Since the end of 2012 and with the rising tide of Syrian asylum seekers fleeing the bloody conflict that was escalating in their home country, several Lebanese areas, mainly those situated on the Lebanese-Syrian borders, managed to establish random refugee camps, some of which included stone chambers with stone walls. Almost 1,500 stone chambers were built in Aarsal in addition to some tents with stone or tin walls in Beqaa and Akkar areas to shelter tens of thousands of underprivileged Syrians who surreptitiously crossed the land borders to Lebanon. Such tents and chambers were meant to protect refugees from the heat in summer and cold in winter until they can get back safely to their homeland, mainly with the persisting rejection of the Lebanese government to build temporary humanitarian camps under the sponsorship of the United Nations. Recent local statistics revealed that more than 7,000 tents include stone walls that have been built to protect them from falling apart due to snow in winter, including 2,500 tents in the border town of Aarsal which hosts around 7,000 Syrian families most of which are registered with the UNHCR.
A recent decision was made by members in top of the Lebanese political hierarchy, which gives the green light to take down all the concrete camps. Such decision will lead to the displacement of almost 35,000 Syrian refugees without securing any better humanitarian alternative for them, knowing that the majority of these refugees have come from conflict areas in Syria that are suffering on the economic and political levels. The Mayor of Aarsal, Mr. Bassel Al Houjairy, has confirmed that the decision of removing any stone building in any Syrian refugee camp in Aarsal and throughout Lebanon was made in a meeting with the Higher Defense Council which was attended by the Interior and Defense ministers. According to UNHCR, mayors, and governors, the decision included a notice period for eviction with a deadline on June 10th, 2019.
The existing burden on the Lebanese host country due to the presence of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is a case that cannot be handled unilaterally, especially without the support of the international community which has been supporting refugees and their host countries since the onset of the Syrian refugee crisis. The fact that Lebanon is now pressuring refugees to forcibly return to Syria through imposing the lesser of two evils, is not only contrary to the rules of international humanitarian laws, but also runs counter to Lebanon’s international obligations including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention against Torture and the signed protocol with the UNHCR.
In all cases, the decision to remove a part of refugee camps in Lebanon will not produce its expected results, since the Syrian Refugees who agreed on living in a tent in the most challenging circumstances have done so out of fear from what is worse – such as famine, displacement, torture or death. Real refugees are those who cannot go back home due to the lack of security in their own country, therefore, displacing such people in their host countries will only push them further to running away, hiding and surrendering to factors of extremism and corruption due to the impact of poverty, sickness, ignorance, fear, and injustice.
The fact that conflict has ended in many Syrian areas is not enough reason for refugees to go back to their country, and it is only a matter of turning a blind eye to reality. Many reasons prevent many Syrian refugees from returning to their country. Reasons include the lack of health infrastructure, reprisals among hostile communities and villages during the crisis period, the demographic change in many areas, change in the protective environment and the presence of unofficial militias that are not under the Syrian government’s control, in addition to the lack of resolutions to problems related to conscription and Syrian army deserters, this, in addition to the continuation of armed conflicts in many regions throughout north Syria.
The decision to remove camps, which are already below the minimum humanitarian standards and do not provide families with any social security, will lead to the displacement of tens of thousands of individuals. Such decision would make things even worse in a time when humanitarian organizations are doing all they can to provide those forcibly displaced refugees in Lebanon with various services even if they only involved the basics, knowing that those 7,000 tents and chambers are only inhabited by 4% of Syrian refugees present in Lebanon.
To say that those stone-walled squatter camps are introductions to the permanent settlement of refugees in Lebanon similar to the case of the Palestinian people is both illogical and irrational. First, the case of Syrian refugees is entirely different from that of the Palestinians since the latter have been denied their land and citizenship, and their homes have been occupied by other people, while the former still have their citizenship, passports, land, and home that can welcome them back when it is possible. Second, the Lebanese citizenship is a sovereign authorization that is only granted by a presidential decree to cases not mentioned in the Lebanese Nationality Law for individuals born from a Lebanese father, non-registered individuals born in Lebanon and non-Lebanese women married to Lebanese and have had their marriage registered year ago.
Therefore, civil society organizations and activists:
Demand the concerned parties in the Lebanese government on all levels, especially the President of the Lebanese Republic, the prime minister and the high defense counsel to give every consideration to the reality which these refugees are living and stop the implementation of the decision to remove those camps, and to provide suitable humanitarian alternatives without charging their costs and loadings on the refugees themselves, until the safe return attempts are successfully guaranteed according to the current efforts made by the Lebanese government.
Demand everybody to take their full humanitarian responsibility concerning this matter, which, in case it happened, can make the situation of the Syrian refugees even worse and make the burden on humanitarian organizations heavier. Displaced refugees will resort to every Lebanese residential area and will carry along with them poverty in its worse forms. Such problem can eventually cause a lot of pressure on municipalities and the Lebanese civil society which is already suffering from inadequate infrastructures, including electricity, water, and roads, in addition to the present housing crisis.