80 percent.

Communities across Lebanon are hurting, especially Syrians, amid mounting competition for resources, said Elena Dikomitis, advocacy adviser for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Lebanon.

“The landscape of needs in Lebanon has changed dramatically over the last year,” she said. “There are a lot of increasing tensions as one can expect over access to jobs, to aid, to basic services.”

In October, the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, estimated that nearly 90 percent of Syrians in Lebanon lived below the extreme poverty line, up from 55 percent the year before. Already legally excluded from many jobs, 90 percent of Syrians reported losing their income or having salaries reduced, the agency found in July.

Lebanese politicians have ratcheted up anti-refugee public sentiment, accusing Syrians of causing economic problems while pushing policies to make it harder for them to stay, said Fadi al-Halabi, the general director of Multi-Aid Programs, a Syrian-led nongovernmental organization in the Bekaa Valley and border town of Arsal.

“The general environment in Lebanon is: How can we [the government] make more difficulties for Syrian refugees to make us feel uncomfortable to be here?” he said. Officials “make difficulties to get your residency. Make difficulties to get your certificate if you’re a student in public school. If you need a birth certificate.”

Lebanon stopped allowing the UNHCR to register Syrians in 2015, so about 90 percent do not have legal residency. The country never set up official refugee camps for Syrians, as it did for Palestinians. Instead, they live in cities such as Beirut or rent apartments wherever they can. Many are stuck in informal camps of tents and shacks on land rented from Lebanese owners.

Syria’s bread lines are so long that children have to skip school to wait in them

More recently, the government has cracked down on Syrians working without permits, alongside campaigns to tear down shelters in violation of a ban on permanent construction. Halabi, who was a neurosurgeon in Syria before fleeing, said he could once renew his residency easily but has spent the past year in limbo.

“Lebanon cannot handle its own situation,” said William Touk, a local politician in Bsharri, in defense of some of these policies. Before the war, Syrians were seasonal workers in the area’s apple farms. “Most, or I should say, some of them are in Lebanon because they prefer living in Lebanon, not because of security reasons in Syria.”

That’s a claim Syrian refugees dispute.

As conditions for both Syrians and Lebanese deteriorate, there’s growing fear that intercommunal violence could follow. The Bsharri case is not the only one. In December, following a fight between a Lebanese family and Syrians in an informal camp in Bhanine in northern Lebanon, a fire razed the settlement. Nearly 400 Syrians fled, according to the UNHCR.

No safe options

Only a trickle of Syrians have left Lebanon for Syria since 2011. In studies, a majority say they want to return — but don’t think conditions will be safe enough for several more years.

Nonetheless, Lebanon says it’s time to leave. And Assad, in need of money and resources for reconstruction, has been urging Syrians to come back.

“Lebanon insists on the return of refugees to the safe areas in Syria that are not witnessing any fighting, especially since the Syrian state welcomes their return and pledges to procure them the needed support and care,” Lebanese President Michel Aoun said this summer, after his government announced a working plan for returns.

In November, Lebanon attended a Russian-led conference on the topic in Damascus, the only of the three Middle Eastern countries hosting the most Syrians to join. The European Union, among others, boycotted.

In response, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned that ongoing “forced conscription, indiscriminate detention, forced disappearances, torture, physical and sexual violence, discrimination in access to housing, land and property as well as poor or inexistent basic services” made Syria unsafe.

Since 2011, hundreds of thousands of people have died in Syria, the majority because of violence by Assad and his allies, according to human rights groups. Hundreds of thousands more have disappeared into government-run prisons, where thousands have been tortured and killed. Amid massive internal and external displacement, millions of Syrians have seen their property destroyed or confiscated.

Lebanese refugees in Syria told The Post they feared arbitrary arrests and detention, homelessness, and a general state of lawlessness, among other threats, should they return, as the Lebanese government has urged.

After the blast: Satellite images show destruction in Beirut

Syrian Ismail Mohammed, 33, called the prospect of return “a red line,” as he feared his name could be on any number of lists kept by Syria’s various security fores. Even if he was cleared to enter at the border, he said, he had no assurance he wouldn’t be detained or disappeared, just for being from Afrin, a majority Kurdish area in northern Syria.

For now, he labors in the fields around Borj Rahal in southern Lebanon, when there’s work to be had.

Some who have returned or are thinking of it, Halabi said, are mothers looking to ensure that their children have a way to finish school because Lebanon places many restrictions on education for Syrians.

That’s not an option for Najwa, 34, a divorcée from Aleppo, Syria, living in a shack in Minieh, outside the city of Tripoli.

“If I don’t have a man; I can’t live in Syria,” she said. Najwa was divorced before the war but has come to fear living as a single woman there after the breakdown of Syrian society, she said.

Najwa, who gave only her first name out of concern for privacy, works periodically tending the land of her Lebanese landlord. She never made much, but this year, as prices rose, two days of work came to pay enough for one day of food, she said. And she is bracing for her rent to rise.

Najwa needs medicines she can’t find or afford for her ailing, elderly mother. And she needs resources she doesn’t have to protect her 18-year-old daughter, Iman, who wants to divorce the 40-some-year-old Lebanese man she recently married at her father’s behest. She has left school, despite a love for Arabic class. In early December, she was back living with her mother.

“I love to learn, and I have dreams and ambitions,” she said. But “this year was the hardest year of our life from all sides.”

Repeal of Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ offers new hope to frustrated immigrants and long-suffering families

Twitter suspends account apparently linked to Iranian supreme leader, citing rules about ‘fake’ accounts

Long sidelined, Arab Israeli entrepreneurs looking to join tech boom with Emirati backing