Home > Press Articles > Racist feelings high in Burj Hammoud

Racist feelings high in Burj Hammoud

The Daily Star 1/11/2011

NABAA/DORA/BURJ HAMMOUD, Lebanon: Several weeks after a television report purported to expose the dangers posed by foreign workers in Burj Hammoud, details have surfaced of a new sense of fear among migrant workers in the area. The local television station aired its report, entitled “Burj Hammoud … neighborhoods in danger,” Oct. 16. It quoted locals complaining that foreign workers had turned the neighborhood into a hub of prostitution and crime.

The report has since been criticized by activist groups, who warned that the report played on racist stereotypes. A representative of one of these groups, Ali Fakhry of the Anti-Racism Movement, told The Daily Star “the report was made from an extremely racist point of view … that intended to show that migrants are criminals, working as sex workers dealing with drugs, killing people.”

But the report itself is not Fakhry’s main concern – it’s the aftermath. “We blame the report for triggering racism,” he explains, “and for giving people the right to go and harass and beat these migrants.”

He says that in the days following the report’s airing, “we had Lebanese people in Burj Hammoud beating migrants, harassing them, pushing them in the streets under the eyes of the police … at the same time we saw an increasing number of police and security forces.

“We are aware that the Lebanese security forces have the full right of arresting undocumented workers,” Fakhry adds. “What we are against is harassing people, we are against humiliating people, we are against people fearing walking on the street.”

Dipendra Uprety, a leader of Lebanon’s Nepalese community, says that the day after the television report he noticed an increased security presence in Burj Hammoud, Nabaa and Dora, where many foreign workers live and congregate Sundays. He says that he has never before seen such a sizeable security deployment in the area, adding they have been on “every corner” and are entering homes.

Several other sources backed up Uprety’s account, and although most said arrested workers with residency are released, he says most migrant workers are now nervous regardless of their legal status. On a normal Sunday, some 200 migrant workers flock to a local community center. This Sunday, Uprety says that “maybe 10 or 12” people came. He estimates 40 workers were arrested that day.

Salman hails from Nigeria, but first came to Lebanon 20 years ago. Like most of those interviewed for this report, he did not want his full name published. “Since 1991, I always felt safe in Dora,” he recalls. “But now, it is like they are targeting all migrant workers.” On one recent day in the Dora roundabout he was asked for his papers five times. “Something is happening here,” he says. “I don’t know what.”

His previously cordial relationship with the police is over. When he smiles at an officer now, Salman says they request identification. There are reports of workers pulled into unmarked cars, and whether or not these are true, they are making the rounds.

Burj Hammoud’s mayor, Antranik Meserlian, told The Daily Star “the Army is on the ground and arresting those who don’t have any residency and thus have no right to work in the country.” A security source told The Daily Star that arrests of undocumented workers are routine occurrences but could not give a number or whether Burj Hammoud, Nabaa, and Dora are currently being targeted.

Migrant workers aren’t the only ones running scared, according to some local businesses. The normally busy Burj Hammoud streets near Dora are quieter than usual, and locals say that several restaurants that cater to Nepalese and Sri Lankans have closed. A proprietor of a grocery store that sells Asian food says that for “maybe two weeks” she has had “no business.”

From behind the counter of a small snack bar near the Dora roundabout, Hussein reports that his business is down 75 percent in the past few weeks. “This snack bar is famous for its Nepali and Egyptian customers,” he shrugs. “There’s no one right now.”

He’s not surprised by the dive in business. “Of course people are afraid. The Army is everywhere asking for workers’ residencies. Why would anyone want to go out on the streets where the Army and police roam daily?”

Local Lebanese are also ringing alarm bells, but of a different sort. In a Monday statement, the Tashnag party said “there has been an increase in security incidents and accosting residents [by foreign workers]. The area is being transformed from a residential commercial industrial area to one that is filled with foreigners whose residency is illegal.” The party called on the municipality to deal with buildings overcrowded buildings that it said “is causing a huge disturbance.”

Meserlian says the municipality now plans to “force building owners to register their contracts with the municipality” by the end of the year, and he hopes this will deal with the issue of overcrowded apartments. “We’ve been receiving complaints [about foreigners],” he says, “people are getting scared. We’re not asking them to leave, we’re asking them to live lawfully and to bring their wives and children.”

The allegations of crime among migrant workers are not completely unfounded, many told The Daily Star. There are instances of prostitution and other crime. But Nirmalla, a Caritas worker who has lived in the country for 25 years, and one of the few shoppers at the Nepalese grocery Monday, suggests the situation is more complicated than it seems.

“I am against all this illegal activity … but you must go to the root. Can I run a brothel here without Lebanese help? No, I can’t … It’s easy to blame the helpless second-class citizen.”

Having witnessed racism firsthand for a quarter of a century, Nirmalla says it’s nothing new. “But it’s more open now.” What the report did, she says “was like adding fuel to the fire.” – With additional reporting by Reem Harb

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