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Syrians in Turkey, Lebanon stay amid anti-refugee sentiment

Jul 31,2019 - Last updated at Jul 31,2019

Turkey and Lebanon have been deporting Syrian refugees to their home country despite pressure from mainly Western humanitarian agencies, which argue the situation in Syria remains unstable, putting returnees’ lives at risk. Both Turkey, which hosts 3.6 million UN-registered Syrians, and Lebanon, just over 1 million, find the financial, social and political burden too great, particularly since their economies are in crisis.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan initially welcomed the Syrians who streamed into his country when war erupted in Syria, and expected their stay would be brief. He believed Syria's Muslim Brotherhood-dominated opposition and rebel fighters would overthrow the Damascus government and establish a regime affiliated with the Justice and Development Party. This did not happen. The refugees stayed on, moved from camps near the border into Turkey's main cities and took root. Syrians congregated in poor quarters of these cities, performed jobs at low pay and set up shops and firms that competed with Turkish counterparts. Arabic signs on shops, cafes and restaurants have sparked Turkish anger. Resentment has built up and clashes have erupted, notably in Istanbul, the country's largest city.

Erdogan did not appear to be personally moved by this situation until opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu was elected, for a second time, mayor of Istanbul in June. He promised to deal with the problems caused by the presence of up to one million Syrians, half of them not registered there, among the city's 15 million inhabitants. He stated, "The issue of refugees is a severe trauma [for Turks]. It has come to a level that threatens people's incomes. There are many Syrians [who] work unregistered. We have to protect our people's interests. [The Syrians] cannot change Istanbul's colour recklessly." In Istanbul’s districts normally dominated by Erdogan's party, which also exploited anti-Syrian sentiments, many voters cast ballots for Imamoglu, who won by 800,000 votes in the June re-run of the March election.

Since he took office, the central government's security forces have rounded up and deported from Istanbul hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Syrians. Some have been taken to refugee camps, some to towns and cities where they registered on arrival and others pushed across the border to Syria's northwestern Idlib province, where Al Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir Al Sham rules.

Before the Istanbul deportations began, Syrians were barred from entering Turkey, and thousands were sent to northern Syria, where they were settled.

Of the Syrians living in Turkey, only about 100,000 live in camps near the border, while Syrians account for between 20 and 80 per cent of residents of cities and towns in that region. With a population of nearly 80 million Turks, the presence of fewer than four million Syrian refugees should not be a major problem, as Turkey is a vast country with rich resources. Turkey's political parties have, however, adopted nationalism as a means to boost competitiveness, creating difficulties for Syrians.

By contrast, Lebanon is a small country with limited natural resources and major environmental problems. After hosting Syrian refugees for eight years, Beirut has enacted legislation giving employment priority to Lebanese over Syrians, even if they are prepared to work for less money. Syrians have lost their jobs. Billboards have gone up along highways urging firms to hire Lebanese.

Lebanon, with a population of six million, has the highest number of Syrian refugees per capita of the three main host countries. In addition to UN-registered Syrians, there are, perhaps, up to half a million unregistered Syrians. Among them are thousands of Syrians who have dominated construction and agricultural work for decades who are not considered refugees and granted UN aid although they may be unable to return to homes in Syria. Some 31,000 Palestinian and 35,000 Lebanese residents of Syria have also flocked to Lebanon during the war.

Lebanon as a country did not, however, welcome the influx of Syrian refugees, which initiated religious, social and economic pressures. Fearing that the Syrians would stay on as have Palestinians driven from their homes and lands by Israel in 1948, Lebanon has refused to allow the establishment of official camps for Syrians. Most have settled in the Bekaa Valley, Baalbek, the northeast near the Syrian border and Greater Beirut. While Syrians are permitted to build temporary housing from wooden frames and plastic sheeting, they are not allowed to construct permanent structures from cement blocks and roofing.

Among those in the northeast were armed fighters from Al Qaeda's offshoots, Jabhat Al Nusra, now Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, Daesh and other factions, which created major security problems in Lebanon and have only recently been forced to leave for Idlib province in northwest Syria, which became a dumping ground for insurgents and their families.

Some 80 per cent of Syrians in Lebanon do not have residency permits, which costs $200 a year or work permits, priced from $750-1,200, well beyond the reach of most refugees. Employers face stiff fines for giving jobs to Syrians. In recent months, Lebanese security forces have raided Syrian encampments seeking undocumented workers, detaining some and deporting others.

Since the Syrian government now controls the main cities of Damascus, Homs, Hama, Aleppo and Deraa as well as the eastern Qalamoun mountains and the coast, Beirut takes the view that Syrians can return home. Lebanon's security chief Abbas Ibrahim stated 110,000 Syrians went home during 2018, but said a major repatriation effort that Russia planned failed due to the lack of financial support. Therefore, the majority of Syrians remain while the political environment grows even more hostile.

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