Middle East

Syrian refugees in Lebanon fuel tensions

Syrian refugee camp in Saadnayel in Lebanon's Bekaa valley.
Image caption Lebanon says there are more than twice the UN's number of Syrian refugees in the country

On one of the main highways in Barelias, in the Bekaa valley in east Lebanon, about a dozen shops and restaurants display Syrian signs.

Most of them offer the same variety of food, including the famous Damascene shawarma or popular oriental pastries. The smell of grilled meat and crispy bread mixes in the early spring breeze.

These shops coexist uneasily with the neighbouring Lebanese businesses.

"Look around you. It feels like the Hamidieh market," laments Fouad Araji, a Lebanese restaurant owner. Hamidieh is the famous Syrian souk at the heart of the old city in Damascus, over 50km (30 miles) away from Barelias.

Mr Araji says his profits are down by about 40%. He blames the new Syrian shops in the area for his losses.

Barelias is a mainly Sunni town of around 35,000 residents. Its proximity to the Masnaa crossing, one of the main points into and out of Syria, makes it an attractive destination for Syrians fleeing the violence across the border.

According to the mayor of the town, Naji al-Mays, 15,000 Syrians are currently living in Barelias.

"Discontent at the impact of the Syrian presence is growing," says Mr Mays in a worried tone.

Uneasy coexistence

These complaints are echoed at the highest levels. Wael Abu Faour, the minister of social affairs, describes the refugee crisis as "the biggest challenge facing Lebanon".

"It's becoming a huge burden on the political, demographic, security and social levels", he said.

Mr Abu Faour speaks of rising tension between the Syrian refugees and the local communities.

"Even in areas highly supportive of the Syrian revolution, people are complaining. In some cases there have been some clashes and unfortunately, we're hearing about attacks against Syrians in the country".

In some areas, negative attitudes towards the Syrians have surfaced.

At the entrance to Botchay, a small Christian town on Mount Lebanon, visitors are greeted by an unusual message. A large banner reads: "The municipality of Botchay announces a daily curfew on foreigners from 8.30 PM to 5.30 AM."

"By foreigners I mean Syrians. But I've worded it such that I wouldn't be branded a racist," says Michel Khoury, the mayor of Botchay and the man behind the decision.

"I've imposed the curfew as a pre-emptive measure. Every day, we hear about security incidents, crimes, burglaries, intimidation and so on in areas all over the country. So I've taken this initiative to protect my town," he said proudly.

There are no camps for refugees in Lebanon. Instead, they stay in rented apartments or with relations.

The UNHCR says as of the end of March, about 400,000 Syrian refugees had been registered, or were awaiting registration, in Lebanon.

But the Lebanese Minister of Interior, Marwan Charbel, says that the real number of Syrians in Lebanon is almost a million. Lebanon's entire population is estimated at four million.

According to Mr Charbel, the crime rate in Lebanon has increased by about 50%, an increase he says is related to the influx of Syrians.

These statements are undoubtedly feeding social anxiety in the small country with overstretched resources. Lebanon already hosts more than 450,000 Palestinian refugees. The country suffered a 15-year civil war, ending in 1990. Demographic changes or tensions are a hugely sensitive issue.

'Weakest link'

Yara Shhayed from the Anti-Racism Movement, argues that the attitudes towards Syrian refugees are akin to racism. She says that they are being blamed "only because they're the weakest link".

"People here have always looked down on Syrian workers. But since the start of the conflict in Syria and the influx that ensued, the Lebanese have been wanting to make Syrians pay for their own political failures," she said.

"So if the crime rate is high because of loose security or if dire economic conditions drive people to steal, they say that the thieves are Syrians and the rapists are Syrians and so on."

The Lebanese government has been slow dealing with the refugee crisis. While it has facilitated the entrance of Syrian refugees, it was late to conceive a plan to deal with their needs.

With no end in sight to the conflict in Syria, and a continuous flow of refugees, fear of what lies ahead is not likely to fade.

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