BEIRUT Syrians have long come to Lebanon in search of better job opportunities, but the sudden increase in their numbers as they flee the war in their homeland has exacerbated tensions with their Lebanese hosts.
Nadim Houry, the deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa for the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, said he documented growing harassment of Syrian workers in Lebanon.
"We've seen the army and the police detaining and roughing up a number of Syrian workers. Most recently, the Lebanese army beat up 72 workers; most of them were Syrian," Houry said. "The Lebanese army rounded up the migrant men in the neighborhood and decided to 'teach them a lesson' instead of doing police work."
The United Nations has registered more than 80,000 Syrians as refugees in Lebanon, a number that, since most refugees don't register, only partly accounts for the migration.
Syrian license plates have become ubiquitous, especially since the rebellion spread this summer from rural areas to the richest districts of Aleppo and Damascus, Syria's largest city and its capital, respectively.
"I've met some people who went back to their communities to help some of them even picked up weapons but they've come back to Lebanon because they ran out of money," Houry said.
Syria's hand in Lebanese politics, along with atrocities committed while Lebanon was under Syrian occupation, created a long-standing animus that's been projected onto vulnerable Syrians in the past.
But as the Syrian government has threatened to destabilize Lebanon because of support there for the rebellion that's seeking to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, Syrian workers find themselves trying to keep a low profile while facing a dilemma: Before the civil war, Syrian workers in Lebanon generally planned for a future in Syria with the money they saved. Now more and more are considering moving their families to Lebanon to escape the uncertainty in Syria, a dynamic that could quickly bring an even greater number of Syrians to the small country of about 4 million.
"Initially, many Lebanese sympathized with the uprising, and that sympathy continues, but that sympathy hasn't translated into sympathy for the workers. So we're still seeing some of the violations we saw before but now we're seeing it in greater numbers," Houry said.
Kidnappings of Lebanese citizens in northern Syria, followed by retaliatory kidnappings of Syrians in Lebanon, have added to the tensions, as did the assassination in Beirut last month of a general whose death was widely blamed on the Syrian government.
Syrian workers have seen their wages drop as their Lebanese bosses realized they had few other options and would work for less.
"Syrian male workers in Lebanon have often been double victims," Houry said. "First they were victims of the Syrian regime's neglect which pushed them into dangerous low-paying jobs in Lebanon in the construction industry and other things."