NAAMEH, LEBANON // Omar first came to Lebanon from Syria’s Idlib province as a teenager 25 years ago, eventually climbing the economic ladder from driving a taxi and selling vegetables to owning his own shoe shop in the seaside town of Naameh.
He feels quite at home in Lebanon, but the feeling is not mutual.
After more than one million Syrians flooded into Lebanon to escape their country’s civil war, maintaining residency status has become difficult. Now both he and his business have been declared illegal. Earlier this month, the local government in Naameh issued a decree ordering businesses owned or operated by Syrians to close by the end of the month. The only acceptable work for Syrians, the text read, was in “agriculture, cleaning and construction”.
For shop owners like Omar and Syrian employees of Lebanese-owned businesses, desperation is starting to set in as they risk losing their livelihoods in Lebanon but have nowhere to go.
“If they shut our businesses down, there are two things we can do,” Omar said. “Either we can stand on the road and rob people, or we can organise, find somebody to give us weapons and have another revolution here.”
As he spoke, images of Syria’s war flashed on the television set in his shop.
In January, Lebanese labour minister Mohammad Kabbara announced that Lebanon would start cracking down on foreign labour in the country, ensuring that foreigners hired in Lebanon have the correct permits and are not working in fields where they compete with Lebanese.
Naameh is among the first towns to obey the ministerial edict.
The mayor of Naameh, Charbel Matar, said the town was simply following the law. But he also said the refugee crisis had placed great strain on his town, which now hosts 16,000 Syrians on top of about 23,000 Lebanese. Cheaper Syrian labour has made jobs more difficult to come by for some Lebanese. Naameh’s infrastructure is overstretched. And while many Syrians receive aid from humanitarian organisations, he said, poor Lebanese in his town do not.
“I don’t have a problem standing next to the Syrians in their difficult situation. But we have to stand with our own people first before we stand with the Syrians,” Mr Matar said.
Living life as a Syrian refugee
Syrian worker preparing food at the Syrian Siwar Al-Sham restaurant in Hamra Street, Beirut, Lebanon. AP
Many Lebanese share his view, particularly government officials.
Only last week, prime minister Saad Hariri said the Syrian refugee crisis would lead to economic ruin for Lebanon if nothing changed. Other politicians frequently call for the expulsion of Syrian refugees and regard their presence as a major security risk.
More than one million Syrian refugees are registered with the United Nations refugee agency in Lebanon, although the Lebanese government and independent estimates put the real number at 1.5 million or more. The Lebanese population is about 4.5 million people.
But for many Syrian refugees, going home is not an option. Many come from areas still steeped in violence, others fear repercussions from the Syrian government.
The US has proposed establishing “safe zones”, an idea supported by some Lebanese politicians. There are no plans in place yet but Human Rights Watch last week warned that safe zones in conflict areas are rarely safe and can be used as a pretext for neighbouring countries to deport refugees into dangerous environments.
So the Syrian refugees in Lebanon are bent on staying where they are – in flimsy tents, crowded apartments in unfinished buildings and sometimes even on the street, surviving as best they can by taking any work they can.
In the town of Hadath, a hillside suburb of Beirut, the forced closures have been under way since February.
Samar, 39, sits in a shop that sells spices and Aleppo soap wondering what will happen next. Nearby, a curtain shop, a bakery and a butcher shop – all run by Syrians – have already closed down.
In 2012, Samar fled the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus as fighting engulfed the area. She was lucky to find a job managing the spice shop for its Lebanese owner, who knew her before the Syrian war.
Hadath municipality officials have visited Samar four times in recent weeks and ordered her to shut down the store. But they appear to have taken pity on the unmarried woman and have given her more time to quit – though she fears her time is finite.
“I think they want to send the Syrians back to their country,” she said. “I’m from Yarmouk camp. When I talk to my friends who remain there, they talk about ISIS and Jabhat Al Nusra there. How am I going to go back?”
Syrian refugees are caught in a dilemma. To work in Lebanon, you need a work permit. To get a work permit, Syrians must become legal residents in Lebanon, a process so fraught with hurdles that about 60 per cent of refugees over 15 have been unable to overcome it. And until recently, refugees had to pledge not to work while awaiting residency. As well as limiting Syrians to manual labour, the Lebanese government is also pushing for Syrians who have obtained work permits to lose access to humanitarian aid.
“Practically speaking, if they’re not following the law … it’s within the authority of the Lebanese government to shut down their businesses, just like they would with any foreigner in the country,” said Dana Sleiman, a spokesperson for the UN refugee agency UNHCR.
“We’re looking at ways to work with Lebanese authorities to help Syrians – for example large infrastructure projects that would allow Syrians to work in areas that would not create competition with the Lebanese workforce.”
But Bassam Khawaja, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch, warned that the labour crackdown could create more problems in Lebanon.
“We’re obviously concerned about what looks to be a singling out of Syrian businesses for closure,” he said. “While unemployment in Lebanon is a very real issue, the solution is not to prevent Syrians from earning a living, the ripple effects of which could further destabilise Lebanon.”
From her shop in Hadath, Samar sent this plea to the Lebanese government.
“We are not here on holiday,” she said. “We came here from a war. You have to understand what we went through.”