Syrians as security threat to Lebanon: Fears vs. reality

This blog was updated with more information on 21 June 2016.

Syrians in Lebanon, most of them refugees, are commonly portrayed as a security threat. Yet, evidence shows that the fears of the Lebanese do not always match reality.

According to a study by International Alert in 2014, the vast majority of the Lebanese felt less safe after the arrival of the refugees from Syria. A striking 75% of survey respondents felt less secure than they did two years earlier. Focus groups and interviews across Lebanon identified that the major fear was related to terrorism and arms smuggling.

In spite of this widespread feeling of insecurity, only 15% of respondents have personally experienced security incidents. An additional 19% have heard stories directly from someone involved in an incident. This large difference between people who feel less secure and people who have experienced security incidents indicates that perceptions “seem to be the product of inaccurate word of mouth”, the study found.

Similar concerns among the Lebanese were reported in a St. Joseph University survey on perceptions of Syrian refugees in Lebanon conducted in 2015. Around 50% of the Lebanese in most regions said they did not feel safe, while only 13% had directly experienced assaults.

The actual extent to which Syrian nationals pose a security threat to Lebanon can be explored through a review of the court cases involving Syrian nationals. Between June 2011 and April 2015, a total of 807 lawsuits involving Syrian nationals were filed in the courts in Beirut, Zahlé and Tripoli – the three most influential cities in Lebanon. Less than 7% of all criminal cases involving Syrians were on charges of violent crime. A further 2% of the charges were for the illegal possession of weapons. Although cases with charges of terrorism are handled by the military courts, and do not factor in the criminal court registry that informed the research, the figures on criminal cases alone are very low when compared with the dominant perception of the Syrians as a threat.

Petty crime and house burglary are also common concerns among the Lebanese. Charges of theft and money counterfeiting were filed in 25% of all reviewed cases involving a Syrian national (203 of 807 cases). The main crimes Syrian nationals are accused of in Lebanon are in fact illegal residence and forged documentation: 41% of all reviewed court cases involved Syrians. This indicates that the main crimes Syrians are accused of are related to their status.

The Lebanese government introduced new requirements for obtaining residency documents in January 2015, and since this time most of the refugees have become illegal. Registration with The UN Refugee Agency is not sufficient for staying legally in Lebanon. Instead, a number of additional conditions need to be met and a $200 annual fee needs to be paid for each individual permit. In September 2015, 56% of the refugees did not have valid paperwork, and this number is said to have reached over 70% by the end of the year.

The challenges Syrian refugees encounter in trying to obtain legal status is not only hampering their own security. It also has an impact their Lebanese hosts. Lebanese citizens feel at greater risk as they share their communities with illegal foreigners. “I wouldn’t mind having Syrians around at night, if they were all registered at the municipality… because we can know who they are and if they are connected to armed groups in Syria”, said a Lebanese resident in the town of Aley, 17 km uphill from the capital Beirut.

Contrary to the perceptions of most Lebanese, most Syrian ‘criminals’ seem to only be guilty of missing valid legal documents issued by the Lebanese authorities. Though a serious concern, this type of threat needs to be addressed with a temporary legal status for the refugees, and not with checkpoints, arrests and criminal verdicts.