Controversy has broken out in Lebanon after a journalist posted a video on November 16 showing Syrian refugees lining up in front of a cash machine to withdraw money. Published at a time when the country is going through a liquidity crisis that means many Lebanese people are not getting their salaries, the video immediately sparked controversy online, with many people accusing the journalist of wanting to stir up anti-Syrian sentiment.
Freelance journalist Zahra Fardoon posted this video on her Facebook page "Zahra Cam" with this caption: "a queue of Syrians who, one by one, are withdrawing money from the cash machine on Zahlé-Baalbek Road… in the midst of an uprising by the Lebanese people, who are not getting paid their salaries, and while banks are shutting down in the midst of this economic crisis".
In the three-minute video, Fardoon says, “I was walking along Baalbek Street when I came across this scene. I couldn’t help but stop: it was a queue of our Syrian migrant brothers.” She asks them what they are doing and one of them says they are withdrawing “Nations” money.
Fardoon then goes to the front of the line where she films a man who is withdrawing four or five bills of 100,000 Lebanese pounds each [Editor’s note: 100,000 Lebanese pounds is worth about €60].
She tells him: "You're lucky! It’s been a while since I’ve seen that! You're getting pounds out and not dollars? It's from the United Nations?” [Editor’s note: Both currencies are used in Lebanon].
Then a Lebanese man walking by interrupts, saying: “We're not getting anything. We're not even getting our salaries.”
Why is this video problematic?
Fardoon published this video in the midst of a devaluation crisis in Lebanon. Even withdrawals in Lebanese pounds are being strictly limited by banks. In a statement, the Association of Lebanon’s Banks said that people aren’t allowed to withdraw more than 1,000 dollars [Editor’s note: equivalent to €903] in local currency each week, in an attempt to prevent people from emptying their savings accounts.
In reality, many banks allow withdrawals of $500 or less. There are also strict limits on sending and receiving money from abroad, a particular challenge in a country where many people are reliant on remittances from family overseas.
>> Read on the Observers: Video shows Lebanese bankers refusing local money amid economic crisis
"It’s ridiculous to present Syrians as privileged”
Wadih al-Asmar is the president of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, which closely monitors the situation for Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
The people in this video aren’t just “migrants”, they are refugees registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The money that they are withdrawing is special “winter aid” that the UNHCR gives to refugees as well as the most disadvantaged Lebanese families, so that they can pay for heating, medicine, etc, during the winter months.
This video gives the impression that Syrians are getting a huge amount. In reality, it depends on the size of the family but they don’t get more than 560,000 Lebanese pounds [€335] to last them five months. That means they get 120,000 pounds per month [€67], so it is ridiculous to present them as privileged [Editor’s note: which the journalist seems to be suggesting in her commentary].
Refugees registered with the UNHCR get a text that lets them know when they can pick up their winter aid, which they withdraw in one go. A network of Lebanese banks has an agreement with the UN to provide refugees with cash cards. When their aid money is available, the refugees usually go as a group to withdraw it, which explains the long line.
The FRANCE 24 Observers contacted Banque Libano-Française, which confirmed that it does provide cash cards to refugees registered with the UNHCR so that they can withdraw aid money. The banks aren’t putting any limits of withdrawals of UN money, unlike those from accounts belonging to individuals.
"This video will be used by politicians who stigmatize refugees”
Several Syrian refugees have reported being attacked when they came to withdraw their winter aid from cash points in the town of Zahlé, where the video was filmed and where many Syrian refugees live. The Lebanese army has stepped in to protect them.
As activists for the rights of Syrian refugees, we chose to ignore this video instead of commenting on it. This stigmatisation of Syrian refugees is in the interest of those in power, especially the Free Patriotic Movement [Editor’s note: the party of Lebanese President Michel Aoun] which has really cultivated xenophobia towards Syrians.
This political class continues to point the finger at Syrian refugees and blames them for the current economic crisis. But this hateful discourse has been weakened by the popular uprising in Lebanon. The people who are protesting don’t see a difference between themselves and the refugees and think everyone is a victim of the situation in the country.
Many of the comments on the video criticized the journalist for her discourse towards Syrians. “You’d think you were paying them out of your own pocket!” reads one comment.
Lebanon has been mired in a social and economic crisis since the end of the summer. The final straw was the government’s decision to tax WhatsApp messages, a plan that was later scrapped, which people viewed as ludicrous in a country plagued by corruption. Widespread protests began in mid-October and political upheaval has ensued.
This article was written by Sarra Grira.