Syrian refugees in Lebanon compete for jobs, aggravating social tensions in country

Along busy Hamra street in west Beirut, Syrians fleeing their country's civil war have opened up scores of shops that compete with older ones run by Lebanese already hurting because of a sharp drop in tourism.

Many Lebanese businesses compensate by hiring Syrians who will work for very little salary, and Lebanese workers grumble that their bosses can now ignore their demands.

The competition is aggravating social tensions arising from the massive influx of Syrian refugees across the border. A tiny country with a weak central government, Lebanon has been paralyzed by disputes and sectarian divisions from the raging war next door.

"Syrians are competing with them (Lebanese) head to head and they don't pay taxes, they open illegally and they actually work at half the price of the Lebanese worker," said Kamel Wazne, a Lebanese economist and a professor of finance at the American University of Beirut. "It's a volcano waiting to explode."

Over the past two years, Lebanon has seen episodes of sectarian violence and kidnappings that reflect the dynamics of the Syrian conflict. It has also witnessed multiple bombings in recent months, the latest of which killed 47 and wounded more than 400 in its northern city of Tripoli in August.

The violence has devastated the tourism sector, a mainstay of the Lebanese economy. This past summer, there has been almost none of the Gulf Arab tourists who normally pack restaurants and street cafes to enjoy Lebanon's renowned cuisine and smoke fragrant water pipes. Beaches have been largely empty.

The country has been without a functioning government since March, and parliament is all but paralyzed because of political disputes. Lebanon is sharply split between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime — a legacy of Syria's long political domination of its smaller neighbor.

The presence of over a million Syrian refugees is adding to those tensions, partly because of the surge in demand for public services and partly because of the new competition for employment.

Workers at Lebanon's state-owned electricity company have been on strike on and off for months over overdue salaries. One worker said the company recently tried to hire Syrians in a power plant north of Beirut, "but we stopped them and hopefully it won't happen again."

"Every Syrian that they employ means a job lost for a Lebanese and his family," the worker said while protesting at the company's headquarters. He declined to give his name for fear of reprisals from management.

At a bustling construction site in downtown Beirut, a Lebanese foreman, Nicholas Nakazi, oversees a dozen Syrian workers building a commercial complex, one of the many rising up in the capital despite a downturn in Lebanon's real estate sector.

He rejected the notion that the Syrians were robbing Lebanese of their jobs, pointing out that Syrian workers have always dominated the construction sector.

"Syrians have built up Lebanon because they have always been doing jobs Lebanese do not want to be doing," Nakazi said. "Granted, they've taken away some jobs from the Lebanese, but not as much as they say."

The government says it is trying to curb the rising competition between Syrians and Lebanese.

Lebanon's Minister of Economy in Trade Nicholas Nahhas told The Associated Press that over the past three weeks, authorities have closed down 400 Syrian-owned shops that lacked permits to operate.

Wazne said that policing illegal Syrian businesses could be too little too late to keep a lid on the country's social tensions.

"When you jeopardize the livelihood of the people in the country, then this will cause tension."

On Hamra street, some stores and restaurants — including Damascus' famous Al-Farouk food establishment that relocated to Beirut earlier this year — almost exclusively employ Syrians, including chefs, waiters, managers, florists and cleaners.

Syrian restaurants offer menus featuring traditional dishes from Aleppo and Damascus, drawing not only Syrian customers but Lebanese as well.

On street corners, Syrians sell everything from vegetables, falafel and flower arrangements, assembled and wrapped just like back home. Many of the neighborhood grocers' laborers, truck drivers and delivery boys are Syrian, and almost every doorman in the country seems to be from Syria these days.

Most Syrian businessmen try to keep a low profile in Lebanon, declining to speaking for fear that media attention could jeopardize their profits and draw interest from the authorities.

Aware of the tensions, several of the neighborhood's grocers assure their customers their produce is local.

"It comes from a Lebanese tree," a grinning salesman from the Syrian northeastern city of Raqqa told a Lebanese customer, holding up a green apple.