- GulfToday

Life in limbo

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Prime Minister Najib Mikati.

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati has warned that the continuous flow of Syrian refugees into his country threatens the country’s independence and could disrupt its delicate demographic balance. He could be right when he spoke of a potential threat to Lebanon’s independence by making the country dependent on UN and foreign aid to the refugees. But he is not correct when he says Sunni Syrians could impact the country’s confessional power-sharing system and cause Lebanon to implode. They could only do this if they were to obtain Lebanese citizenship which is nearly impossible.

Last week, the Lebanese army intercepted and deported 1,200 Syrians crossing illegally along smugglers’ routes; the week before 1,000 were caught and sent home. The authorities have also been deporting small numbers of Syrians who are registered with the UN but had allowed their residency permit to expire or had entered the country illegally.

Caretaker Minister of the Displaced Issam Sharfuddin said that 20,000 Syrian refugees have entered Lebanon since the beginning of the year. The UN reports Lebanon hosts the largest number of refugees per capita in the world. More than 1.5 million Syrians have sought refuge in Lebanon since civil and proxy conflict erupted in 2011; 815,000 are registered with the United Nations.

Until fighting wound down in 2019, most Syrians were seen as fleeing for their lives. Syrians who arrive since then are economic migrants. The French news agency quoted an unnamed official as saying, “Most Syrians come to Lebanon in the hope of finding work, given the unprecedented deterioration in living conditions in their country.”

The protracted presence of Syrian refugees amounts to a crisis within Lebanon’s politico-economic crisis which, the World Bank has declared, is one of the three most devastating in the world since 1850. The Lebanese currency has lost 98 per cent of its value and the poverty level has risen to 80 per cent since 2019.

In July, 100 supporters of the right-wing Maronite Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) mounted a demonstration at the office of the European Union Delegation to protest its resolution calling on Beirut to allow Syrians to remain as it is unsafe for them to return to their country. FPM supporter Charbel Abu Antoun told L’Orient-Le Jour. “We are not ..against the Syrians, we are here to protest the EU decision to keep Syrians here. We don’t have a problem with Syrians but Syrian refugees are a burden on us.” They are, indeed, as they consume scarce resources and cash-starved utilise public schools and health centres. He also complained that Syrians take Lebanese jobs.

Lebanese resentment has stoked anti-Syrian rhetoric which increases discrimination and violence and deepened Syrian fears of sudden deportation or attack.

The EU’s agenda is mainly political. The US and its Western allies do not want Syrian refugees to return because large-scale repatriation would ease pressure on the Syrian government which the Western powers still — after eight years of open warfare — want to topple. Having failed to achieve this end by backing the military and political opposition to the government, they are using sanctions to prevent reconstruction and punish the population.

Syrians and other migrants who have taken refuge in Cyprus have recently fared worse than those in Lebanon. On Aug.27, anti-migrant Greek Cypriot thugs from the rightist Elam party mounted an assault on Syrian refugees and other migrants settled in an abandoned apartment complex without power and running water in the village of Chlorokas near Paphos. Thugs brandishing clubs and rods attacked the refugees and migrants and burned property and a car. Elam proclaimed, “We want our neighbourhoods back, out villages, our cities that have been ghettoised. We want our country back.” Left-wing Akel party spokesman Stephanos Stephanou called the attack an “organised pogrom” and blamed the government for failing to provide decent housing for asylum seekers. Most of the inhabitants of the buildings, 20 per cent of whom were Syrians, are legal.

Early this month an anti-migrant march of about 500 rightists in the port city of Limassol became violent. Shops belonging to Syrians and a Vietnamese woman were damaged, windows were broken, rubbish bins were set alight, and some foreigners, including four Kuwaiti tourists and Asian delivery men, were attacked. The police were widely criticised for inaction.

Amnesty International’s migration researcher Adriana Tidona responded by saying, “The violent, racist attacks in Chlorakas and Limassol must serve as a wake-up call for authorities in Cyprus to take immediate measures to tackle racist rhetoric and abuse, which have been on the rise in the country for years.”

With the aim of compelling the government to better support migrants and the police to protect them, several thousand Greek Cypriots marched through the streets of the capital Nicosia on Sunday evening. They condemned the rightists as “fascists” and called for justice for migrants.

In 2022, Cyprus received 29,280 refugees and migrants, an 80 per cent increase over 2021 when 16,277 arrived, a 16 per cent increase from 2020. In May 2023, the number of first-time asylum seekers fell to well below half that of last May. Migrants considering Cyprus may have discovered that the island is a dead end rather than a gateway to Western Europe or that they could be accommodated in a crowded migrant centre, left to fend for themselves, or deported. The Cyprus government has recently launched an information campaign to discourage migrants from making for the island.

Elsewhere in the European Union (EU) there was a 27 per cent spike over this period. Despite falling numbers of arrivals, Cyprus has the largest number of new asylum applications per capita in the EU.

The Cyprus republic, which has just under one million people, repatriated 7,000 in 2022, the most in relation to population of any EU country. Most asylum applicants in Cyprus are Syrians and Afghans, who cannot be sent home, followed by Venezuelans and Colombians. Since 2020, there has been an influx of Nigerians, Congolese, and Cameroonians who travel via Turkey to Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus and cross the dividing line into the republic in the south with people smugglers. Cypriot police have recently rounded up Syrian traffickers bringing in Syrian boat people from Lebanon and Syria, linking offshore Cyprus to the economic debacles on both these mainland countries.

Photo: AP

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