In Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli, a Syrian clan that immigrated to the Middle Eastern country over a century ago offer a glimpse into the demographic bulge to come, as 1.5 million refugees from the current civil war look set to stay.

Greater Tripoli, home to some of the country’s most established political dynasties, is also teeming with poverty.

That is apparent even its wealthier areas, like the port district of El Mina, where an ancient travelers’ lodge, known as the khan, teems with multiple generations of squatters. 

At a glance, the khan bears no resemblance of its former glory of hosting traveling merchants, when Tripoli was the most economically important city on the Mediterranean coast of the Levant, dwarfing Beirut and Syrian ports further north.

But an enormous gate offers a clue, leading to a central courtyard, where a once-elegant water fountain sits dry, now serving only as a catch-basin for a hose strung from a rooftop water container.

A group of children led this Asia Times correspondent up a flight of stone steps to the second floor, where their mothers and family matriarch, Badria, were sewing longlines for fishing. This is the women’s painstaking work by day, to be followed by the husbands who take boats out by night to catch fish they will sell at the local market.

The nets not used by the men are sold to local fishermen at 5,000 LBP ($3) per longline, which take about two hours to make by hand.

It has been their livelihood in this port city for a century, providing a living for a clan that emigrated from the Syrian coastal province of Tartous to the north, long before Lebanon’s independence from its neighbor.

Now, they are a network of families on the fringes of Lebanese society, many without official ID cards, and all of them struggling amid the spiraling economic crisis.

While they do not pay rent, they – like most Lebanese – are compelled to pay generator fees reaching 50,000 LBP ($35) per month, plus the most basic needs like water and bread.

“We buy water to cook, water to drink. If you drink water from the faucet, you’ll be sick,” said Badria, describing the lack of clean drinking water that affects all residents of Lebanon due to its decrepit pipe system.

And the roughly 45 families in the khan have an additional conundrum. They are not entitled to Lebanese nationality – save for the daughters who married Lebanese men, whose children will automatically be Lebanese.

At the same time, the clan has long since lost links with Syria, rendering them stateless.

“Alas, the boy is Syrian,” Badria said, gesturing to one of her grandchildren.

While these women say they feel nothing in common with the 1.5 million refugees that have taken refuge in Lebanon since the start of the Syrian civil war nearly nine years ago, they offer a preview of what fate will befall those relative newcomers.

“All of us were born here. We don’t know Syria. But till now I don’t have a Lebanese ID or a Syrian ID,” said Badria’s 28-year-old daughter, Shadia. 

A Syrian-Lebanese woman in the northern city of Tripoli sews a fishing longline by hand. Photo: Alison Tahmizian Meuse

The new Palestinians

In March of this year, during a visit by a delegation of far-right European politicians to Lebanon, President Michel Aoun spoke bluntly about his views on the future of the Syrian population in Lebanon.

Lebanon should not be compelled to wait, he insisted, for a political solution between the government in Damascus and its rivals to promote Syrian refugee returns.

For the past one and a half years, Syrian families have been returning in groups in the low hundreds, in convoys organized between Hezbollah – a party to the war – and local power holders in the Damascus countryside.

Returnees interviewed by Asia Times in the summer of 2018 said they were eager to stake a claim to their land, return to a place with basic utilities like drinking water, during a moment in which the guarantors had an interest in ensuring their safety. The families did not have sons of military age, and the husbands had already completed their mandatory service before the war.

More recently, returns have been facilitated by Lebanon’s General Security in coordination with the United Nations refugee agency.

Those sporadic returns, while accounting for only a fraction of the Syrian population in Lebanon, have been heralded by the Lebanese president as proof of his commitment to Lebanon’s stability and sovereignty.

Even Saad Hariri, Lebanese prime minister – the top post reserved for Sunni Muslims – for the past three years has been opposed to the resettlement of the Sunni-majority Syrian population in Lebanon.

The prospect is as taboo as the naturalization of the half million Palestinian refugees in the country.

And yet, the Syrians appear headed for the same fate – a purgatory in which they are neither granted the rights of citizens nor able to return to their homeland.

“Their future is like that of the Palestinians in Lebanon,” said Fabrice Balanche, a political geographer specializing in the Levant. 

Amira, 12, and her friend stand on the roof of the khan of Tripoli’s El Mina district, where their families live on the fringes of Lebanese society. Photo: Alison Tahmizian Meuse

Demographic nightmare

In Lebanon, power is distributed based on religious sect, with quotas linked to the last official census. That was conducted in 1932 when the Christians possessed a slight majority in the former French mandate.

Today, Christians number about a third of the population, with Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims roughly accounting for the other two thirds of Lebanon’s 4 million population.

The presence of the Syrians are viewed as a threat, political geographer Balanche said, “because out of 1.5 million people, 90% are Sunnis, which completely changes the demographics.” 

“To grant nationality to Syrians would mean that Sunnis become the majority in Lebanon. The Palestinians too must receive it in this case.” 

If that were to happen, the distribution of parliament seats would have to be totally overhauled.

Most critically, “the president would no longer be Christian but Sunni Muslim.” 

The nearly two-month protest movement in Lebanon has seen consistent calls by demonstrators across the country for an end to the sectarian system, which many see as having allowed for decades of unchecked corruption by an entrenched class of political elites.

“All of them means all of them,” has been the most ubiquitous chant of the anti-corruption protests, as traditional bastions of support for sectarian elites turn on their own leaders.

Yet even as Lebanon stands on the precipice of financial collapse, there is no sign a cabinet of capable independents sought by protesters – much less an end to the sectarian system – is in the works.

The threat of demographic change appears far more pressing to the caretaker government of President Aoun, whose foreign minister and son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, on a trip to Hungary two weeks ago, was reported to have secured $2 million – not to shore up the country’s reserves, but for the refurbishment and construction of 30 churches.

Also read: Syrians cut off from dollars stashed in Lebanon