The rape and murder of a young Lebanese woman has revealed a contentious, underlying issue in Lebanon: Syrians are not wanted here.
Miziara, a town about 60 miles north of Beirut, ordered all Syrian refugees to leave last Tuesday. That’s about 800 people. The municipality also mandated residents end contracts with Syrian workers. And now, nearby towns are considering doing the same.
This comes after 26-year-old Raya Chidiac was raped and killed by a Syrian refugee inside her Miziara home, according to police. The 26-year-old Syrian had been working as a concierge for her family for more than three years. When Chidiac — an attorney who was engaged to be married next year — was home alone on Sept. 22, he came inside her room, tied her hands and feet to the bed and demanded cash, police say. She told him she had no money, and to take her jewelry and car instead. But he refused. He raped her, tied a bag around her head and waited until she suffocated.
Residents of the town, which rarely sees crime, began filling the streets after her death, demanding Syrians leave. So the municipality ordered an eviction — which is illegal without a court order — and got away with it.
That’s because, right now, Lebanon desperately wants Syrians out. About 1.5 million refugees have poured into the tiny Middle Eastern country since the Syrian crisis began in 2011 — making up about a quarter of the population. That’s on top of the nearly 500,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. There are no designated refugee camps for Syrians here, so they live amongst the Lebanese — hurting their already dismal economy by taking jobs for cheaper wages, and taking up space in the only 10,452-kilometer country.
The Lebanese are fed up. And Miziara's eviction proves that.
“Years we’ve been in Miziara, since our grandparents and great grandparents, and not a single crime like that has happened,” said Flora Torossian, one of the many residents who advocated for Syrians to leave. “When the strangers came, then we started to see different things in Miziara."
But will the eviction of all Syrians in town prevent future crime?
I asked Miziara’s mayor, Maroun Dina, that very question. He says the town ordered refugees to leave not only because of the crime, but because the majority of Syrians who lived in Miziara were illegal.
“We want to protect our village,” Dina said. “Anyone not under the law is dangerous.”
"Does that mean if a refugee lacks documentation, he or she must be a criminal?” I asked.
“It means they must be hiding something,” he said.
However, the man who committed the crime was legal.
But Dina’s concern highlights another source of tension between Lebanese and Syrians: many Lebanese no longer feel safe in their country. Natives of Lebanon, a country of small towns filled with families that have grown up together for generations, suddenly don’t know who their neighbors are — were these Syrians part of the militia? Are they members of ISIS?
However, if a Syrian chooses not to register in Lebanon, that doesn’t mean they’re hiding something. In fact, many don’t renew their citizenship because it costs $200 a year — a fee they can’t afford.
For now, most Syrians from Miziara are heading to the district of Daniyeh — about 18 miles north of Miziara. But what happens if a refugee commits a crime there, and they get kicked out again?
Let’s run through their options.
Option one: they can go to a formal refugee camp, but only if they can afford it. There are no formal Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon, so they can pay rent (typically $200/month) at one of the country's 12 Palestinian camps.
Option two: they can start from scratch, and build a new settlement — but that requires negotiating with a landlord and getting approval from the municipality. Plus, if a refugee doesn’t have legal papers, they can’t cross checkpoints into different towns without being detained.
Option three: refugees can wait to see if they get accepted to a developed country like America, Canada or Australia. But the odds are slim. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) only refers the most vulnerable refugees to countries for possible resettlement, and less than 1 percent of refugees are ever resettled in the world, according to UNHCR.
Plus, under President Trump’s administration, they’re not exactly welcome.
Just two weeks ago, in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Trump called for resettling displaced Syrians “as close to their home countries as possible.”
“For the cost of resettling one refugee in the United States, we can assist more than 10 in their home region,” he said.
So what is Lebanon to do?
The country doesn’t have an answer — and that’s the problem.
The Lebanese government is unified in that they agree refugees should return to Syria — but they’re still divided on how to proceed.
The Lebanese president spoke in a state visit to France last week, saying he wants all Syrians in Lebanon to start returning to home, voluntarily or not. But Lebanon can’t force them to return to a country that’s still at war — that’s illegal under international law, according to Human Rights Watch.
The growing tension between Lebanese and Syrians should be reason enough for the government to come together and figure out a solution that is both beneficial for Lebanon and safe for Syrians.
If not, towns like Miziara will continue to take matters into their own hands — leaving Lebanon without a long-term solution, and refugees even more displaced.