OPINION by Mat Nashed
Moments after iftar commenced on the sixth night of Ramadan, the sound of toy cap guns echoed through the dark and winding labyrinth of the Shatila refugee camp. High above, Ahmad Choboukh, 21, smoked a cigarette on his friend’s roof. His view from the top exposed the camp for what it was: an urban ghetto where thousands of the region’s most forgotten people are squeezed into a single square kilometer. Ahmad first came to Shatila with his mother and siblings four years ago. They fled the Syrian province of Idlib, an area where mass demonstrations and military defections took place during the early stages of the uprising.
The governorate is now controlled by a multitude of opposition factions. Internecine fighting and kidnapping are rife while residents say that Russian and regime forces drop barrel bombs on civilians. Ahmad’s father is still trapped inside, unable to reunite with his family during the holiest month of the year. “My father is blacklisted by the regime and he’s afraid to be kidnapped by factions in the area,” Ahmad told The Daily Star. “Life in Lebanon isn’t easy either. Many people here think [Syrians] are disgusting.”
Shatila was first built to shelter 3,000 Palestinians who were displaced from their homeland by the creation of Israel. Sixty-eight years later, Iraqi, Syrian and Sudanese refugees have all found space in this ghetto. And like them, Ahmad fears that he’ll languish in exile for the rest of his life.
With World Refugee Day, June 20, upon us, it’s tough to convince him otherwise. Lebanon has absorbed the most Syrian refugees per capita of any nation, giving the government an excuse to tighten border measures to prevent more from entering. Lebanon has repeatedly announced its opposition to the permanent settlement of Syrian refugees on its territories. However, that hasn’t stopped the wealthiest nations from pouring millions of dollars of aid into the country. The reasoning is simple: Fewer people will seek asylum in Europe if they help more refugees in Lebanon. That motive is also why the European Union has spent even more money patrolling its borders in an effort to stop vulnerable men, women and children from seeking asylum.
How xenophobia has seeped this deep into global politics is a question that needs careful evaluation. But one thing is certain: Lebanon has become one of the largest dungeons for those uprooted in the region.
Anas Mohammad, a 39-year-old Sudanese refugee, said that he first came to Lebanon 17 years ago. He had escaped the second civil war in his country which lasted for over two decades.
“I have spent the better half of my young years in Lebanon,” he said, folding his hands and reflecting on how much time has passed since he left Sudan. “You don’t know how the security operates in Sudan. I’m sure they even have someone watching us in Lebanon.”
According to the 1951 refugee convention – which has become the primary reference point when determining asylum claims – a refugee is anyone who suffers from a well-founded fear of persecution based on reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a political or social group, or political opinion.
Anas said that his story should fit within the scope of this definition, since he claims to have been a known supporter – not a combatant – of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army. Like the central Sudanese government, who the group was at war against, the SPLA had committed harrowing abuses including abducting children into their ranks, starving civilian populations and carrying out summary executions in government areas, according to damning reports by Human Rights Watch.
Although the war ended in 2005, Anas insists that he’ll never be able to return to his homeland without fearing arrest from Sudan’s security agencies. That matters little to UNHCR, which has rejected his refugee claim multiple times. Yet that hasn’t stopped him from building a dignified life for himself in Lebanon.
“UNHCR closed my case but they didn’t close my life,” he said. “I will not stop my life … but I think that I have the right to be a refugee.”
The refugee determination process has been described by academics and legal experts as a lottery. Many asylum seekers are denied protection even if they share an almost identical story of plight as someone who was granted refugee status.
Countries who resettle the highest number of refugees also have their own criteria, besides the 1951 convention, when determining who to accept. That explains why some refugees – though recognized as such – still dwell in countries neighboring their homeland for over a decade while awaiting resettlement.
To complicate matters, refugee status is supposed to result in international protection. However, many people still have their most basic freedoms violated. At least that’s been the case for Ali Mezaad, a 39-year-old Iraqi refugee who fled to Lebanon with his family 10 years ago.
He said that a lack of legal status has dissuaded him and his family from leaving Shatila – a camp that remains outside the reach of Lebanese authorities.
“Our residency permit expired three months ago and there is no way I can afford to renew it,” Ali said while sitting on his sofa inside a tiny room in Shatila. “If I’m in a car and it’s going through a checkpoint then I always get out and walk around.”
While the Syrian war has produced the single largest refugee crisis since the 1940s, Palestinians in Lebanon are arguably the most neglected population in the Middle East. Nearly seven decades since they were expelled from their homeland, the international community seems more focused accommodating Israeli demands than pushing for a political solution based on refugee rights.
Even international calls for a two-state solution have people like Ashraf Mazoub, a middle-aged Palestinian man who was born in Shatila, wondering where he fits in.
“I have no work here in Lebanon. My boss said he won’t give me anymore work because he doesn’t like Palestinians,” he said while eating grilled eggplant with his family during iftar.
“I’m not allowed to have a good life in [Lebanon] and I can’t return to [Palestine]. I can’t return to my homeland even though everyone else in this world can return to theirs, if they chose.”
Palestinians in Lebanon are still denied working in over 25 high-skilled professions, owning property or establishing their own associations. The international community also hasn’t shown any political will to ease Lebanon’s burden.
For refugees like Ahmad, Anas, Ali and Ashraf, World Refugee Day merely pays lip service to their plight. It’s tough to argue with them. Neither the causes nor consequences of migration have been comprehensively addressed, while politicians continue to exploit refugees to advance their quest for power. Yet perhaps the most important thing to remember is how dreams fade in exile faster than anywhere else.