A new controversy broke out after the circulation of a video in which Baalbeck-Hermel Governor Bashir Khodr made remarks deemed racist by some internet users and media outlets.
Dar al-Fatwa organized a conference on Friday bringing together various NGOs and associations helping Syrian refugees in Baalbeck. During the conference, Khodr ignited controversy when he responded to a request from Arsal's refugee camps coordinator asking for an increase in aid.
Their exchange focused on the terminology used to describe Syrian refugees, as the camps’ coordinator refused to call them “displaced persons” — a term the Lebanese government strictly uses.
In the video posted on his Twitter account, Khodr said that his monthly paycheck as a governor, the highest position in the territorial administration, is “lower than that of a displaced Syrian.”
“All I have left is to sell my kidney to continue to go to work,” the governor added.
“We are not racist and we are not oppressing anyone, I reiterate, we are one people in two countries. But not one people in one country,” he concluded.
These remarks generated some negative reactions on social media, but a support base for the governor’s comments also emerged, with many Lebanese using the Twitter hashtag #BachirKhodrerepresentsme and pointing their fingers at Syrian refugees as being “responsible for the crisis.”
Tarek Chindeb, a lawyer with tens of thousands of followers on Twitter, replied to Khodr’s statements point by point. He said, “Syrian refugees have not received help from the Lebanese, but rather from the international community, and Lebanon benefits a lot from them in various fields.”
He also accused Khodr of being “being part of a political line that contributed to the displacement of Syrians,” in reference to the fact that the governor is an Alawite, a community traditionally close to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, also an Alawite.
Some 840,000 Syrian refugees are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). However, it is unknown how many Syrians are in Lebanon, as the Lebanese government asked the UNHCR to stop registering refugees in 2015.
One of the most persistent myths is that “Syrian refugees are paid in US dollars by the UNHCR,” in reference to a monthly allowance they receive; however, the UN body says this is a false claim.
“The UNHCR’s monthly cash assistance program targets the most vulnerable families based on need and vulnerabilities. Thanks to this program, eligible families currently receive a sum of LL2,500,000 per family per month, in lira, regardless of the number of its members,” according to Dalal Harb, UNHCR spokesperson and communications officer.
L’Orient-Le Jour also spoke to Khodr, who said that the reactions to his remarks took him by “surprise,” adding that his comments were “not racist.”
“I communicated a cry out of pain felt by many Lebanese, but it is the first time that a state representative expresses it so clearly. It is important to know that 84 percent of the displaced live in my district, leaving a considerable impact on it,” he said.
Commenting that his salary is less than the aid received by the Syrian refugees, the governor explained: “I hold the highest position in the [territorial] administration and my salary, which was LL5 million, was adjusted by the state to LL15 million, which is now the equivalent to less than $120. With it, I have to pay for my transportation to Baalbeck, electricity bills and many other expenses. Clearly, how do we get by? Many others complain more about it.”
The lira on Wednesday was trading at about LL110,000 to the dollar on the parallel market.
Lebanese politicians regularly call for the return of Syrian refugees to Syria. The Lebanese authorities have organized several repatriation operations, which they describe as voluntary returns. Human rights groups, however, have described these efforts as forced returns.
In early February, eight Syrian men were arrested by an army intelligence patrol and charged with forming a gang, theft, smuggling, drug trafficking and assaulting an Internal Security Forces patrol in Baalbeck.
A month later, the municipality of the town of al-Qaa decided to deport eight refugees, along with their families, for “causing security incidents in al-Qaa and its surrounding.”
Mayor Bashir Matar also asked UNHCR to strip them of their “displaced persons” status and stop providing them with aid.
This article was originally published in French by L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.