Monday, October 22, 2012

Who’s Harassing Whom?

Now Lebanon

Recent months saw a wave of anti-Syrian sentiment in Beirut’s Ashrafieh. The violence has been fuelled by stories about sexual harassment of women in the neighborhood by the recent arrivals from next door. (Indeed, intolerance of the Syrians who are flooding into Lebanon from their war-torn home country is widespread, as six Syrian men were attacked by armed assailants in West Beirut on Wednesday night, leaving several in the hospital).

But all the rumors of widespread harassment of Lebanese women by the Syrians do not withstand scrutiny.

“There is no increase in crimes or sexual harassment by Syrian migrants in Beirut,” says Noha Roukoss from the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center (CLMC), which coordinates with the judiciary when migrants get arrested or charged with crimes.

While in general sexual harassment of women by both Lebanese and foreign men is rampant, a police official who asked to remain anonymous as he is not allowed to speak to the press backed Roukoss’ assertion. “There are problems in the area with theft and harassment, but these problems aren’t specifically connected to Syrians,” the officer said.

The Lebanese army recently raided several houses in Ashrafieh’s Jeitawi quarter, beating at least 72 migrant workers. In a statement, the army claimed it was reacting to “complaints in Jeitawi because of the acts of foreign laborers of different nationalities, [such as] acts of theft and acts against public morals.”

After the operation, the mukhtars, or local officials, of Ashrafieh also issued a statement, asking the LAF to put an “end to the acts of harassment, rape, murder and theft endured by the residents and which are being committed by the thousands of foreign workers.”

Ashrafieh, and especially Jeitawi, are predominantly Christian neighborhoods with close-knit families who have been living there for generations. But recently demographics started to change. Since close-by Jemmayze became a popular spot for internationals, more and more people moved to Jeitawi, as rents are cheaper and the streets are less noisy. Growing economic opportunities also drew a lot of Syrians who had fled their home country and settled in Jeitawi to work in local businesses.

According to Roukoss, there is a sort of panic in Ashrafieh about the influx of Syrians, which has picked up since fighting in their country has spread in the past year. “Lebanese have suffered a long time from the Syrian occupation. The people don’t know the background of the newcomers and so they’re afraid.”

Pressed about their statement, two Ashrafieh mukhtars, Reine Abdel Nour and Elie Sabbagha, could not cite any concrete examples of harassment by Syrians. Abdel Nour told NOW she hadn’t received any official complaints, though Sabbagha claimed that “there are many complaints. They annoy everybody, especially girls and women. They act as if the country is theirs.” However, around a week after the raid, when NOW told him that nobody interviewed in the neighborhood admitted to having been harassed, he retracted his statement.

“It is a blatant case of racism,” says Farah Salka from the Anti-Racism Movement, a Lebanese civil society organization. “Someone from the neighborhood knew someone who knew someone. So the army came to show the Syrians their position in Lebanon. They wanted to tell them ‘Don’t feel too comfortable here. Know your place.’” Salka has been doing social and community work in the area for years. “I’m getting harassed by men almost every day, but I can’t remember that any of them was a migrant.”

The police official interviewed by NOW backs these claims. “The statements of the army and the mukhtars have no fact-based background,” he said after double-checking with officers working in the area.

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