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As Syrian refugee influx swells, so does backlash


October 09. 2013 2:36AM
Associated Press



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(AP) Last year, as Syrian refugees were pouring in, signs started going up in Lebanese towns and villages imposing nighttime curfews and warning the newcomers to stay away. Some referred just to "foreign workers," others directly cited "Syrians."


The signs have since come down amid a campaign by human rights activists who rallied in Beirut this summer and hung a banner from a bridge in the capital saying: "Excuse us for the behavior of those who are racist among us."


But with more than a million refugees in a country of just 4.5 million, the tensions linger.


Lebanon is the biggest recipient of Syrians fleeing the 2 1/2 -year civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people and displaced millions. Syrians are accused of committing burglaries, of cutting into the job market, even of causing traffic jams.


Judi, a 22-year-old student, describes being ordered out of a taxi when the driver learned she is Syrian. Majid, who works at a parking lot, says he has taken to hiding his nationality.


Abed, a Beirut concierge, returned to Syria to spend Ramadan with family and when he tried to come back, an immigration officer banned him from entering for one year. No explanation was given, Abed said, speaking to The Associated Press by phone from Syria.


All three asked that their surnames be withheld because their situation is sensitive.


Underlying the tensions is a historically fraught relationship. For much of the past 30 years, Syria all but ruled Lebanon. It dictated policies on everything, from the appointment of senior civil servants to the naming of presidents and prime ministers. It stationed tens of thousands of troops in the country, ran humiliating roadblocks and was blamed for scores of bombings and assassinations.


All that ended in 2005 with a Syrian withdrawal under international pressure. But the Syrian regime still has powerful allies here, including the militant Hezbollah group and an array of smaller, armed groups.


Many Lebanese have opened their homes to them, but Lama Fakih of Human Rights Watch said Syrian refugees tell the organization that they feel insecurity and growing hostility.


She said female refugees are vulnerable to exploitation by landlords and employers. "We find that there are instances where women are being sexually harassed, are being asked to make sexual favors and when they refuse and resist, are concerned about being retaliated against."


Some politicians, including those from the nationalist Free Patriotic Movement led by Christian leader Michel Aoun, have called for closing the border to refugees. They say the influx could upset the country's delicate sectarian balance. Most of the refugees are Sunni Muslim, while Lebanon has large Shiite and Christian populations.


"What is happening is organized crime carried out by Lebanese and foreign officials to change the country's demography," said Gibran Bassil, outgoing energy minister and senior member of the Free Patriotic Movement.


The hostility has affected Syrians who, like Abed the concierge, have been in Lebanon for years.


Majid, who was working at the parking lot long before Syria's crisis began, describes being cursed by a customer who caught his Syrian accent.


"I had expected him to give me a tip," he said. Instead, "I was humiliated but did not dare to respond."


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Associated Press writer Yasmine Saker contributed to this report from Beirut.


___


Follow Bassem Mroue on twitter.com/bmroue


Associated Press


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