CITIZENS’ PERCEPTIONS OF SECURITY THREATS STEMMING FROM THE SYRIAN REFUGEE PRESENCE IN LEBANON
In June 2013, International Alert and the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS) conducted a survey in Lebanon about the public’s perceptions of security and security institutions. The survey revealed that Syrian refugees were identified as a main security challenge across Lebanon. Despite having sympathy for the plight of Syrians, most respondents felt threatened and expressed increasing intolerance to the repercussions of Syria’s prolonged crisis in Lebanon. The top concerns were the fear of becoming a victim of crime and the risk of falling into poverty, threats to sectarian balance resulting from the prolonged stay of a large number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, service shortages being further exacerbated by the Syrian refugee presence, and environmental risks stemming from dilapidated water and sewerage networks. In terms of solutions, most respondents favoured hosting Syrian refugees in camps co-administered by the international community and with humane conditions. However, respondents expressed serious concerns that Syrian refugee camps could threaten the Lebanese sectarian balance in the long term and create an enabling environment for the radicalisation of refugees, in turn increasing terrorism and organised crime rates.
DESCRIPTION AND OBJECTIVES
Since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis in March 2011, people fleeing the conflict in Syria sought refuge in neighboring Lebanon. Coming in small groups at first, Syrian refugees were easily absorbed by Lebanese communities. However, as violence steadily escalated in Syria, the number of registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon hit the one million mark in April 2014, with the crisis entering its fourth year. This month it reached over 1.15 million, making Lebanon the country with the highest per-capita concentration of refugees in the world. It is worth noting that these numbers do not include refugees awaiting registration, those unwilling to register, or Palestinian refugees from Syria. Different sources agree that one out of every four persons in Lebanon today is a refugee of the Syrian crisis. Scattered in 1,700 Lebanese communities, Syrian refugees are mostly concentrated in the Beqaa and Akkar districts, Lebanon’s poorest areas.3 It should also be noted that 52.6% of arriving refugees are female, 47.4% are male and almost half of are children.
A total of 15 in-depth interviews were conducted with decision-makers and public opinion makers, including national and local security officials, politicians, municipal officials and community leaders. Interviews were semistructured to allow respondents to probe and not to give pre-determined answers. Interviewees were told they were free to refuse to answer any question for personal or professional considerations, however, a few had reservations about some questions. Several interviews with key security officials in the most affected areas were carried out in the wake of violent clashes between the Lebanese army and armed groups in the town of Arsal in Beqaa in early August 2014.
Five focus group discussions (FGDs) were conducted in Tripoli (two), Baalbek, Saida and Zahlé. Taking into account cultural sensitivities in some local communities, mixed gender focus groups were substituted by separate meetings with women and men.
Cluster surveys were also carried out in 13 local communities, including Wadi Khaled, Abda, Tripoli, Metn, Sin el-Fil, Sabra and Shatila, Saida, Tyre, Arsal, Hermel, Majdal Anjar, Zahlé and Baalbek. The survey sample size included 260 Lebanese citizens, selected through systematic random sampling. Following the quartering of each cluster, households covering all four parts of a cluster were randomly selected to participate in the survey. Questionnaires included closed ended and open-ended questions tackling different public services and institutional performance. Women constituted approximately 41% of the sample size, while young people under 30 years of age represented 43%. Although these percentages do not ideally reflect demographic characteristics of selected clusters, they reasonably meet the requirement of an indicative survey aiming to qualify previous gaps in the overall quantitative survey on security perceptions in Lebanon in general. The cluster analysis enabled us to capture distinct characteristics between areas sharing similar sectarian identity and to understand the different factors that might contribute to shaping public perceptions within each cluster. Interestingly, local conditions in host communities seem to be a pivotal factor in shaping local perceptions regarding the Syrian refugee presence in Lebanon, regardless of mainstream political and sectarian positions.
A content analysis of mainstream Lebanese media coverage of the refugee crisis was also conducted between January and February 2014.
SAMPLE OF FINDINGS
1- The general perception that Syrian refugees are responsible for an upsurge in crime and security threats must be carefully examined. Only 40% of all respondents in the Alert and LCPS survey reported feeling safe in their areas of residence before a large wave of Syrian refugees arrived at their areas, while another 35% felt “somewhat safe” and about 25% felt unsafe. These perceptions greatly varied among districts. In the North province, 60% to 75% of respondents felt unsafe in Tripoli, Wadi Khaled and Abda. Those in Hermel and Arsal indicated the highest perceptions of safety, followed by Tyre, Metn and Saida. These perceptions seemed to be influenced by local conditions rather than the community’s predominant political and sectarian affiliations, in view of violence rounds in Tripoli and security incidents in Akkar.
2- The vast majority of respondents said that safety conditions in their areas have worsened since the arrival of Syrian refugees. In Metn, Tyre, and Sabra and Shatila, over 50% of respondents felt that the situation did not change positively or negatively following the arrival of Syrian refugees. In Saida, only 20% of respondents felt that their city had become safer, while 60% felt it had become less safe. While this relative feeling of improved safety might be attributed to the Lebanese army’s operation ending the armed presence of Sunni cleric Ahmed Assir in May 2013, security concerns have surfaced again in Saida due to fear among the general public of the prolonged stay of Syrian refugees.
3- Almost 24% of respondents perceived cheap labour as both a threat to Lebanese wage workers and an advantage to small businesses. Christian majority clusters seem to have benefited the least from cheap labour. Income from rent and increased demand for local goods by Syrian refugees were considered as positive factors by only about 9% of respondents in these clusters, with respondents noting that the increased demand had not resulted in cheaper prices. According to respondents, economic benefits resulting from the increased demand for goods and services by Syrian consumers is being monopolised by a very small section of Lebanese society. Some participants in the focus groups reported their frustration at the increased greediness of Lebanese merchants and landlords.
The Syrian crisis has escalated in the last four years. Millions of peaceful inhabitants have left their homes and found refuge in neighbouring countries. Lebanon has harboured over a million of these refugees, representing almost a quarter of its original population. This development has put tremendous pressure on the country’s infrastructure and services. Coupled with Lebanon’s already weak economy and shortages in public services, the refugee crisis has made a bleak picture even bleaker.
It is under these circumstances that the perception of security threats stemming from the presence of Syrian refugees must be observed. This research highlighted that this perception varies across different factors. While most participants in the interviews and focus groups expressed sympathy towards the refugees and their hardships, they also highlighted the potential for refugees to cause an increase in crime and poverty. Other threats identified during the research were the possible challenge that Syrian refugees might pose to the sectarian balance of the country in the future and the deteriorating quality of public services. Lebanese authorities have been overwhelmed by the influx of refugees. In the absence of a clear national strategy, the international community, civil society and local players have stepped in to offer their support. At a security level, the burden has fallen mainly on the municipalities and local authorities. Measures such as surveillance cameras, increased patrols, registrations and curfews, with varying and debatable successes, have been employed according to the focus group participants and interviews with a number of local officials.
There is no doubt that the perceived security threat related to Syrian refugees is at least partly founded on real cases and documented incidents. However, as this paper has sought to show, these perceptions are inconsistent. They differ based on regional, sectarian, social and economic elements. More importantly, the responses to these perceived threats have not been founded on solid evidence and have not been of the corresponding level.
Lebanese Center for Studies and Research