BARR ELIAS, Lebanon: Unkempt Syrian children from a ramshackle encampment crowd the door of a sundry shop in the West Bekaa Valley. With grubby coins in outstretched hands, they clamor for batteries, detergent and snacks, before a man wielding a broomstick scatters them.
Despite the trappings of hasty migration and manifest poverty, this is no refugee camp. “There are no refugees here,” said the man, Saddam.
“We are residents.”
Saddam is one of hundreds thousands of seasonal Syrian workers in Lebanon. He has spent countless summers in the encampment near Barr Elias, just 10 kilometers from the Syrian border. Since 1992, he has traveled to Lebanon in the summer months to manufacture dental products before returning, with full pockets, to spend the winter with his family in Syria.
Since the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Syrian workers like Saddam have crossed the border to work seasonal jobs in Lebanon, says John Chalcraft, a professor at the London School of Economics and an authority on migrant laborers in the Middle East.
“This has been going on for a very long time. Syrian labor has been an integral part of the Lebanese economy,” he said.
Now, however, many find themselves unable to return to Syria, at times obscuring the line between refugee and migrant laborer.
“For the last four years, I haven’t been back home,” Saddam said with the echo of a Lebanese accent. Still, having spent more than 20 summers working in Lebanon, he distinguishes himself from the newly arrived Syrian refugees.
The residents of Saddam’s encampment, he said, have refused aid from international organizations, and have not registered as refugees.
In an encampment down the road, however, some seasonal workers said while they don’t consider themselves refugees they had nonetheless registered with the United Nations in hopes of getting aid.
“I’ve spent the last 11 summers working the fields in Lebanon,” said Hammadi, also a Syrian. “I don’t consider myself a refugee.”
“But now there is increased competition [among the refugees]. I used to take LL25,000 per day, but now I’m taking LL10,000.”
Moreover, before the Syrian crisis, most seasonal laborers were single men, Chalcraft said.
“Wives, family and kids wouldn’t ordinarily come,” he said. Now, however, seasonal workers are coming to Lebanon with their families, fleeing violence in Syria.
“I have my wife and family to take care of and I’m getting paid less. That’s why I registered my name with the Danish Refugee Council,” Hammadi told The Daily Star.
His situation is not uncommon, explained Isabelle Saade, a coordinator at the Caritas Migrant Center.
“They have been here for several years, but many of them cannot return to Syria because they are from areas affected by the war.”
“Because the number of Syrians in Lebanon has increased, they cannot find easy jobs, they can’t get the wages they used to get. ... They are paying more rent, and food is more expensive than before,” she said.
Still, seasonal workers in Barr Elias said they have no issues with the refugees, and could sympathize with their circumstances.
“If the refugees came to our camp, we would help them,” Saadam affirmed.
“There are no problems between us,” said Abu Jassem, who has spent the past 10 summers working construction jobs in Lebanon.
Because he has worked for years in the area, Abu Jassem was appointed by a local landlord to collect rent from refugees and workers living on his land.
In the encampment he helps manage, some consider themselves refugees while others do not, a convoluted dynamic reflected in the patchwork of plastic tent coverings: Some bear the blue UNHCR logo, while others are cobbled together from jettisoned movie adverts.
At 54 years old and with few work prospects, Abu Sleiman says he is a refugee despite having worked seasonally in Lebanon since 1991.
“I work for one day, and then there’s no work for a week,” he said.
For years, Sleiman has spent his summers in a tent near the border town of Anjar, where cellphones pick up the Syrian network.
Previously, however, he had fewer costs.
“I stayed on this land for 10 years without paying any rent,” he said. “But three years ago the landlord decided to charge. ... Because there are so many Syrians here, the landlords are demanding rent.”
“The Lebanese have become harsh toward Syrians [since the outbreak of the war],” he said.
Determining who exactly is a refugee has proved to be an inexact science in the landscape of the West Bekaa, where seasonal tented settlements have existed for 50 years.
“These distinctions, people try to make them for legal purposes, but they do merge into one another,” Chalcraft said.
Abu Sleiman, an Alawite who supports the Assad regime, says that “family problems” rather than security prevent him from returning back to Syria.
Manar, a Syrian woman, said that for the past six years she and her family have spent 11 months out of the year in their tented settlement. Now, however, she considers herself a refugee.
“I’m a refugee because I am cut off from the rest of my family in Syria,” she said.
Because Syrian laborers do not require any special permit to work in Lebanon, it is extremely difficult to distinguish between refugees fleeing violence and seasonal workers, whom some suspect are hoping to benefit from the outpouring of humanitarian aid.
“There is definitely a gray area,” Saade agreed.
“We [the Caritas Migrant Center] mainly serve newcomers who have just arrived in Syria, who really ran away from the violence. People who have been here for a long time, we consider them case by case,” she said.