BEIRUT: The recent use of nationalist and anti-refugee rhetoric by Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil drew a furious backlash from politicians, academics and many in the online community.
At the same time, it was supported by Bassil’s core supporters, who followed up rhetoric with action: Last month, the youth wing of the Free Patriotic Movement, the party Bassil heads, launched a campaign to locate and shut down businesses run by Syrians accused of violating labor laws. But the other major refugee host countries in the region, Turkey and Jordan, are also turning their backs on Syrian refugees.
So, is recent anti-Syrian rhetoric a uniquely Lebanese issue, or a regional phenomenon?
According to a report by the University of Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre, titled “Local Politics and the Syrian Refugee Crisis,” at the start of the Syrian civil war, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan were all relatively welcoming toward refugees, due to “historically open policies toward Syrian migration.”
Lebanon, for instance, had in place a free movement agreement with Syria since 1991. But one by one, Syria’s refugee-hosting neighbors gradually began closing their borders to refugees and cutting down on rights for Syrians, beginning around late 2014, the report says. Even with such restrictions, these three countries were among the top 10 global refugee hosts in 2017, according to official data released last year by the U.N. refugee agency.
As demonstrated by the FPM youth wing’s targeting of Syrian businesses, one of the biggest perceived causes of tensions for host communities was refugees’ impact on the economy.
The actual impact in Lebanon is disputed. A 2018 report produced by BLOM Bank argued that the increase in the number of Syrians in the labor market since the start of the Syrian crisis, and their competition in service industry jobs usually dominated by Lebanese workers, had caused the unemployment rate in Lebanon to double.
But this is disputed by Sami Atallah, the executive director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. “They may have competed for low-skill jobs more and more, but ultimately these are jobs that Lebanese are not interested in taking in the first place,” he said, arguing that some parts of Lebanon had benefited from the presence of refugees through, for instance, an influx of aid.
The story in Turkey is similar.
Earlier this year, in a suburb of Istanbul, a group of young Turkish citizens attacked Syrian shops. Calling for the removal of Syrians from their country, they shouted, “This is Turkey, not Syria.”
“There is a growing demand for Syrian repatriation,” said Omar Kadkoy, an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey. Turks feel aggrieved, he said, by aid going to Syrian refugees - some falsely believe it is being provided by the Turkish government rather than international donors such as the EU - and Syrians working illegally in the labor market.
In Jordan, the economy is again a major factor in rising resentment.
Following last year’s opening of the Syria-Jordan Nassib crossing last year, for example, “the influx of cheap Syrian goods resulted in the resentment of merchants in Jordan,” said Noura Hourani, a managing editor at Amman-based online news site Syria Direct.
While perceived economic competition has been a common cause of tension between host communities and refugees, the markedly different political landscapes of the three countries mean that the rhetoric against refugees has not been as consistent.
Turkey’s ruling AK Party championed welcoming refugees on religious grounds, Kadkoy said, and has stuck to this line as recently as the debates for the mayoral election rerun in Istanbul, held last month.
Nevertheless, senior AK Party politicians including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have started to champion creating safe zones for refugee returns as a motive for Turkey’s military involvement in northern Syria, although many commentators consider Ankara’s primary motive to be the prevention of Kurdish forces from making territorial gains in Syria.
Back in Lebanon, Bassil is using refugees as an “easy scapegoat to blame [for] some of Lebanon’s social problems and political difficulties,” said Mohanad Hage Ali, of the Carnegie Middle East Center.
“He thinks perhaps it’s helpful to focus on Syrian refugees, it makes him a protector of Christian rights in Lebanon.”
The escalation in Bassil’s rhetoric is also linked to recent political and economic developments, Hage Ali said. The economy, he pointed out, is heading for recession: Just last week, the Central Bank reported zero percent growth thus far for 2019.
Recent austerity measures, such as cuts to military pensions, Hage Ali added, are hurting the FPM’s core supporters. “The military is an Aoun stronghold,” he said, referring to the FPM’s founder and former leader, President Michel Aoun.
“I think populist rhetoric is a way out for [Bassil].”