(Beirut) – The authorities in Lebanon are failing to take adequate steps to prevent and to prosecute increasing violence by private citizens against Syrians following the outbreak of clashes in Arsal in August 2014 between the Lebanese Army and extremist groups the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra and the subsequent executions of three Lebanese soldiers by extremists. The attacks against Syrians, most of them refugees, are being carried out in a climate of official indifference and discrimination, with the violence appearing in some cases to be attempts to expel Syrians from specific neighborhoods or to enforce curfews.
Human Rights Watch documented 11 violent attacks in August and September against unarmed Syrians or those perceived to be Syrian by private Lebanese citizens, including attacks with guns and knives. All of the victims were targeted because of their actual or perceived Syrian nationality, victims, witnesses, and aid workers said. Almost all victims indicated that they did not trust the Lebanese authorities to protect them or to investigate the attacks. In at least four cases, witnesses reported that the attacks took place in full view of Lebanese security forces, who did not intervene.
“Lebanon’s security forces should protect everyone on Lebanese soil, not turn a blind eye to vigilante groups who are terrorizing refugees,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The security forces have a duty to protect all persons in Lebanon, whatever their nationality.”
Lebanese authorities need to take the attacks seriously, investigate and hold those responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 10 victims, 5 relatives or friends of victims, and 7 humanitarian workers assisting Syrian refugees. The attacks Human Rights Watch documented took place in the Beirut, Mount Lebanon, and North governorates. Local media have reported and aid workers have documented dozens of similar attacks throughout Lebanon.
“When I first arrived, Lebanese people were very hospitable to me,” one Syrian refugee told Human Rights Watch. “They treated me like a refugee, someone who needed protection and had fled from the war. Now they treat me as if I am a terrorist or a security threat.”
One aid worker providing assistance to refugees near Tyre, South Lebanon, said that previously Syrians living in the south had experienced few such problems, but that the organization was now recording about one violent incident per week in 80 percent of southern municipalities.
The Lebanese Institute for Democracy and Human Rights (LIFE), a local nongovernmental group, said it had documented two dozen violent attacks against Syrian refugees in September, including attacks with guns and knives, and assaults in which the attackers pulled Syrians out of buses and vans. The majority of the attacks were in the Bekaa, the Nabaa and Bourj Hammoud neighborhoods of Beirut, and in Beirut’s southern suburbs.
Local and international media also reported dozens of such attacks in August and September. They include attacks against refugee settlements on September 8 in Douris, in the Bekaa governorate, and in the southern suburbs of Beirut, al-Lailaki and Hay al-Sellom. On September 10 in Baalbek, in the Bekaa, residents reportedly tied up two men and left them as human roadblocks facing traffic. The same day, assailants fired on a Syrian refugee camp in Hermel, in the Bekaa, wounding two Syrians, the Lebanese National News Agency reported.
Those interviewed said that as far as they had been able to determine, the vast majority of incidents have not been investigated or anyone punished. Suspects were arrested in only one case that Human Rights Watch documented, although it is not clear if they have been charged.
Only one victim said he tried to report an attack to Internal Security Forces, the local police, on September 6, but that the duty officer told him “not to get so upset about such things” and that as far as the victim knew, the police had taken no action. In a second case, a Syrian refugee said he told municipality officials in Zoqaq al-Blat that one of his friends was attacked but they told him that there was nothing they could do.
Eight victims said they did not report the attacks due to fear of reprisals by the assailants or that they themselves would be arrested, in some cases because they lacked valid residency permits. One aid worker said that in the few cases she knew of in which refugees did file complaints, the result was the refugees themselves faced problems with the authorities instead of justice. Aid workers also said that violent incidents were widely underreported because the victims feared reprisals. One refugee said his attacker threatened to kill him if he reported the incident to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).
Men, women, and children in all regions of Lebanon were attacked, interviewees said, but those interviewed said that men perceived to be supporters of the Syrian opposition seemed to be more vulnerable to attack.
Eight displaced Syrians told Human Rights Watch that the violence followed efforts by local residents to force Syrians to leave particular neighborhoods. They said local residents had posted flyers demanding that Syrians leave the neighborhood by a certain time. An aid worker providing assistance to refugees near Tyre, south Lebanon, said such flyers were posted on September 17 in the `Ayn Kineya area of Hasbaya and that some Syrians said they received SMS messages from an unknown number telling them to leave immediately.
Media reports indicated that such flyers were posted in villages and towns throughout the country, including in Hay al Salloum , Bourj Hammoud , Hadath, Bourj Shemali in Tyre , Ajaltoun, Srifa and Al-Qulay`a. Some flyers threatened violence if the instructions to leave the area were not complied with. In Beirut’s Zoqaq al-Blat, a note was reportedly posted threatening those who did not leave within 48 hours with “slaughter or torture until death.”
In a September 23 case, a group of Lebanese men in Rawda brutally stabbed a Syrian man, saying it was because he was out after a curfew.
Although the assailants in the cases Human Rights Watch documented appeared to be private citizens, in many cases they appeared to be operating with at least tacit support of local authorities. In six cases, victims or witnesses said, the attacks took place in full view of Lebanese security forces.
Lebanese security forces should remain vigilant against any abuse of Syrian refugees and ensure that anyone responsible for violations is held to account. The Lebanese authorities should take immediate measures to adequately investigate the attacks and prosecute those responsible. The authorities should take precautionary security measures in areas where they know the risk of attacks to be high, such as increased security patrols. Security officials who witness attacks and then fail to intervene should be held to account.
“Attacking Syrian refugees won’t bring back the abducted soldiers or solve the country’s refugee crisis,” said Houry. “The attacks on Syrian refugees will only increase their misery and add to instability and insecurity in Lebanon.”
High-level government officials should issue official statements condemning the violence, noting that it will not be tolerated and that those responsible will be brought to justice. There have been recent statements condemning the violence by national politicians, including Walid Jumblatt from the Progressive Socialist Party and Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah from Hezbollah. National politicians should use their influence to push state institutions to protect Syrian refugees.
A number of local officials, such as Mayor Adel Najd of Abadieh and Marcellino al-Hark, head of the Batroun municipality, have also tried to quell the violence and other restrictions against Syrians. A local newspaper reported that al-Hark criticized the curfews increasingly imposed on Syrians: “Our problems in this country are from discrimination… You can’t take a decision like this [to impose curfews] based on where a person comes from, his identity, race or sect.”
However, some statements by government officials blaming all Syrians for security incidents or wrongdoing can only serve to heighten tensions and the potential for violence, Human Rights Watch said. For example, on September 13, Antoine Chakhtoura, the municipal head of Dekwaneh, a suburb north of Beirut, was quoted by a local newspaper as saying that, “Every gathering by Syrians is a sleeper cell [directed] against the security, economic, livelihood, or environmental [sectors].”
Officials should refrain from issuing any statements that risk inciting violence and instead should condemn such attacks and call for accountability, Human Rights Watch said.
The national government should also provide more guidance to municipalities on how to manage relations with refugees in their communities and provide effective and concrete guidance on how to carry out such measures. The government should oversee these policies to ensure their compliance with Lebanon’s international human rights obligations, Human Rights Watch said.
“Meeting the challenges of the increasing number of refugees in a small country such as Lebanon is an enormous task,” Houry said. “Scapegoating Syrians for Lebanon’s ills is not the answer.”
For details of the attacks Human Rights Watch documented, please see below.
Cases of Violence Documented by Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch documented 11 cases in August and September in which Syrians in Lebanon, or people perceived to be Syrians, were violently attacked in their homes or on the street by Lebanese private citizens. Humanitarian workers informed Human Rights Watch of an additional 21 cases. Human Rights Watch was not able to investigate those cases independently.
Bourj al-Barajneh, South Beirut. Early August
While attacks against Syrians in Lebanon spiked in August and September, in some areas, like in Bourj al-Barajneh, in the Beirut suburbs, Syrians reported violent attacks and harassment by local residents as early as 2013. The attacks have since intensified. Bourj al-Barajneh, which before the conflict in Syria was the site of a Palestinian refugee camp, is home to at least 31,000 refugees including Palestinian refugees from Syria and Lebanon, and other Syrian refugees, reported a local newspaper quoting United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
A series of bombings in the Beirut suburbs in 2013 and 2014 were claimed by several Syrian extremist groups, including Jabhat al Nusra. One Syrian resident of the Bourj al-Barajneh camp, Yusra, whose name, as with other witnesses, was changed for her protection, said that while the deteriorating security situation affected everyone, Syrians and Palestinian refugees from Syria were increasingly regarded with suspicion after the bombings. In the past year, she said, the violence against refugees from Syria worsened and sometimes took place directly in front of security personnel, who did not intervene.
Abdul Rahman, a Syrian refugee who has lived in Burj al-Barajneh since 2013, told Human Rights Watch:
About three months ago a false rumor started to go around Bourj al-Barajneh that I was a member of a terrorist sleeper cell in Lebanon. Of course I am not, but that’s what people were saying. Whenever I would leave the house people would curse me, sometimes throw shoes at me in the street. It wasn’t just me, they did this to other Syrians too.
At the beginning of August, he was standing outside Haifa Hospital on a main road in the camp when one of his neighbors, a Palestinian man living in Lebanon, took out a knife and threatened him, unprovoked:
A crowd gathered around us. He put the knife to my neck and said ‘You are Syrian. You have no voice here.’ Everyone in the street saw it, but did nothing. Even the local security committee operating and patrolling inside the camp watched but didn’t intervene. Several weeks later I was standing in front of the same hospital when I saw three Syrian brothers with stab wounds being rushed into the hospital…. Realizing that my own life was in danger, I decided to flee the neighborhood with my family.
Rahman relocated to South Lebanon with the help of UNHCR, but he told Human Rights Watch he continues to fear for his safety and to restrict his own movements because he does not have a valid residency permit in Lebanon.
Jnah, South Beirut. September 17
In some cases, Syrian refugees in Lebanon have been threatened with guns or shot. Ali, his brother Hussein, and his mother, Zeina, described how he was shot and beaten on September 17 in Jnah, in the Beirut suburbs. Ali showed Human Rights Watch his medical documents and the wounds, which corroborated his statement.
He said he was sleeping when at around 3 a.m. he heard a knock on the door. He opened the door and saw about seven armed men in civilian clothes. “They said “Ya da`eshi” [supporter of ISIS] and then immediately hit me on my head with the butt of a rifle and I fell on the floor,” Ali said. The men then entered his house and beat him with their hands and feet, accusing him of being a member of the extremist Islamist group the Islamic State. They searched his house for weapons, but found none. They fired at him with a pump-action shotgun and hit him along the side of his body:
Then they drove me away to another location. There they accused me of attacking them, selling drugs, and other things. None of it was true. They made me sign a ‘pledge’ saying that I will leave the area by the end of the month and that I am not allowed to re-enter the neighborhood. I didn’t read it because I was in so much pain and bleeding a lot. They just told me to sign and I did because they had guns.
Ali believes his assailants were members of the Amal Movement political party because an Amal party flag and a picture of Amal Movement leader Nabih Berri was hung on the wall of the office in which he was forced to sign the pledge. Human Rights Watch was not able to independently verify this claim. He said the men later dropped him off at his friend’s house. A few hours later he went to the hospital where he was given medical treatment. “The doctor told me that if they had shot me at closer range I would be dead,” he said.
“While I was at the hospital with my brother I got a phone call from a private number,” he said. “They told me that if we file a complaint against them, they will find us and that we know what they will do to us.”
Zeina told Human Rights Watch that when she went to Ali’s house to gather his belongings for him after the attack, that some men came into the house and started harassing her: “One of the guys started cursing me for being Syrian and then pushed my forehead and I fell on the bed. They told me I was Syrian and should never come back. The Lebanese women present intervened on my behalf. I don’t know what would have happened if those women didn’t stop them. My body is weak and I am 56 years old.”
She said that when she went to the hospital to visit her son she spoke to another woman whose son had been attacked in Jnah by people he didn’t know: “I saw his legs, they were covered in bruises. I asked the woman what happened and she said that her son was attacked in the neighborhood, just for being Syrian.”
Mar Mikhael, South Beirut. September 20
Khalid, a Kurdish refugee from Syria, said that Lebanese men attacked him on September 20. He had taken a bus to an area near Mar Mikhael in the Beirut suburbs with his wife and child to visit some people, but when they got off the bus, a Lebanese man asked him where he was going. “The Lebanese men in the neighborhood recognized my Syrian accent and started to beat me,” he said. “They were hitting me, my wife, and child with their hands, feet, and sticks....My eye is still red from the beating,” He said that no passersby intervened and that while he was in Mar Mikhael he saw Lebanese men pull a number of other Syrians out of a bus and beat them. He and his family escaped by running away through the crowds.
Nabaa, Beirut. September 21
Kareem said that four men attacked him in the Nabaa neighborhood in Beirut on September 21 as he walked home from work: “They slapped me on the back on the neck and then kicked me in my back. ‘You are Syrian, you are not allowed here,’ they said. There was police around but they didn’t do anything. I fell down on the street. I can’t complain to the police because I don’t have any papers here. If I do, they will just arrest me.”
Geitwai, Beirut. September 6
Basil said that seven or eight Lebanese men attacked him on September 6 in the Geitawi neighborhood of Beirut. Basil was born in Syria and obtained Lebanese citizenship after moving to Lebanon many years ago. He was leaving a friend’s house when he decided to smoke a cigarette in the park:
Suddenly seven or eight men appeared, identified themselves as General Security, and demanded my papers. I told them to give me their IDs first to prove that they were from General Security. I knew that they weren’t really from General Security and were just guys from the neighborhood. Then they started to beat me. They took out my Lebanese ID and saw that I was born in Damascus and had gained Lebanese citizenship only later in life. ‘Who gave you this nationality?’ They asked me. They continued to beat me and told me that they were searching me for drugs and weapons. Then they threatened me, ‘You need to leave now or else you will not make it home.’
He took a cab home. “The incident left me with bruises all over my body, my eyes were swollen shut and I had to get two stitches in the back of my head,” he said. The next day he went to the police station to file a complaint. “While filling out the paperwork the officer just told me that next time I need to be more careful and that I shouldn’t be so sensitive about things,” Basil said.
Fern al-Shebak, Beirut. September 13
Tariq, a Syrian, said that about five Lebanese men attacked him at around 10:30 p.m. on September 13 in the Fern al-Shebak neighborhood of Beirut as he was going to dinner with a friend. They noticed that a car with five men was slowly following them. The men asked Tariq and his friend where they lived and they responded just down the street: “Then they told us that we had three seconds to run home. Instead, they got out of the car and started to push us. They grabbed my friend and hit him:”
I know the guys who beat us. They are from the neighborhood and we see them a lot. People have been writing things on the wall saying that Syrians need to leave. Apparently a curfew had been imposed by residents in the neighborhood and no Syrians are allowed to go out after 8 p.m. Guys in the neighborhood are organizing themselves as part of vigilante groups to police the presence of Syrians in the neighborhood and sometimes to attack them.
Barbir, Beirut. September 14
Bashar, a Syrian refugee, said that five men attacked him at around 8 or 9 p.m. on September 14 in the Barbir neighborhood of Beirut when he went out to buy food at a local shop. A group of about five men approached him, he said, one of whom had a knife, and asked him if he was Syrian. Bashar said yes and then the men pushed and cursed at him. “They started to yell at me saying ‘get out of our country you dog’ and ‘you are all Daesh [ISIS],’” Bashar said. A neighborhood resident intervened, and Bashar ran home. “I am not able to handle any more insults,” he said. “I can’t file any complaints about this to the police. If I go, they will just say, ‘Why are you complaining against my Lebanese brother?’ I feel like there are no laws here.”
Bourj Hammoud, Beirut. September 9
On September 9, neighborhood youth circulated a flyer in the Bourj Hammoud area in Beirut ordering Syrians to leave, local media reported, after ISIS executed two captured Lebanese soldiers in Syria. “We ask Syrian citizens living in Burj Hammoud to evacuate the area starting Tuesday, Sept. 9, at 6 p.m. and [the decision is] in solidarity with the martyrs of the Lebanese Army,” the flyer said.
Nadia said that the army entered Bourj Hammoud on the same day and people started telling Syrians to leave. Syrians started to close their shops and flyers were passed around telling Syrians to leave, she said. “They [the army] closed off the neighborhood for a while and were not letting anyone enter. They said that Syrians needed to leave by 6 p.m.” “One Lebanese wearing civilian clothes walked down our street with a gun yelling, ‘Where are the Syrians?” she said. “The Lebanese security forces were present but didn’t do anything to stop it. I hid in the house with my child in fear.”
Mustafa said that he was attacked in the municipality square in Bourj Hammoud at around 8 p.m. that day while walking with his family:
Suddenly seven or eight Lebanese guys approached me and started hitting me with their hands and feet. The police saw it but weren’t doing anything. If my wife and small child hadn’t been with me, I would have been beaten more severely. I saw lots of other Syrians being beaten in the street that day. They want us to go back to Syria. But where would I go? My house was destroyed by barrel bombs and I am wanted by the [Syrian] regime.
Rawda, Baabda. Mount Lebanon. September 23
Human Rights Watch spoke to Salim, whose friend Bassam told him he was attacked on September 23 by two assailants in Rawda, in the Baabda district in Lebanon at about 10 p.m. Salim was not with Bassam when he was attacked but accompanied him to the hospital that night for treatment for his wounds. With Bassam’s consent, Salim sent Human Rights Watch copies of Bassam’s medical documents and a picture of him visiting Bassam in the hospital.
He said Bassam was targeted by several Lebanese men who were enforcing a curfew in the area. “Lebanese guys stopped him and said you are not allowed to go out at night,” Salim said. When Bassam told them he was just going to the store, they stabbed him three times, including in his chest. “He sustained severe wounds, one of which has perforated his lung,” Salim said. “He is in urgent need of surgery but we don’t have enough money…. He has no family in Lebanon and is all alone here.” Human Rights Watch could not speak with Bassam directly because of the extent of his injuries. Salim said that the two men who allegedly stabbed Bassam had been arrested but that Bassam did not file a police report.
Cases Reported by Humanitarian Workers
Mar Elias, Bekaa. August 5
A humanitarian worker working in the Bekaa said that on August 5, four Lebanese youth stopped at an informal refugee settlement in Mar Elias and physically attacked and attempted to rob a group of Syrian refugees. The group documented the attack during its field visits and interviews with victims.
Al Hosnieh, Akkar. August 9
A humanitarian worker in North Lebanon said that she and her colleagues interviewed victims following an attack on August 9 against an informal settlement in the al-Hosnieh area of Akkar: “Armed men from the community physically attacked an informal settlement in that area on August 9, which was sheltering approximately 400 Syrian refugees. They assaulted and cursed refugees and threatened that they would return to burn down tents and, in some cases, kill refugees who had not left the area after 12 hours, the aid worker said.” Refugees scattered to Kuwaishare, Baabda and other unknown locations.
Halba, North Lebanon. August 15
A humanitarian worker in North Lebanon said her colleagues documented a violent attack by Lebanese residents in the area on three Syrian refugees on the street in Halba on August 15. “The refugees told us that they were targeted on an individual basis due to their perceived political support of the Syrian opposition,” the aid worker said. The information about the attack was collected through field visits and interviews with victims of the attacks.
Bcharre, North Lebanon. August 12 and 13
A humanitarian worker in North Lebanon said her colleagues interviewed two Syrian refugees living in an informal settlement who told them that on August 12, between 10:30 p.m. and midnight, people wearing face masks attacked 25 Syrian refugees. One victim was part of a family group and the others were single males. The attack was both verbal and physical, with knives, cursing, and fireworks thrown into the house through windows, she said. The aim of this attack was reported to be the expulsion of all Syrian refugees from the area, the aid worker said. She said some Syrian refugees fled to other districts.
Wadi Jamous, North Lebanon. September 12
A humanitarian worker in North Lebanon said that on September 12 a group of youths entered an informal refugee settlement in Wadi Jamous and threw stones at the residents. The aid worker collected information about the attack through interviews with victims. On September 14, the aid worker said, about 15 Lebanese youths entered the settlement, fired shots and burned tents, forcing the Syrians to leave. “According to eye-witness reports, the head of the municipality did not intervene to prevent the eviction,” the aid worker said. The information about the attack was collected through field visits and interviews with victims of the attacks.
Bekaa Area. September 8-14
A humanitarian worker at an aid organization operating in the Bekaa told Human Rights Watch, that the group recorded 16 violent incidents against Syrian refugees in one week in September alone through field visits and interviews with victims. Five refugee camps were set on fire, one of which was completely burned, he said.