Examining curfews against Syrians in Lebanon

Publishing Date: 
November, 2014
Migration, Mobility and Circulation, Conflict Analysis Project
Author(s): Yazan al-Saadi
This paper explores the controversial genealogy of curfews in modern Lebanon, their legality, how they can be translated into racism, and presents suggestions on how to tackle them
Keywords: Syrian Refugees, Lebanon, Curfews, Racism

To cite this paper: Yazan al-Saadi,"", Civil Society Knowledge Centre, Lebanon Support, 2014-11-01 00:00:00. doi: 10.28943/CSKC.002.20002

[ONLINE]: https://civilsociety-centre.org/content/examining-curfews-against-syrians-lebanon-0
Cited by: 2
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On October 14, a dispatch was temporarily posted on the English section of MTV Lebanon's website criticizing a recent Human Rights Watch report about curfews against Syrians in Lebanon. It was titled, “Dear HRW, I Don't Want to Be Assaulted!!”

In defending curfews, the author of the article, Maria Fellas, wrote:

"Years ago, walking in Byblos wasn't much of a hassle. I would spend every Friday afternoon frolicking around the city with my friends until way past sundown. Do you think we were scared or a tad bit concerned? Not at all. We were at ease, knowing that the probability of someone attacking us was minimal.
Not so much now, as I have no longer the guts to walk around the city past 7 o'clock – that's when it starts to get darker – as it scares me to death that some Syrian could be lurking out there.
Careful not to misunderstand me as this is in no way a generalization. I'm talking about a personal fear, concern that I don't believe should be taken lightly."1

Nothing captures the convoluted narrative and problematic justifications behind the imposition and growth of curfews in Lebanon against Syrian refugees by municipalities more than that passage.

Over the course of the year, the number of municipalities that have decided to impose a curfew on “foreigners” – mainly meaning or directed towards Syrians – have almost doubled. In January 2014, 25 municipalities had imposed curfews.2 By October 2014, Human Rights Watch “identified at least 45 municipalities across the country that has imposed such curfews.”3

The increase of curfews generally shadow major security breakdowns such as the eruption of violence in Arsal between the Lebanese military and Syrian militant groups this past August, which in turn spurs  more crackdowns and other retaliations on Syrians elsewhere, regardless of their innocence or sentiments.

The crux of the argument for curfews enforced by municipalities stems from a belief that growing insecurity and faltering infrastructure is solely caused or intensified by foreign forces – in this case, the “Syrians”. The responsibility to act is unilaterally taken upon by these local authorities, who are further encouraged to do so due to the lack of a strong central state authority, as part of a large ongoing process of fragmentation, compartmentalization, and “securitization” of Lebanese society in general.

The controversial genealogy of curfews in modern Lebanon

Since its modern inception as a nation-state in the early 1940's, Lebanon's experience with curfews has been quite different than how it is being used today.

During French domination, which came in the form of the mandate system – lasting from 1920 to 1943 –  curfews were enforced by the French authorities at moments of defiance by the local population in an attempt to defer steps towards Lebanese self-determination. In the fall of 1943, the year when the mandate system was supposed to have ended, the French imposed a curfew as a part of a policy that began in the summer against Lebanese politicians who passed legislation to annual anything in the constitution that went against Lebanese independence and sovereignty. In this case, curfews were a tactic used by a foreign power to project control over the local population.

A similar strategy would be used by the Israelis decades later after its invasion and occupation of Lebanon during the 1980s and 1990s. For the Israelis, like the French, curfews were a tool to combat resistance through collective punishment and control of mobility in the areas under their military control.

But curfews, historically, were not only used by foreign forces on Lebanon, but by Lebanese authorities themselves on the Lebanese citizens and other non-Lebanese residents in the country. For example, in 1969, temporary curfews were implemented by authorities after demonstrations by Palestinians and their local leftist supporters in the country were sparked by the decision to curb Palestinian resistance operations against Israel. Subsequently the government fell apart, quickly replaced by a new one, and an agreement was made in which Palestinians policed their own camps and people. That agreement would be strained in the spring of 1973, when clashes once again arose between Palestinian groups and the Lebanese army that, in turn, initiated a week-long curfew.4

As the civil war erupted in the mid-1970s and the Lebanese state and society fractured. Curfews were commonplace, informally followed as the destruction and violence was spread throughout the country, and various groups and militias implemented their own forms of curfews against opposing communities under their sphere of influence. 

During the mid-1990s, a few years after the end of the civil war, the Lebanese authorities issued a curfew during the elections for General Confederation of Lebanese Workers, in particular as a means to curb the power of unions and labor organizations. The most recent and last example of a temporary and widespread curfew occurred in January 2007. It lasted three days and was implemented throughout all of Beirut, following the outbreak of violence between supporters of the March 14 and March 8 political blocs.

The illegal curfews

According to the laws governing the implementation of curfews (Article 4 of decree 52, established in 1968) a state of emergency or marshal law can only be declared by the Council of Ministers, and the implementation of curfews can only be conducted by the High Military Command. Yet, interestingly enough, in all cases of curfews, especially the type currently that are directed towards Syrians, neither the High Military Command have been involved nor has a state of emergency been declared by the Council of Ministers.

The curfews today – in terms of their structure and implementation – reflect the “abnormal” situation Lebanon finds itself in the wake of the Syrian uprising that began in 2011.

Presently, there are almost 1.2 registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon,5 with around a million more not accounted for – either because they have been living and working in Lebanon for years prior to the uprising or have sought to not register with the UN refugee agency for various reasons.6 The physical presence of a large number of people in an already cramped and strained space would naturally invoke tensions.

From a legal standpoint, the curfews by the municipalities are illegal since municipalities do not have the legal authority to do so according to the articles outlined in the municipality law. Furthermore, because Lebanon is part of a number of international conventions and treaties such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, such measures are also a violation of those terms, and as well as a violation of bilateral agreements between Lebanon and Syria in terms of allowing their citizens freedom of movement in each respective territory.

Yet despite all of these legal apparatuses in place, the municipalities were able – and continue to be able – to impose curfews with no repercussions from the Lebanese state. There are two main reasons behind this. First, there is a general ignorance of the laws governing what municipalities can or cannot do by members of the public and municipality officials themselves, who both erroneously argue that the municipalities have the power to do so. Secondly, and perhaps the more determining factor, is the discriminatory discourse within the political and media establishment towards Syrian refugees. A discourse that generates hysteria and other knee-jerk reactions.       

The Lebanese xenophobia and discrimination discourse against Syrian refugees is inescapably tied with the short comings of the systems that dominate Lebanon. As Bassem Chit and Mohamad Ali Nayel noted in their article on racism against Syrian refugees in Lebanon:

"In an environment of economic scarcity, hardship, and poverty, questions about who is more poor and more needy, among the poor, is directly and indirectly attempting to hide a more important and more crucial question, which is why do Syrian and Lebanese, whether in Lebanon or in Syria, have to live in poverty and hardship? In the mean time, projects for constructing billion-dollar shopping malls and sky-high expensive resorts and building are ongoing in different places around the country. It is that culture of not question poverty ad scarcity that allows and drives the development of racism, sectarianism, and xenophobia."7

To go further on that point, the curfews in place today are a physical outcome of the growth of racism, sectarianism, and xenophobia because they are inherently directed towards a particular kind of Syrian – as in, a Syrian of a worker or lower class, as well as extended towards other foreigners when the opportunity is available.8

Radiography of “ordinary racism” in Lebanon

In order to understand that point, one must first be aware of how and where are the curfews being implemented. Generally, curfews are announced with a large banner erected in a main street, noting the times in which Syrians and other foreigners may not be outside or gather in large groups. The order is carried out by municipality police or in some cases vigilante groups. Because there are no rules or regulations governing that procedure, the stopping of individuals is left to the discretion of these forces, where the consequences of a violation of the curfew ranges from a mere warning to, at worst, detainment or physical violence.

The class dimension comes to the fore because the stopping of a person is based on how they look, what they are driving, among other seemingly mundane indicators. Indeed, as one municipal official in the Bsharri district in northeast Lebanon claimed to Human Rights Watch, the curfew was imposed to limit the movement of Syria refugees on motorcycles after 7 pm – it should be noted that motorcycles, or scooters, are a common form of transportation, one that is cheap, used not only by lower-income Syrians, but Lebanese as well. The question begs to be asked: would a Syrian, driving an expensive car, adorned by Syrian license plates, be stopped in the area?

Even more questions can be posed about the process, as Sarah Wansa has, in an article for Legal Agenda, titled "Collective Punishment forced on Syrians: Bourj Hammoud Municipality in Lebanon imposes curfews after 8 PM":9

"Are you going to arrest ever Syrian citizen walking around after eight in the evening? How will Syrian workers and students who work late return to their homes? What if one of them experienced a health crisis that forced him to go to the hospital or to buy medicine? How long will the authorities exploit the weakest sector, ie refugees and migrant workers, as scapegoats, to justify its failure on more than one level? And finally, a question directed to the new interior minister: Will you intervene to overturn this illegal decision or will you remain silent like your predecessor?"

A further wrinkle arises when looking at the map of where the curfews are predominately being implemented. A casual gander of the outlay of curfews speaks less of actual security concerns and more of an attempt to control and ensure a certain type of public space that is hostile towards poverty. Examining Human Rights Watch's and Lebanon Support's maps of where curfews are being implemented, one can clear see that the majority of them are in communities along the coastal areas of the country, predominately peppering the western side of Mount Lebanon, and in areas where more resources and better infrastructure are present.

Compare the maps, with the population distribution of Syrian refugees recorded by UNHCR in the Beirut and Mount Lebanon district as well as the Bekaa and Baalbek areas, and one can see that it is not simply about having a large number of Syrians in the area. The Bekaa and Baalbek areas currently host the most number of Syrian refugees than anywhere else in the country, and yet have far fewer municipalities imposing curfews. In other words, arguably, it is not merely about governing Syrians – i.e. detaining them in an inexpensive manner through an enforced, informal night-time house arrest  – but it is also an attempt to ensure or make it even more difficult for Syrians to start penetrating into more affluent areas.   

One of the core reasons, if not the basic argument, for curfews revolves around security. The premises go as such: Syrian refugees are an existential threat and have contributed to a rise of crime in the areas they are in, and therefore radical measures must be taken. This reasoning, however, is never backed by actual data – which even HRW had noticed – and when data is available, it does not seem to conform to reality.

For example, according to figures by the Association Justice and Mercy, a Lebanese non-government organizations that works predominately on detainee rights, around 200-250 registered Syrian refugees were incarcerated on average within all of Lebanon's prisons in 2013, and usually for petty crimes such as theft or holding invalid or forged documents.10 This flies in the face of arguments made by political and other elites in Lebanon that major crimes have been increasing and are solely and mainly perpetrated by Syrians.

More tellingly, if we tackle the discriminatory discourse directly, meaning what type of “threatening Syrian” is being talked about, the matter because even more absurd. Take the position of Maria Fellas, the author of the notorious MTV article mentioned at the beginning of this article. Fellas is talking about the fear of harassment, and so she is talking about Syrian men.

But consider the demographics. If one examines the demography of Syrian refugees recorded by UNHCR11– a worthwhile sample to make an estimated, but fair extrapolation – the numbers again do not match the rhetoric. Only 19.2 percent of Syrian registered refugees are men between the ages of 18-59 (military age, and 'potential threats'). The rest are women or males that are young or elderly.

They, being the majority, are hidden in from the discourse, even though they always bear the price.

Possible tools for action?

Given all these obstacles and challenges, there are a number of ways to tackle these types of curfews in Lebanon. 

First, ligation is possible against the municipalities. They are in clear violation of Lebanese and international law, and therefore can be held accountable in court.

Secondly, knowledge is absolutely key. It is important not only for the public to understand what rights they do or do not have in these volatile circumstances, but it also empowers them in the face of growing infringements and abuses by authority figures. Knowledge also counteracts the discriminatory discourse that is being propagated on all levels in Lebanese society. Curfews is but a symptom of that underlying discourse and it can only be overcome by a larger concerted effort to emphasize the shared trails and tribulations faced by both the Lebanese and Syrian populace alike – for they are more alike than many of them are aware of.

Finally, curfews also arise from the vacuum of a tangible policy towards the Syrians, and refugees in general, in Lebanon. There is a belief that a refugee is an apolitical, helpless victim that should only be in a specific place and do specific things. Much of the actions in Lebanon towards Syrian refugees come from the turbulent experience with Palestinian refugees, and that experience has loomed over much of the calculations of policymakers today to the point of paralysis. That outlook must change. In the case of Syrians (and others) there needs to be a framework in place that not only support their basic needs but allows them the means to mobilize and actively better their situation and protect their rights. Not doing anything will only ensure that tensions will grow, resulting in an even worse outcome.

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About the author(s):
Yazan al-Saadi:

Yazan L. al-Saadi is a native of the West Asian region. Based primarily between Kuwait and Lebanon, Yazan has lived, studied and worked in three continents. He is currently a writer for the online Lebanese news-site, Al-Akhbar English, with interests in a number of subjects from pop-culture to politics, sociological issues to economic theories. He occasionally moonlights as a freelance writer and researcher for other publications. Yazan holds a Bachelor’s (Honors) degree in Economics and Development Studies from Queen’s University, Canada and a Masters of Arts in Law, Development, and Globalization from the School of Oriental and African Studies.