BEIRUT — It was a balmy spring day, the perfect time to be outside enjoying the weather before the summer humidity turns the city soggy and stifling. The heady sweet smell of jasmine flowers was everywhere, and blooming jacaranda trees obscured the city’s knotted electrical wires and century-old French Mandate-era buildings from view. But Adam, who asked for his name to be changed, was missing all that. He hadn’t left his apartment in days. “I think it’s been three weeks,” he said inside the dark space in early May. “I can’t remember.”

That’s because starting in April, the Lebanese authorities have launched a so-called national security operation to crack down on the some 800,000 Syrian refugees here registered with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Lebanon says the real number is actually more than two million, equal to around 30 percent of the total population.

The military established new checkpoints and raided homes across the country—many Syrians were detained and deported for allegedly not holding valid documents. The advocacy group Access Center for Human Rights, founded in Lebanon, has recorded at least 336 such forced returns so far, including of those holding legal residency permits as well as unaccompanied minors. Deportations are illegal under the principle of non-refoulement: Lebanon is obligated under customary international law not to expel people back to their home countries when they would face threats of persecution or torture.

One sweep occurred only a few streets away from Adam’s building. A number of refugees were arrested by the security forces on arriving in Syria. Some have not been heard from since.

For Adam, this has been the worst scenario since he came to Lebanon six years ago. The clampdown has become more organized and effective, he told me. “It feels more serious now with the army involved,” he said.


Baby-faced but built like a basketball power forward, Adam felt cooped up in his tiny apartment. As his anxiety levels climbed, he said, he stopped answering his door, started smoking again and began having recurring stress dreams about being forced to cross the border into Syria.

“And I’m one of the lucky ones,” he said. Unlike other Syrians trying to hide from sight, his work as a translator and language teacher allows him to largely work from home.

The bright daylight shone through a side window in the otherwise dark room as he spoke,  producing a long shadow from his profile as celebratory music outside blared from a school gymnasium down the road. 

The military raids and expulsions are only the latest in the escalating campaign to get Syrians out of Lebanon. In early May, several local municipalities imposed curfews on Syrian refugees and issued new decrees to prevent them from working. In April, one Syrian in Beirut facing threats of deportation committed suicide.

In what’s widely seen as a failed state, the question remains why the authorities are now suppressing Syrians in such coordinated fashion. Although not new, the latest intensification comes at a time politicians are looking to avoid blame for their own failures while Western countries’ attempts to buy themselves out of their international obligations have failed to mitigate the decade-long migration crisis.

But the situation likely will not improve without an international effort, with the participation of Lebanese officials and Syrians themselves, that would ensure the physical safety of those who remain, resettle elsewhere or return.

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I walked back from Adam’s house down a pitch-dark residential street in central Beirut pondering how Syrians have found themselves at the center of Lebanon’s failed economic system. The neighborhood’s diesel generators were drowning out the throaty rumble of a passing Ferrari, evidence that not all resident here are down on their luck. Although the presence of the Syrian community has put great strains on the country’s aging infrastructure, Lebanon’s difficult political and economic situation, including stark economic imbalances, are very much problems of its own making.

The inequities the Lebanese population often condemns have only grown since the country’s longstanding troubles began exploding a half-dozen years ago. Lebanon has been without a fully functioning government since domestic protests over a mounting economic crisis shook the state in 2019, a situation made worse by the harrowing effects of the pandemic and devastating Beirut port explosion in 2020, a symbol of the country’s crippling corruption.

The World Bank ranked Lebanon’s current economic crisis as one of the top three most severe of any nation since the mid-19th century. The country’s GDP has shriveled by more than half since 2019, and its currency hit a new low of 100,000 pounds to the dollar in March. The banking sector has collapsed and accounts have been frozen, pushing some people to try to rob banks to access their own savings. Public services have flatlined. The state currently provides less than three hours of electricity per day.

All the while, there has been no progress on the financial restructuring required for a $3 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund set back in 2022 that would require radical reform by the very political elites responsible for running the country into the ground. Nevertheless, conservative estimates show the amount of external aid spent in Lebanon since the beginning of its economic crisis amounts to two-thirds of current GDP.

Amid the economic and political chaos, Syrians sit at the bottom of a collapsed social pyramid, with an estimated 90 percent of their households living in extreme poverty.

On the surface, Beirut in spring can feel calm and removed from its deep socioeconomic crisis and political deadlock

“We are a perfect scarecrow,” Lobana, a young Syrian woman with bleach-blond and pink highlights told me in her apartment in Bourj Hamood, a diverse, working class neighborhood north of downtown, where an army raid ended in the deportations of all Syrians living in an entire building in late April. “They even took women and children away,” she said. “I am afraid.”

Since the event, she coordinates with other Syrians over WhatsApp groups, sharing updates, rumors and information about new checkpoints. She has not gone outside farther then her street’s corner market.

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Prior to the recent deportation campaign, the mainstream media narrative focused on the government’s failures: the country’s stalled negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, a logjam in electing the country’s new government and no headway in holding municipal elections or nominating a new central bank head to replace one under investigation for embezzlement.

In April, however, the news and social media featured a marked increase in hate speech against Syrians. Multiple voices blamed refugees for the economic challenges facing Lebanon.

For some, Syrians threaten Lebanon’s balance of minority confessions—primarily a mix of Christians, Sunnis and Shiite communities. An especially xenophobic trope within the shrinking but vocal Christian communities is the notion that predominantly Sunni Syrians will lead to irreversible demographic change. “It’s a conspiracy against Lebanon,” seethed former President Michel Aoun on a local TV channel, attacking European countries that are “imposing” integration of Syrian refugees into the country.

Lebanon was forged on sectarianism, and the neighboring Syrian conflict has stoked ethnoreligious tensions in Beirut and beyond. Many of Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims supported the Sunni-led uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The president hails from the Alawite minority, a distant branch of Shiite Islam. It’s thus perhaps unsurprising that most Lebanese Shiites back Assad.

Their support is most visibly articulated by Hezbollah, a political party with a powerful paramilitary wing that entered the Syrian conflict, alongside Iran, to keep the Syrian government in power. “How are we expected to accept Syrians here? We can’t even get along with each other,” a Lebanese taxi driver explained to me about the country’s communal divisions.

Many Lebanese fear Syrians will prompt another conflict in their country, similar to the role Palestinian militias played in the civil war that lasted from 1976 to 1990. Others link the presence of Syrian refugees with their own memories of a brutal occupation of their country by Damascus that ended less than 20 years ago. The media has made it worse, circulating old videos of Syrian figures calling for refugees to arm themselves and false reporting about weapons in refugee camps. The brutal security raids against Syrians became possible in this context of panic, local activists say.

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Lebanon’s refugee policy has been one of no policy since the beginning of Syria’s conflict in 2011. When the UNHCR registered over a million Syrian refugees in 2015, the government’s response was simply to suspend the international agency’s ability to register new arrivals, a poor attempt to cap the official number. To this day, the authorities deem Syrians to be displaced, not refugees, which blocks their full international protection. The country has also implemented new residency requirements, including compelling Syrians to be sponsored as economic laborers by a Lebanese citizen.

Hussein, a bearded barista savant of metal music and art history, came to Lebanon in 2015 after he participated in demonstrations against the Syrian government. Without international protection from the United Nations, in light of the ongoing raids, he paid bribes to get a one-year residency card, he told me. “I can’t risk it; I can’t risk my life,” said Hussein, who runs a bar in the Lebanese capital. Reflecting on the trade-off he made, he concluded, “I solved eight years of illegal residency with $2,000. Now that’s black comedy.”

Although many countries around the world are showing fatigue from hosting Syrians, the level of scapegoating may be most extreme in Lebanon. When the country fell victim to a cholera outbreak in late 2022, the health minister first pointed his finger at Syrians, accusing them of bringing the disease across the porous border before mentioning the weak local infrastructure that failed to stop the actual cause, the use of contaminated water.

Martyr’s Square in the center of downtown Beirut. The statues represent a cross-confessional group of Lebanese patriots. The neighboring Syrian conflict has strained ethnic and religious relations in the city and beyond

“The message was clear,” Fadel Fakih, executive director of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, told me over the phone. “Refugees brought cholera and they need to return to Syria, instead of the fact that the Lebanese government needed to address the outbreak.”

There are other complaints. Syrians have also had a negative impact on the economy, unemployment and the crime rate, Elias Hankach, a parliamentarian from the center-right Christian Kataeb bloc, told me in his office. There are approximately 1,800 Syrians in Lebanese prisons, of whom 82 percent have not completed their trials. Rather than work to complete those unfinished cases, the caretaker government put forward a plan to deport them back to Syria.

Amnesty International found that Lebanon’s security forces arbitrarily arrested and detained Syrian refugees for “unnecessary, unfair or disproportionate reasons.” A separate field study completed in 2015 found that the number-one issue incarcerated Syrians are facing is related to documentation, partly testament to the complex conditions the authorities maintain for residency requirements.

The refugee community has even been dragged into the paralysis in relations between the Lebanese state and its citizens. International donors had rehabilitated some schools and were directly paying the salaries of teachers in order to accommodate and instruct Syrian refugee students in the afternoons. However, in early January 2023, the Education Ministry suspended those afternoon classes.

Teachers had been protesting their low wages from the ministry to teach Lebanese students, and in retaliation, the director general of education decided to end teaching for Syrian students in line with the “principle of equality.”

A point lost on many critics is that Syrians in Lebanon are no monolith, and remain in the country for a variety of reasons. Some travel back and forth to Syria, some voted at the Syrian Embassy to reelect Assad in 2021.

That dismays Adam, refusing to leave his house. “Why are you here?” he asked of them rhetorically. “If you like the regime so much then go back. Don’t provoke people here who can’t or won’t return.”

There appear to be other domestic, regional and international motives for doubling down against the Syrian diaspora. As the deadlock drags on over the selection of a new president, escalating animosity can be seen as a strategy by different candidates to show voters they would be tough on refugees should they get elected. 

I have seen horrible things that I don’t want my son to see. If we are sent home, we will be arrested or die.

There are also wider dynamics at play, especially over an ongoing rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran and a recent decision to readmit Syria into the Arab League. Refugee return is a key issue under discussion as the region begins to bring Assad back into the fold, and the pressure campaign may be Lebanon’s way of ensuring it is prioritized for compensation for what it views as its heavy burden.

“They always do this before conferences,” said Lobana, describing a tactic to extract maximum concessions before the European Union’s annual donor summit in June. The UNHCR in Lebanon wrote in an email statement to me it will ask for $4 billion for Lebanon at the conference. More of the money would go to Lebanese than Syrians. 

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When I told the doorman at the Social Affairs Ministry building I was there for a meeting with the minister, he frowned with concern. “It’s all the way up on the 7th floor,” he said. “There’s no electricity. God be with you.”

Seven long flights up, Hector Hajjar, the fiery minister, sat in a dark blue suit in his black leather armchair. A nationalist, he has put himself at the center of the Syrian refugee crisis, loudly criticizing the international community for both not doing enough while simultaneously being too involved in Lebanon’s own affairs. Over coffee, he warned that Lebanese would soon become refugees in their own country due to the ongoing demographic change, blaming the United Nations and Western institutions.

“They should not be only focusing on helping Syrians, but also help the communities or we will get to a situation where it’s going to be exploding between the two sides,” he said.

Speaking about his upcoming address at the European Union donor conference, he was firm: “There is a burden that Lebanon has been taking financially, and I will reassure European parliamentarians that we will not accept this anymore,” he said about Syrian refugees. “Lebanon will not integrate them. They should go home.”

He called the military raids against Syrians “routine, very normal.”

“What does the international community want us to do?” he added. “Do they want us to accept chaos in our country? Are they blaming us for on reinforcing our laws? Have we ever interfered on the issue of how to deal with Mexicans entering into America illegally? No! So why are they interfering in our own internal matter?”

“If this doesn’t stop, everyone including Syrians will go swimming to Europe,” he warned. “If the European community doesn’t want to help us reinforce the law and help the Lebanese security forces stabilize the situation then this means indirectly, the Europeans are an accomplice in creating chaos in Lebanon.”

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Last month, Bashir Khodr, the governor of Baalbek, a region close to the Syrian border, addressed a Syrian refugee representative. “As a governor, I occupy one of the highest administrative jobs in the Lebanese state, and still my salary is less than what one displaced Syrian in Lebanon gets,” he said. That was only one of many examples of misleading information and false claims about international assistance for Syrian refugees I heard.[1]

In Baalbek—well-known for its guns, chop shops and grand Roman ruins—I met Mustafa Chal, the head of the city municipality, in the shadow of the richly decorated Temple of Bacchus.

Dressed in a sharp gray suit, he leaned against one of the temple’s unfluted Corinthian columns.

“Our citizens first welcomed the Syrians escaping the war as our friends,” he said as tourists posed for photos in front of the colonnade. “But the situation has grown out of control.” He defended paying Syrians lower wages than Lebanese, saying they do not pay taxes but are benefitting from outside aid.

Mustafa Chal, head of the Baalbek municipality, feels local Lebanese have received insufficient aid for hosting Syrians

“I know a Syrian who came here with one wife but now has three,” he said arguing that each additional family member gets additional aid. “That is why there is a new child in the family each year.”

The UNHCR responded to me in a statement that assistance is capped at 5 people per family.

At the same time, Chal said, the municipality has received no outside help since the start of the Syrian conflict, adding more burden on the local infrastructure.[2] And he doesn’t see an end in sight. “It’s much easier for them to live here so they will never go back. But there are a lot of safe[3] places now in Syria.” 

A few kilometers down the road from the Roman temple complex, members of a Syrian family from Aleppo sat on a couch inside their apartment. Noor, her husband Majid and their son Ramy all had documentation legally sponsored through their landlord. Nevertheless, they were trying not to leave the house. 

“The government wants money from the United Nations and they just don’t know how to get it,” Majid said when I described the conversation I had just had with the head of the municipality.

Since Majid has a heart issue that prevents him from working, the family relies mainly on the help of the landlord, who could be seen through a window fiddling with electrical wires in the staircase. When asked about returning to Syria, he was firm. “I have seen horrible things there that I don’t want my son to see,” he said. “If we are sent home, we will be arrested or die.”

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Not all political parties are demanding displaced Syrians immediately leave Lebanon. After the military raids began, the Islamic Liberation Party, with pan-Islamist aspirations, organized a demonstration calling for the end of “illegal deportations.” In the Sunni-dominated northern town of Tripoli, protesters holding banners marched in solidarity with Syrians.

“How will the displaced Syrians return to their country?” Walid Jumblatt, head of the Progressive Socialist Party, whose father’s assassination in 1977 was likely organized by the Assad family, asked during a local television interview. “Does Bashar al-Assad want this return?”

He raised a voluntary return program for Syrians the authorities tried to organize in October 2022 that aimed to send back 15,000 per month. Then-president Aoun said Syrian refugees would be sent back home “in batches.” Whether the program was truly voluntary or safe, the government approved only 600 names from a list of 5000. Pro-refugee activists point to that as a sign Assad did not want refugees to return at the time and the conditions aren’t right for sustainable returns.

Based on that logic, more needs to be done to immediately reduce social tensions inside Lebanon, starting with the misinformation that pins all economic problems on Syrians. During his television interview, Jumblatt pointed his finger back toward Lebanon: “We hold the Syrian displaced responsible for the consequences of the economic collapse in Lebanon, but we at home have not done anything with regard to political and economic reform.”

Syrians have a long history of economic migration to the country, and it seems there are still jobs Lebanese will likely never do. If the Lebanese regulated Syrian labor, Syrians would pay taxes just like other foreign workers, such as the Egyptians who man gas stations and Ethiopians who work as housekeepers.

A sliver of Lebanese society does see Syrians as the victims in all this but most also predict attitudes will become only more intolerant. Certain groups that were once receptive to Syrian refugees, such as rural, predominately Sunni areas of the country that have been working with Syrian seasonal workers for decades in the fields, have now become resentful, Elie Al Hindy, the head of the Adyan Foundation, a Lebanese civil society organization, told me in his office in the city outskirts.

Al Hindy doesn’t see the UNHCR’s requirements for return—thresholds of legal protection, economic opportunity and physical stability—as realistic. He thinks the Lebanese authorities and United Nations must reexamine conditions for safe returns to Syria. “If these requirements don’t change, then no one will ever go back,” he said. That’s all the more urgent because in May the ongoing deportation campaign prompted the highest number of arrests by the Syrian government since the beginning of the year.

But amid the current deadlock, it will take political consensus between Lebanese, Syrian and international institutions to alleviate tensions and find solutions for Syrians who either stay or decide to return.

While international and domestic players bicker, Syrians in Lebanon are trying to get on with their lives. Qadriyah Hussein is one of the few I interviewed not afraid to venture out on the streets. She lives in the shabby, overcrowded Shatila refugee camp, originally set up for Palestinian refugees, where she co-founded an NGO offering education for illiterate teenagers. “The state doesn’t come here,” she told me, so she expects neither outside help nor military raids.

Besides, Qadriyah says, she has too much work to stay inside. She has seen how education offers another pathway in Shatila, where many young Syrians have been forced into child labor or early marriage. The schools and community centers she manages help fill a gap that was otherwise unaddressed by both the government and international community.

“We are far from politics,” she said about her school network before jumping from one packed classroom to the next.


[1]UNHCR in an email response wrote, “The amount of food and basic needs assistance that the UN provides at present to the most vulnerable refugee families is LBP 2,500,000 per family,” or approximately $25.

[2] Since 2014, the United Nations Development Program alone has implemented nearly 90 service delivery projects related to infrastructure rehabilitation and maintenance worth approximately $12 million in Baalbek.

[3] UNHCR does not deem the conditions in Syria safe for large-scale returns.

Top photo: A billboard shows Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and his ambassador to Lebanon expressing thanks in the Bekaa valley, an area under control of Hezbollah, which intervened in the Syrian conflict to keep Assad in power.