A recent report by Human Rights Watch says Lebanese civilians are carrying out “revenge attacks” on Syrian refugees in response to the execution of captured Lebanese soldiers by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other extremist groups.
“The attacks against Syrians, most of them refugees, are being carried out in a climate of official indifference and discrimination,” the report says, “with the violence appearing in some cases to be attempts to expel Syrians from specific neighborhoods or to enforce curfews.”
Here Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, explains why the attacks on Syrians “will only increase their misery and add to instability and insecurity in Lebanon.”
Syria Deeply: How has the situation gotten worse for Syrians living in Lebanon, as a result of the execution of army captives following clashes in Arsal between the army and Syrian militants?
Nadim Houry: Things have gotten worse on a number of levels. We have seen over 40 Lebanese municipalities impose curfews on Syrians. These curfews are often discriminatory and implemented by local municipal committees and vigilante groups. We’ve seen a spike of attacks by private Lebanese citizens on Syrians, in a climate of impunity and official indifference. We have had four cases where the victims said that the Lebanese police were present and failed to intervene to prevent the attacks. We are also hearing worrying reports about abuses during searches and arrests by Lebanese security forces.
Syria Deeply: Who is being targeted in these attacks?
Houry: These are random attacks on the streets and homes of Syrian refugees. People are being targeted because they are identified by their accents as Syrian. Many of the attacks are in relation to messages and calls issued locally for Syrians to leave certain areas; we saw fliers distributed by local residents asking Syrians to leave.
Syrians are being attacked by knives and guns, some are being attacked in their own homes, and others are being attacked on the streets.
Syria Deeply: Why are we seeing an increase in attacks?
Houry: There has been a steady increase of hostility towards Syrian civilians from host communities over the last year. The spike came after the fighting in Arsal between extremist groups, ISIS, al-Nusra and the Lebanese army, after which these groups took a number of soldiers and members of the Lebanese security forces hostage and executed them. This created a strong backlash in many communities against Syrian refugees.
Many officials have also used discourse that blurs the lines between support for refugees and these extremist groups. We’ve seen officials, including local mayors, say that any gathering of Syrian refugees are potential sleeper cells for ISIS.
These attacks are violating the Syrians’ basic rights, and they aren’t going to bring back Lebanese soldiers or reduce the burden of hosting the Syrian refugees. The attacks are just making life miserable for Syrians and increasing a climate of instability in Lebanon.
Syria Deeply: What steps, if any, are authorities taking to prevent and prosecute violence against Syrian civilians?
Houry: That’s the problem. They aren’t taking any steps. Out of the cases we’ve documented, we are only aware of one case where the attackers were apprehended by security forces, but we aren’t even sure if they were charged or later released.
Many of the Syrian refugees are afraid to file complaints because they are worried they will be arrested, either because they don’t have proper residency papers or because local police are friendly with local vigilante groups that are threatening Syrians.
We haven’t seen clear, strong statements from Lebanese officials in the government that they will not tolerate such a task and that perpetrators will be prosecuted. In the absence of any concrete measures, we are seeing a climate of impunity that is translating into real fear for many Syrian refugees who told us they don’t even dare go out on the streets at night.
Syria Deeply: What are some steps that can be taken to better manage relations with Syrian refugees, on an international and local level?
Houry: Locally, there has to be a strong push to remind the Lebanese authorities and governments that they are responsible for the safety of any person on their territory. They need to take measures to denounce such attacks and prevent further attacks, and to arrest and prosecute perpetrators.
The international community should make clear to Lebanon that it has the obligation to prevent these attacks and to take measures to say they aren’t tolerated. This has to do with the basic rights and dignity of many people and the stability of Lebanon.
Syria Deeply: How are these attacks increasing instability and insecurity in Lebanon?
Houry: If these attacks continue, we will see more tension between the host Lebanese communities and Syrian refugees.
The impact so far is on Syrian refugees, many of who have been attacked and displaced within Lebanon without any clue where else to go in the country. It has forced people to leave their homes, including women and children; it is having a great impact on an already disenfranchised and marginalized community.
If these attacks continue, there is a real risk of confrontation between local communities and Syrian refugees. So far, refugees have in many ways just escaped and left these areas, but there is a real concern that if the state doesn’t intervene, we will see more private violence and increasing rise of vigilante Lebanese groups. History tells us that these acts lead to more violence in response.