Solidarity movements for Syrian refugee rights in Lebanon
Solidarity movements for Syrian refugee rights in Lebanon
These circumstances have led to attempts by Syrian and Lebanese grassroot civil society collectives and organisations to fight against refugee injustices. Among others, the following organisations have been active in these attempts:
- The Socialist Forum is a political organization that was created in 2011 after the Syrian revolution began. It was initiated by the alliance of two left wing movements which were “the leftist assembly for change” and the “revolutionary communist movement”. They consider themselves as a third way on the Lebanese political stage, differentiating their organization from the March 8th and March 14th alliances. After the beginning of the crisis, the Socialist Forum decided to carry out initiatives aiming to address the need for Syrian refugees’ to be represented in Lebanese politics since they had noticed a civil society void concerning this issue.
- The Project for the legal Support for Syrian Refugees and Palestinians (PLSSRP) is an organization which acts in the legal field. The PLSSRP aims to provide legal consultations to help Syrian refugees live legally in Lebanon. The organization was founded in 2013 and faced many obstacles regarding official registration at the Ministry of the Interior, especially given the fact that the organization started off with one Syrian lawyer who was unable to work legally within Lebanon. Notably, in March 2014, the Lebanese government estimated that almost half a million of the Syrian refugee population (i.e. half of the Syrian community) currently had expired residence permits. The number of Syrians without a residence permit only increased after the government developed stricter requirements for the renewal of residency permits in January 2015. The PLSSRP are now restarting their legal efforts in order to help Syrian refugees who are suffering greatly due to their lack of knowledge concerning Lebanese law. 
- Legal Agenda meetings gathering activists working in NGOs: After the new visa decision made by General Security implementing stricter visa requirements for Syrians in January 2015, the Legal Agenda - a Beirut-based NGO that addresses issues of legal activism in the Arab world - invited many lawyers and activists working in NGOs to come together and find a way to denounce this law. Because they did not want to be charged for supporting one party over another, they intended to be politically neutral. After publishing a statement for refugees on the Legal Agenda website, they organized a series of meetings that would deal with the Syrian refugee issue.
- Committees for the fight against sectarianism and racism: In September and October 2014, the clashes happening in Arsal between ISIS and the Lebanese Army prompted an increase of violence against Syrians in Beirut. In reaction, anonymous individuals created committees and groups to fight against racial discrimination by distributing leaflets and putting up posters to fight the erroneous amalgam made between Syrians and ISIS in various areas such as Furn el-Chebbak and Ain el-Remmaneh. These groups called themselves the “Committees for the fight against sectarianism and racism.”
- The Alkarama foundation is a Geneva-based, human rights NGO established in 2004. Founded by Abdul Rahman Al Naimi, AlKarama has been registered as a Swiss foundation since 2004. The foundation works on documenting human rights violations especially related to arbitrary detention, torture, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial executions. Alkarama works in many countries including Lebanon. After detecting the violations, Alkarama submits their reports to the UN.
Classification, Ideology and Goals
Classification according to CMA categories
- The Socialist Forum is a revolutionary socialist organization. Its members believe that the current political system should be completely changed and their goal is to achieve social justice, democracy and secularism. As a part of this agenda, their aim for the Syrian refugees’ issue is to end discrimination targeting refugees and to fight for refugee rights so they can have a decent living. This fight is directly linked to their commitment against the Syrian Baath regime: they are in favour of a secular and democratic revolution in Syria, and as so, are against the Syrian regime as well as extremist religious groups.
- Brahim Al Qassem of PLSSRP noticed that many Syrian refugees - after being arrested because they did not have legal papers - were charged of being involved with terrorist organizations without any proof. Thus, their goal is to help Syrian refugees to obtain legal papers and deal with legal procedures so that they are not treated unjustly.
- Legal Agenda meetings gathering activists are meant to act a pressure group in favour of refugees and to correct detrimental policies that already exist. Wajd Sadin , an employee of the ALPHA organization, explains: “What we want is to reach out to the people that are directly involved in the policy process i.e. the founders, the Lebanese government, which means to reach out to the effective sides.”
- The Alkarama foundation works on documenting human rights violations and submitting reports to the UN. This NGO acts mainly in the Arab world. The Lebanese office, created in 2007, is responsible for working on the cases in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Iraq. They focus on Human Rights violations committed by authorities especially related to arbitrary detentions, torture, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions.
Modes of Action and Startegy
- The Socialist Forum (SF) does not usually organize protests but instead participates in already organized protests that share the same values and demands as them. The organization supports many other movements like the women’s rights movement and the workers’ rights movement: “If a movement is [demanding] something that we believe in, we help them ask for it and we ask for even more. We are trying to point out every event that happens. We directly participate or talk about it through an article.” said Nidal Ayoub, a journalist member of the SF. The Socialist Forum works with a network of organizations and individuals that share similar objectives, whether those objectives are the organization’s main focus or not
One of SF’s strategies is to connect people fighting for the same issue, in order to amplify their voices and thus to create a stronger impact. Although SF’s usual strategy is to support existing movements in their battle for refugee rights, the organization had to take the lead in organizing anti-racism campaigns towards Syrian refugees since similar projects had not been carried out before. “We are trying to use as many ways of action as possible in order to fight for our goal”, said Nidal Ayoub, talking about the Socialist Forum.
It is important to emphasize that the Socialist Forum does not work “neutrally” for the rights of Syrian refugees: this fight is directly linked to their commitment against the Syrian regime. “Even when we do something against racism, we do talk about the Syrian regime. We link things to each other. Nothing is independant”, explained Nidal. Below are the organization’s main modes of action:
- Creation of refugee committees: SF attempted to create local committees to help coordination within Bekaa refugees camps, such as in the Jarahye camp. The organization had positive experiences with the project at first, however was forced to stop its efforts after a number of refugees were threatened by security forces that were monitoring the camp. Nidal Ayoub explains that Syrian refugees were very excited about the project at the beginning but many eventually gave up because of a general feeling of skepticism. Indeed, the refugees are mostly divided due to political, economical and humanitarian reasons that will be discussed later in the section on the “effect on public policy”.
- Protests and Sit-ins: The Socialist Forum organized sit-ins for Syrian refugees rights. Once again, it is important to note here that these sit-ins were associated with SF’s commitment to the Syrian revolution. In fact, most times, the sit-ins are organized for both purposes. “Every year we have an event for the birthday of the Syrian revolution. Once we organized something at Martyr’s Square: Syrian people made a theatre play, some also [rapped] … When we do something for the Syrian revolution, we condemn at the same time the racism that Syrians are facing in Lebanon. When we do something against racism, we do talk about the Syrian regime. We link things to each other”, said Nidal Ayoub. Especially in 2012, when various areas in Lebanon started to enforce curfews, the Socialist Forum responded by carrying signs to welcome the Syrian refugees. In January 2015, when the new visa law was adopted against the Syrians refugees, SF organized sit-ins to protest the law. The socialist forum also spent time correcting and removing discriminating graffiti from public areas.
- Statement and articles: The Socialist Forum has a website called “Al-Manshour” and a Facebook page named “The Socialist Forum”. Additionally, SF created an online organization magazine in 2011, and issued a publication on the Syrian revolution in 2015. The organization has also written many articles and statements denouncing the bad treatment of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. These writings are published and can be found on the Socialist Forum website. (http://al-manshour.org/)
- Videos: SF produced a video entitled “Answer to the racist discourse against Syrian refugees” that responded to many of the discriminating criticisms Syrian refugees in Lebanon are confronted with. The video has over 60,000 views on Youtube and has been shared widely on Facebook.
- The PLSSRP provide legal consultancies by helping to connect refugees to lawyers. The organization aims to educate refugees on their legal rights and to help them deal with legal procedures properly. “What we can mostly do when a Syrian gets arrested is seek help from our Lebanese lawyer friends to pursue the case legally and to clear the charges”, explained Brahim. Brahim added that due to the fact that refugees do not often have many resources, refugees do not collaborate and thus act as individual entities instead of as organized groups facing common problems. It is also important to note here that it is difficult for Syrian lawyers to work in Lebanon as it is almost impossible to get a work permit from the government. For that reason, Syrian lawyers are depending on Lebanese lawyers who are willing to help them.
On the PLSSRP website, the organization gives advice on how to handle the daily legal problems Syrian refugees face: Lebanese lawyers provided these advices referencing Lebanese law. The advice specifically addresses how Syrians can avoid prosecution in Lebanon.
- The aim of the Legal Agenda meetings which gather activists and lawyers is to bring together Syrian and Lebanese nationals working in refugee aid relief and education so that they may collaborate and share their experiences. Wajd Sadin explained that these meetings need to work on many aspects of refugee relief, however the Legal Agenda are currently focusing on education and legal status. The organization believes both these focuses are relatively short terms projects with clear objectives which can be realized.
Regarding the legal status of refugees, Wajd denoted that Lebanon municipalities were given the green light from General Security and the Ministry of Interior to deal with refugees although they have no experience or capacity to do so. Thus, refugee law enforcement is under the mandate of municipalities. In light of this situation, the meetings are trying to find a solution to help municipalities to end bad treatment towards refugees.
Wajd also pointed out many concerns about the current bureaucratic structure of humanitarian organizations. According to Wajd, the humanitarian NGOs working for refugees are very bureaucratic and depend on the willingness of founders to finance their programmes, and thus, funds are often not distributed in efficient ways: “How would you explain gender equality to people that do not have jobs and cannot feed their children?” he asked. In the Legal Agenda meetings, participants try to create a policy structure that will stop these types of initiatives in favour of other. He concluded by stating that, “all the amount of money that [humanitarian organizations] receive from the UN and other founders should be used in the right way and go to the right places.”
- Committees for the fight against sectarianism and racism: Anonymous individuals created committees and groups to fight against racial discourses by distributing leaflets and putting up posters to fight amalgams made between Syrians and ISIS members in various areas, including Furn el-Chebbak, Ain el-Remmaneh, Hadath, Sanayeh and Wetwet. In one of their publications the committee wrote, “the majority of deaths caused by Daesh (ISIS) are found to be of Syrian nationality. Despite this reality, most Lebanese are stereotyping every Syrian to be a member of ISIS. Syrian citizens fled from Daesh (ISIS) and the Syrian regime in Syria and came to Lebanon in order to find peace and security. However, we are blaming them on a daily basis for the crimes of Daesh (ISIS). [...] Enough with the aggression against Syrian refugees and Syrian workers!”
- The Alkarama Foundation aims to discover, research and highlight human rights violations against Syrian refugees. It’s first strategy is to collect information through direct contact with victims, lawyers, other NGOs, various media outlets, (including social media), and other platforms. After conducting research, the foundation submits its reports to UN Special Procedures, as well as the UN Treaty Bodies, especially the Committee against Torture, the Human Rights Committee and the Committee on Enforced Disappearances. Alkarama also uses media, direct lobbying, campaigns, collaboration with other NGOs and civil society organizations to ensure the protection of the refugees they find vulnerable to mistreatment. For example, at the beginning of the conflict in May 2011, the foundation reported the case of 8 Syrian refugees that were threatened with being deported to Syria where they could face torture. With Alkarama’s help, these Syrians were able to stay safely within Lebanon. Furthermore, in regards to the Palestinian refugee community from Syria, Alkarama and 7 other NGOs urged the Lebanese government to stop deporting Palestinian refugees from Syria after dozens of them had reportedly been expelled from Lebanon to Syria on May 2014. With this, Alkarama aims to pressure Lebanese authorities to respect the international Human Rights conventions which Lebanon signed.
Effect on public policy
- The Socialist Forum: “I think the stir we’ve created is much bigger than our size. However, there was obviously no impact on the government which is participating in the movement of discrimination against refugees.” said Walid Daou, member of the SF. He also explained that there is a “moral crisis” in Lebanon. He refers to the fact that there is a general abandonment and indifference towards the Syrian refugees issue, which is also the cause for many other political and social issues in Lebanon. In his opinion, their campaigns would have a better impact if people were more politicized and if there was indeed an anti-racism movement established in Lebanon. In terms of SF’s part, Nidal explains that even if they do not have an important impact, they try to create a space where some people can say “no” to racism, to discrimination and to the treatment they are facing in Lebanon. Thus, it is a way to fight against societal refugee isolation in order to show that there are some who want to take action to help the refugees, even if those individuals are a minority number.
- The PLSSRP faces many obstacles in starting the organization, perhaps the most challenging being their lack of license to function as they please. Thus, the organization takes action through networking with friends, colleagues and acquaintances in order to access greater resources. Since the organization has limited resources, it does not make a great impact but rather helps the individuals that it is able to. Brahim explained that “there is so much work to be done but our resources are very limited.”
- Meetings initiated by the Legal Agenda gathering activists working in NGOs: After many meetings, Wajd Sadin explained that participants started to get demotivated since they did not have faith in actualizing a clear objective anymore. NGOs such as Legal Agenda and Alpha are still meeting to work on the refugee issue, although they now meet for special cases, rather than regularly. Legal Agenda and their partners believe that working towards changing the humanitarian system is the only solution since creating a political leadership seems like an unachievable task.
The Legal Agenda article that was published on LA’s website on the 30th of January demanded better treatment for refugees but did not have any impact on society. Instead, Lebanese citizens were largely in favour of the visa decision. Wajd explained that a media campaign - supported by almost all the Lebanese parties - had been carried out before January 2015 giving a negative image to Syrian refugees.
Moreover, while the Legal Agenda published the article in defense of Syrian refugee rights, some of the article’s points actually limits the protection of refugees. Indeed, the statement consecrates the right of asylum when, at the same time, it advocates for “the commitment to Lebanon's sovereignty” and “the right for the Lebanese state to organize its internal affairs and the protection of its security in a manner that preserves the interest of all citizens and residents.” These notions can be contradictory. For example Lebanon can use the fact that they did not ratify the 1959 Convention to deny their obligation towards refugees as Syrian refugees within Lebanon are considered “displaced people”. Also, the statement asks the government to eliminate laws and policy that would endanger the refugees. However, it adds that UNHCR is the only organization that can designate an individual as a refugee or non-refugee. This statement does not address how to deal with unregistered refugees however, and thus, fails to protect those individuals.
- The Alkarama foundation: On an international level, Lebanese authorities are interested in preserving a respectable Human Rights record. Saadeddine Shatila, the head of the Beirut office of Alkarama foundation explained that, in fact, many Lebanese ministries, as well as the national army, receive funds from other countries. These countries may cut funding if Lebanon does not respect international conventions it signed, thus, putting pressure on the government can yield positive results in some cases. For example, recently there does not appear to be evidence of refoulement of Syrian refugees back to Syria, even if they are caught with expired visas and residence permits, or if deportation orders have been issued against them. Also, Saadeddine noted that in Lebanon, individuals of the Syrian community began to use this policy as a strategy to fight for their rights.
These initiatives are merely a drop in the bucket, however. On the Lebanese political stage, the SF is still a small group that does not have any real impact because of a lack of popular support. Moreover, setting up a political movement in favour of Syrian refugees seems to be a laborious task full of hardships:
- Lebanon and the international stage have no political interest in empowering the refugee community as such since empowerment could threaten the delicate political balance in the country. Giving power to affected Syrians, including refugees, could be seen as a direct threat towards Lebanese political stability. “They fear that a Syrian Yasser Arafat would appear. This fear united all the main parties,” explained Wajd. Indeed, there was an attempt by Syrian refugees in Tripoli in 2011 to create a refugee council. Yazan al-Saadi - a journalist currently working in Beirut - explains that this project failed when the person in charge of the project was threatened and had to flee to Turkey.
- Creating a political movement needs a feeling of common identity and solidarity in the community, however the Syrian refugees are divided politically and also by the humanitarian system. As Yazan Al-Saadi noticed, Syrian refugees are not communicating with each other. He noticed the extreme dimension of this phenomenon in a camp called Jarahye, where there was absolutely no communication between Syrians, even those in close proximity of one another. Politically, the divisions between Syrians in Lebanon reflect the ones existing in Syria. While the first wave of refugees in 2011 was rather homogenous since most Syrians coming into Lebanon were ones that left their homes because of the regime, the later waves of refugees encompassed more politically and socially polarized Syrian communities. These refugees fled their country mostly out of fear from militant opposition groups. With this, it is nearly impossible to create a political representation for Syrians in Lebanon without taking sides in the Syrian conflict since most refugees hold strong opinions regarding the war. However, if a sole political representation of all Syrian refugees must be created in order to be effective, it is still unknown as to what form that representation would take. Moreover, the Syrian refugees are also being divided by the humanitarian system. The reason for this is that Syrian refugees see each other as competitors for aid and relief. Yazan Al-Saadi explains that the first obstacle that he faced in camps - while trying to create a political collaboration between refugees - was skepticism. He faced many complaints from individuals, with one refugee remarking, “we’ve heard a lot about [unity], it is not important. What we need now is aid relief.” Another problem Syrians face is that there is a significant fear of retaliation against refugees from the Lebanese authorities. Syrians understand that if they were to demand better rights and living conditions, the Lebanese government could possibly oppress them more, or even deport them from the country. Therefore, they do not find themselves in a position to organize.
The Socialist Forum: cooperates with organizations that share the same ideology and goals. Concerning the Syrian refugees issue, they specifically work with the “Anti racism movement”. (http://www.antiracismmovement.com/)
The Legal Agenda: cooperates with many local NGOs within Lebanon that serve refugees, especially in regards to labor, education, and violence against refugees. These organizations include Alef, Lebanese Labor Watch, Kafa, and the Syrian Citizenship Association.
The Alkarama Foundation: cooperates with the Human Rights NGOs, Alef, CLDH, Life, Restart Center and Legal Agenda.
The Socialist Forum: Consists of around 35 individuals from all age groups including universities and school teachers, people working in NGOs, journalists, lawyers, unemployed Lebanese citizens, and newly graduated individuals.
The PLSSRP: Consists of 5 people. Brahim Al Qassem is a Syrian a lawyer and he is working with 4 journalists.
The Alkarama Foundation: In Beirut, the Lebanese office consists of three researchers. Saadeddine Shatila is the head of the Lebanese branch.
March 2011 : Beginning of the protests in Syria
October 2011 : Series of anti-regime protests in Beirut in front of the Syrian Embassy. Some clashes happened when pro-regime people attacked the demonstrators. 
27/01/2012: 6290 Syrian refugees registered by UNHCR 
02/01/2013: 130 799 Syrian refugees registered by UNHCR
07/2013: Publication of posters against racism towards Syrians
02/01/2014: 807 940 Syrian refugees registered by UNHCR
22/05/2014: NGOs protest in denounces curfew for Syrians in Lebanon's Bourj Hammoud
09/06/2014: A demonstration took place in Mathaf to protest against the visa law
27/10/2014: Solidarity with Syrian refugees in Hadath
27/10/2014: Solidarity with Syrian refugees in Ain el-Remmaneh and Furn el-Chebbak
29/10/2014: Solidarity with Syrian refugees in Sanayeh 
29/10/2014: Solidarity with Syrian refugees in Wetwet 
16/11/2014: Solidarity protest with Syrian refugees in Gemmayze
02/01/2015: 1 146 911 Syrian refugees registered by UNHCR
30/01/2015: Statement against the visa decision published by Legal Agenda
24/01/2015: A demonstration took place in Mathaf to protest against the new decision regarding the Syrian nationals’ entry to Lebanon.
25/08/ 2015: 1 113 941 Syrian refugees registered by UNHCR
*Official datas from the UNHCR website - (last visited 30/09/2015).
**From Bidinger S., Lang A, Hites D., Kuzmonva Y., Susan M. Akram, Noureddine E., (2014) Boston University report. “Protecting Syrian refugees: laws, policies, and global responsibility sharing”, p. 28.
***From Bidinger S., Lang A, Hites D., Kuzmonva Y., Susan M. Akram, Noureddine E., (2014) Boston University report. “Protecting Syrian refugees : laws, policies, and global responsibility sharing”, p. 28.
****Yazan al-Saadi, “Restrictions, perceptions, and possibilities of Syrian refugees’ self-agency in Lebanon.”Civil Society Knowledge Center, Lebanon Support, February 2015 available at: https://civilsociety-centre.org/content/restrictions-perceptions-and-pos....
*****From Bidinger S., Lang A, Hites D., Kuzmonva Y., Susan M. Akram, Noureddine E., (2014) Boston University report. “Protecting Syrian refugees: laws, policies, and global responsibility sharing”, p. 29.
 From Bidinger S., Lang A, Hites D., Kuzmonva Y., Susan M. Akram, Noureddine E., (2014) Boston University report. “Protecting Syrian refugees : laws, policies, and global responsibility sharing”, p. 42.
 Quarterly Snapshot report from UNHCR. Syrian refugees in Lebanon, January - March 2015.
 Interview with Brahim Al Qassem conducted by the author on 20/08/2015.
 The name has been changed.
 Interview with Wajd Sadin conducted by the author on 24/08/2015.
 Interview with Brahim Al Qassem conducted by the author on 20/08/2015.
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