A Lebanese official on Friday defended his decision to impose a curfew on tens of thousands of Syrians living in his governorate during Sunday’s parliamentary election
This is despite human rights groups saying the move is illegal.
“This is a precautionary measure because there’s many Syrians here. We don’t want any problems,” Hassan Fakih, governor of the governorate of Nabatieh in south Lebanon, told The National.
“It’s a normal procedure.”
The Nabatieh circular states: “Displaced Syrians may not leave their houses starting 6pm on Saturday May 14 until 8am on Monday May 16 except for necessary reasons.”
Such reasons include doctor's appointments, said Mr Fakih.
Some Lebanese social media users expressed outrage at the curfew, which was announced on Wednesday.
Media, communication and development expert Lina Zhaim tweeted that the curfew represented “xenophobia and inhumanity at their worst!”
Other social media posts claimed similar curfews have been imposed by other municipalities, but The National was unable to verify this.
Mr Fakih said he was surprised at accusations of racism, saying the governorate imposed a similar curfew on Syrians every night for 10 days last summer during the Islamic celebrations of Ashura.
At that time, “no-one said anything,” he said.
“We are not racist,” said Mr Fakih. “Those who say that we are racist can take in the Syrians.
“Syrians are living in our houses. They take our electricity and water. They get help from the UN.”
Such curfews are regularly implemented on Syrians living in Lebanon during sensitive periods — including at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Authorities turn a blind eye or encourage them, despite their apparent illegality.
Human rights non-governmental organisations condemned the move.
They have no basis in Lebanese law and are illegal under international law, said Lynn Maalouf, Middle East research director at Amnesty International.
“It is deplorable but absolutely not surprising in light of the Lebanese authorities' general discourse towards refugees in Lebanon,” she said.
Human Rights Watch described the curfews as discriminatory.
“Restrictions on rights, including freedom of movement, cannot be imposed on a discriminatory basis, including by nationality. This fundamental principle of human rights law applies even during emergencies,” Aya Majzoub, the group's Lebanon researcher, told The National.
“Such arbitrary measures targeting Syrian refugees only serve to further alienate the community and fuel hostility towards them,” she said.
An Interior Ministry official said it had not requested the curfew, but did not say whether the procedure was legal.
Many Lebanese view Syrians with suspicion, blaming them for further burdening the country's crumbling infrastructure and living off UN aid.
It remains unclear what threat Syrians are expected to pose to public order on election day.
Mr Fakih said that he was worried about large groups of Syrians gatherings with their scooters. There are 15,000 Lebanese in Kfar Reman ― a village near Nabatieh city ― and 25,000 Syrians, he said.
“If they’re out in gatherings all day, what will happen?” asked Mr Fakih.
“Sometimes Syrians make problems with other people,” he said, without giving examples.
UNHCR head of communications Paula Barrachina Esteban said that there were 31,698 Syrians registered with the UN refugee agency in Nabatieh governorate ― 16,192 in Nabatieh district and 1,502 in Kfar Reman.
Almost 900,000 Syrians are registered with the UN in Lebanon. But Lebanese officials that tens of thousands more live in the country of roughly four million citizens.
Most arrived at the start of a civil war in neighbouring Syria in 2011.
Nine out of 10 Syrian households in Lebanon live in extreme poverty. Their average monthly expenditure for each Syrian is just over 316,000 Lebanese pounds — about $11 — according to a 2021 assessment by UN agencies.
The UN targets 55 per cent of registered Syrians with monthly cash assistance of 1 million Lebanese pounds a month ― about $37.
It reaches 99 per cent of Syrian refugees with monthly cash and food assistance, said Ms Esteban.
“With the impact of the current crisis in Lebanon hitting the most vulnerable, UNHCR will continue to support refugees and their hosting communities to alleviate their suffering and promote peaceful coexistence,” she said.
Lebanon has been hit hard by the country’s severe economic crisis that started in 2019 with the devaluation of their local currency, causing soaring inflation. More than three-quarters of the population now lives in poverty.
Politicians have failed so far to implement reforms requested by the international community in exchange for a bailout.
Dozens of Lebanese and Syrians died in late April as they attempted to reach Europe on an overcrowded boat, further fuelling angry against the country’s rulers.