Sunday, November 27, 2011

Filipino workers affected in Beirut town evictions

BEIRUT -- A mainly Armenian suburb of Beirut has stirred controversy over a decision by local officials to expel foreign workers, with some linking the move to the revolt in Syria and others to sheer racism.

The controversy erupted earlier this month when the municipality of Burj Hammud, located east of the Lebanese capital, requested all foreigners without rental leases leave the area by the end of November.

Targeted by the measure were Syrian Kurds as well as other laborers from the Philippines, Sri Lanka and from African countries, who for years have been drawn to affordable housing in Burj Hammud. The majority have no signed rental agreements, a common practice in Lebanon.

Officials said the decision came after residents began to complain of increased petty crime and harassment of young women in the streets, pinning the blame on foreigners. But Syrian Kurds said the measure was a bid by the Armenian Tashnag party, a member of Lebanon’s pro-Syrian alliance led by the powerful Hezbollah, to punish them for taking part in anti-Syrian rallies.

Several Syrian Kurds interviewed by AFP in Burj Hammud said they believed the Tashnag was using its influence to squeeze them out after they protested outside the Syrian embassy over the murder of Kurdish activist Meshaal Tammo in Syria in October.

“The goal is to drive us out of our homes... and leading this campaign is a certain prominent party here in Burj Hammud,” said Khalil, 37, referring to the Tashnag.

Khalil says he was ordered by local officials to obtain a working visa or leave -- a demand he says is “impossible” as Syrian citizens do not need visas to work in Lebanon.

Ahmed, a 28-year-old Syrian Kurd who has lived for five years in a humble one-room flat in Burj Hammud, said he also believed the eviction order he had recently received was politically motivated.

“This decision is aimed at us, at all Kurds who are standing against the Syrian regime,” said Ahmed, who requested his real name be concealed for fear of reprisal.

Officials in the bustling suburb, however, deny that the evictions are politically motivated, noting that the measure concerned all foreigners -- not just Syrian Kurds -- without identification papers or legal contracts.

“Several residents have contacted us to complain that they feel the district is becoming an increasingly dangerous place because of increased crime with foreigners living here,” said Arpineh Mangasarian, head of the city council’s engineering and planning department.

Tashnag officials in a statement also denied the evictions were related to politics. But Nadim Houry, director of the Beirut office of Human Rights Watch, said he believed racism was at the heart of the problem.

“Lebanon has a serious problem with racism -- racism towards foreigners but also racism towards other Lebanese,” he told AFP.

“The case in Burj Hammud is part of this overall problem of racism and has affected people of all races living in the area, most of whom are in fact Syrian Kurds.”

Mr. Houry noted that other municipalities in Lebanon had previously banned foreigners -- or even Lebanese of different confessions -- from owning or renting property.

Lebanon is home to a 140,000-strong Armenian community, mostly made up of the descendants of survivors of what they term the genocide in eastern Anatolia under Ottoman rule almost a century ago. -- AFP

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