In Lebanon, the presence of Syrian refugees has been part of the discourse of public influential figures. As investigative journalists, we were prompted to analyze this discourse. Over the course of 10 months of work, we have documented, filtered and analyzed thousands of Tweets to identify supporters of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and those who oppose taking them in.
During the period of our reporting, Lebanon witnessed numerous campaigns and advocacy calls, among which were those triumphing the Syrian cause, or advocating the conditions of refugees in Lebanon. For example, hundreds of Syrian and Lebanese activists have tweeted in the last two years under the hashtag #عرسال_تستغيث in an attempt to send a distress message about the horrid living conditions refugees endure in camps.
This data-driven story revealed that more than half of the tweets included in the analysis sample rejected Syrian refugees. Male rejection was more pronounced than women, with 95% of male tweets rejecting refugees, compared to 5% of tweets by women
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Our team of journalists and technical team at InfoTimes collaborated with a team of editors from the Syrian Investigative Journalism Unit (SIRAJ) to study and analyze the tweets of a group of Lebanese public figures from February 2011 to September 2019, where 101 individuals were selected according to their public presence and activity on Twitter, as well as their influence on the Lebanese street.
The data collection process from the social networking platform Twitter was done using algorithms specially designed for this process.Following the collection of Tweets by the figures under study, they were divided into three sectors according to their professions. The first included 41 figures working as journalists, opinion writers, and rights activists. The second sector comprised of 36 politicians, party members, government officials and statesmen. The last sector included 24 celebrities, mainly singers and actors.
Following the software algorithms, we examined and filtered approximately 238,000 tweets to extract tweets related to the subject of the Syrian asylum in Lebanon. A total of 1,454 tweets were written by 68 Lebanese of the total figures monitored in the search process.
Then we sorted the tweets and classified them into three main groups: group 1 has positive tweets – tweets that contained sympathy and support for the presence of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Group 2 has negative tweets – tweets that included opposition, repatriation and hatred for the presence of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and called for their return to their country. Group 3 was the neutral tweets – those tweets that did not contain words of sympathy and support nor words of hatred and hostility.
The analysis of tweets showed a conflicting view of the refugees, as 30% of the Lebanese figures supported the refugees, while 51% rejected them, which explains the emergence of voices calling for the return of Syrian refugees, describing the as “displaced”.
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These percentages illustrate the officials’ position concerning Syrian refugees, and the apparent division of the Lebanese public on this matter. There was no apparent conflict of opinion or change of attitudes by any of the figures being researched. Even if sympathy emerged among one or two people who oppose the Syrian asylum in Lebanon, it was a manifestation of some humanity, but it does not rise to be a visible change in the general attitude of this character. Nevertheless, 19% of the public figures’ Tweets were neutral.
The analysis revealed high rejection of refugees, where the list of negative Tweets amounted to 114. Some of these public figures are from the axis supporting the Syrian regime and some from the anti-Syrian axis, such as figures from the “Marada”, figures from the Future Movement, figures from the Lebanese Forces Party, figures from the current “Azm”, in addition to figures from The Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), government officials, and MPs in the Lebanese parliament.
But the most prominent and obvious role in the rejection of refugees and prominent support for the Syrian regime, was played by the Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, leader of President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, who often called for the need to return the “displaced” Syrians to their country.
Sympathy and Support
On the other hand, there were those who supported the Syrian refugees and positively dealt with their situation, such as figures from the Progressive Socialist Party in Lebanon, figures from the Future Movement, media personnel and human rights activist Nabil Halabi, Lebanese journalist Tony Boulos and journalist Rima Maktabi, celebrity Fadel Shaker, media personnel Dalal Moawad, and others.
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Lebanese women were present in dealing with the situation of Syrian refugees on Twitter, and they had smaller portion of negative Tweets. Only 5% of 736 Tweets by women were negative. Women accounted for nearly a third of positive posts. Lebanese journalist Rima Maktabi was at the forefront of the most supportive of Syrian refugees throughout her Tweets for eight years.
Hatred in a Historical Context
In the search for the reasons that have created the rejection of Syrian presence in Lebanon, even before the Syrian protests and the outbreak of military actions, a historical factor related to the political relations between the two countries emerges, namely the length of the Syrian army’s presence in Lebanon during the period of the Lebanese civil war until 2005. This role was manifested in the exercise of absolute rule in Lebanon and the imposition of “trusteeship”, domination, and control. This presence was associated with abuses, repression and oppressive practices that restricted public freedom. This created a general aversion in Lebanon towards any Syrian, whose presence was described as an occupation.
In line with this sentiment towards the Syrian people in Lebanon, another factor related to the economic situation in Lebanon is highlighted. Some say that the Syrian workers in Lebanon reduce the job opportunities of the Lebanese and adds to the unemployment crisis, as pointed out by the Lebanese Minister of Labor Sajaan Azz in the London Arab newspaper, who said that “about one million Syrians compete with the Lebanese labor without controls, and that is a heavy burden on the Lebanese economy and on the opportunities available to the Lebanese labor force. “
The Battles Move from Twitter to the Ground
The hate speech that emerged through the tweets of some politicians and public figures against Syrian refugees in Lebanon, was not words written on social media, but translated into reality in many situations, where the levels of attack and harassment of refugees by local municipalities in some areas, as well as state agencies and authorities, were heightened, according to human rights defenders.
In an April 2018 Human Rights Watch report, it was stated that at least 13 municipalities in Lebanon had forcibly evicted at least 3,664 Syrian refugees from their homes and expelled them from municipalities, and that evictions by municipalities were discriminatory and illegal. The report also said that another 42,000 are at the same risk because of their “nationality or religion”.
Human Rights Watch reported that this operation resulted in refugees losing their income and property, and disrupted their children’s education, including those who had been absent from school for months and others who had completely stopped attending school.
But how can social media and Twitter’s rhetoric affect the fate of the nearly one million Syrians living in this country? Through this question and through data obtained after analyzing the Tweets, we wanted to talk to people on the Lebanese street to know more about their opinion on the issue of Syrian asylum in Lebanon. Opinions were divided between supporters of the idea of returning refugees to their country, and those who support their presence in Lebanon, but under certain conditions.
“The Syrian displacement crisis in Lebanon has turned into a social crisis with significant economic and other implications, and this requires the cooperation of several parties to find a solution, such as Syria and the United Nations,” said Elias Melki, secretary of the Lebanese Forces political formation body.
As such, Melki puts forward his party’s proposal to establish camps in the Syrian territories that are not affiliated with the Syrian regime or the opposition, but fall under international auspices until the political solution in Syria matures. He also stresses the need for the Syrian regime to cooperate to return the refugees to their land, “if it is keen to do so.”
Elian Saad, a young woman affiliated with the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), said “I encourage the return of displaced Syrians to safe areas in Syria for many reasons”.
On the security front, Saad sees Syrian asylum as a danger, especially in the camps that she considers “hotbeds of the terrorist cell”. She also encourages the cooperation of international organizations with the Syrian regime for the return of displaced persons, especially since many areas have become safe.
On the other hand, Sobhi Amhaz, a Lebanese journalist, objects to the term “safe return”, considering that the return must be voluntary in accordance with all international conventions, because the concept of safety is relative.”It is not enough that the region be safe, [it is different] for Syrian opposition activists, for example,” he says.
Amhaz believes that “there are Lebanese cultural legacies that consider anyone who is a foreigner to be an outsider to the Lebanese fabric.”
He also misconstrues the idea of “increasing unemployment due to Syrian asylum in Lebanon,” stressing the absence of clear policies in the Lebanese labor market before 2011, so there is no responsibility on the Syrians. On the contrary, he believes that the Lebanese state benefits from donations and money that is pumped into its treasury, which it receives in return for receiving refugees.
Mohammed Hassan, founder of the Access Center for Human Rights, commented on the results of the analysis, saying: “The aggression against foreigners is not new behavior, before the Syrian asylum in Lebanon, there was enslavement of foreign workers, especially Domestic workers who come to Lebanon in very difficult conditions from their home countries”, through the offices that bring in domestic workers, which falls under domestic law.
He added that the recent increasing hostility towards Syrian refugees was represented by speeches through social media and Lebanese media, which is the main reason for the increasing tension between the Lebanese and Syrian societies.
Hassan summarized the most prominent violations caused by hate speeches from Lebanese politicians and official media that violate local and international laws. This includes the decisions of the Lebanese municipalities to prevent the movement of refugees and forced them to work forced labor and pay monthly contributions for municipal services already funded by the government, as well as decisions of deportation “legalized” by the Lebanese General Security at Beirut airport, which violates the Convention under Article II, Article III of the Convention against Torture, And the Lebanese Constitution.
Report by: Mohammad Waked, Ammar Al-Khasawneh
Researchers: Abdul Rahman Al-Khader, Ahmad Rahal, Manar Abu Hassoun
Translation: Aya Nader
Edited by: Mohamed Zidan, Mohamed Bassiki