The refugees’ tents torn by the wind of crisis in Lebanon
Enab Baladi’s investigation team
Nour Dalati – Ahmed Jamal – Reham Al Assaad
Passing through the tents of the neighbors, Um Saadou waits for things to get better after demolishing her cement house, where she lived with her two daughters and grandchildren, and failed to find another shelter even if made of wood and pavilions.
The residents of al-Bara 1 camp in Arsal area know Mrs. Nahla Mohammed Ayouch as Um Saadou. She has been known for her patience. However, now she grew “tired and hopeless” after she succumbed to the decision to demolish the cement houses constructed in the Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon.
Um Saadou, 52, told Enab Baladi that she wanted to keep five concrete blocks as the law allowed her when she was informed about the removal decision, or as it was officially called “removing construction violations.” However, a defect in the foundations of her house led to its total collapse.
Um Saadou confirmed to Enab Baladi: “I did not know what to do” after losing what she have lost and she could not see any glimpse of hope. She continued: “I used to have a husband, two sons and two daughters back in al-Qusayr. However, my husband and my sons were martyred, and now I live with my daughters and grandchildren in Lebanon.”
Despite the promises made by some relief organizations to provide wood and tent bases to build a tent for her as a replacement for her cement house, Umm Saadou asserted that what she got is not enough to build the tent, and that she cannot provide workers to install it.
Umm Saadou feels upset as she is forced to spend her time moving from one neighbor’s tent to the other because their tents are small and can barely accommodate the families living in them. Neighbors were also forced to demolish their cement houses and build tents made of wood and plastic pavilions.
Demolition is everybody’s fate
Regarding the decision issued by the Lebanon’s Supreme Defense Council, affiliated with the Lebanese presidential institution, last May to demolish all the concrete houses built by the Syrian refugees in temporary camps of Arsal, Enab Baladi met with a group of the camp residents and activists and asked them about their situation there as well as the impact of the decision on their lives.
Many refugees have responded quickly to the decision under the urgency of the notifications made by the Lebanese army, while others are still resisting till now.
Ghada Hasan al-Shami, a refugee from al-Qusayr, the countryside of Homs, did not dare to demolish her house in al-Ghaith refugee camp in Arsal, justifying her hesitation by her fear of having no place to live in with her son after her husband died.
Ghada told Enab Baladi: “There is no one to help me with the demolition or repair works. I do not dare sleep in a tent made out of pavilions only.”
Ghada faces daily warnings of demolition, which include expressions like “fears of permanent settlement in the region,” as she put it; however, she keeps responding to these warning saying: “If Syria was safe, we would not stay here for a minute.”
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provided grants for the owners of cement houses to compensate them for the houses they lost following the demolition. According to a UNHCR circular, a copy of which was obtained by Enab Baladi, the organization’s volunteers monitor the needs of each family and provide shelter, water and sanitation assistance and basic necessities, including mattresses and blankets.
However, the mechanism for obtaining such support takes time pending on assessment needs, while some refugees complain that the aid provided by the UNHCR is insufficient.
Voice Refugee in Arsal published Friday, 14 June, a statement about “delays and discrepancies in the quantities of materials delivered in an unequal and often unfair manner.”
Most refugees do not have more options that may grant them better living standards, such as renting new homes or tents, especially for families who lost their provider.
Um Saadou gets $ 27 a month from the UNHCR, she explained to Enab Baladi, as well as to her single daughter. Thus, the mother and daughter use that amount to pay rent for the tent and water and electricity bills; while Um Saadou’s second daughter receives nothing, either for her or for her children, as she moved from Jordan to Lebanon a year ago and has not been registered in the Commission’s refugee records yet.
Um Saadou does not have many options, and she feels that she became a burden on her neighbors, as she puts it. The widow added that she lost hope of returning to her city, al-Qusayr.
Her frustration is mixed with feeling nostalgic for her cement tent, as she kept a picture of her demolished home in her cell phone, while she keeps showing the picture of the rubble to anyone who asks her how is she doing.
Compulsory housing facing forced demolition
Why cement tents?
The idea of building cement tents began with the long period of displacement of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, especially in the area of Arsal, Beqaa. This was dictated by the natural factors that forced the refugees to build whole or partial walls for their tents in order to prevent the danger of insects and animals during the summer and avoid the risk of floods and snow during the winter.
The concrete tents are made up of walls constructed of “cement blocks” and partially (half built) for some tents or entire walls for others. Thus, there are tents, called “rooms,” which have cement ceilings. This type of tents is considered safer when facing heavy rains and floods, as well as in reducing high temperature in the summer.
Lebanon witnessed a wave of large-scale immigration of Syrians during late 2012, most of them concentrated in Arsal, at the Beqaa region. The refugees were housed in tents made of fabric provided urgently by NGOs, in the absence of any future plans for their return to Syria and without housing arrangements that commensurate with their unexpectedly long stay in Lebanon that exceeded eight years.
The specifics of Arsal
Ziad Aziz, head of the Health Care Program at Union for Relief and Development Associations (URDA), told Enab Baladi that the construction of the random or “irregular” camps, in reference to the concrete tents, was dictated by the specifics attributed to Arsal; in the absence of the state support for the region for a long time, in addition to the length of the period of these Syrians’ displacement and the absence of any political vision to end their crisis, in order to facilitate their return to Syria.
The number of tents in Arsal is estimated at 1,500 stone rooms, 7,000 of which are tents with stonewalls, and about 2,500 others are made up of concrete walls, according to Aziz.
“The cold is one of the reasons that led the refugees to build the concrete walls for their tents in Arsal, being warmer and resistant to the wind, snowstorms and rainstorms compared to fabric tents, in addition to being equipped with doors and windows that fit the refugees’ lives,” said Samer al-Masri, a volunteer in the UNHRC and International Rescue Committee in Arsal.
Al-Masri explained to Enab Baladi: “In our meetings with the UNHRC or the Lebanese army, the Lebanese government has always expressed concerns about the lengthy period of the refugees’ displacement which rather became a state of permanent settlement, imposing change in the structure of the Lebanese population. Our response was that we respect the Lebanese law and affirm our unwillingness to settle on Lebanese lands, as we all have our own properties back home, to which we will be returning after finding a political solution to end the conflict in Syria. Instead of demolishing, we proposed to sign lease contracts between the owner of each tent and the owner of the land on which the tent was constructed.”
Refugees are forced to obey the orders
MAPS estimated that 35,000 Syrian refugees have been affected by the demolition decision.
According to the general director of MAPS, Fadi al-Halabi, a large percentage of the refugees did not object the decision to demolish their cement tents. They were quick to respond for fear of the imposition of penalties; however, “what was really surprising is that the Lebanese authorities ordered that the refugees must demolish their own tents.”
Al-Halabi added: “Pushing the refugees to demolish their own homes reflects the oppression and humiliation suffered by Syrians as asylum seekers, and reveals their psychological and social condition.”
He continued: “Some international and local organizations have been working to transform this crisis from being centered around the refugees’ rights and dignity, to a mere issue of humanitarian aid, in the sense of compensating the refugees affected by the demolition decision with some pavilions and wood to build alternative shelter. They want to make the refugees forget that they lost their houses by means of offering them these simple compensations.”
The relief official pointed out that raising the refugees’ sense of awareness at this stage lies in the hands of “the elite and conscious media,” by finding ways to protect, care for the refugees and prioritize the need to improve their relationship with local authorities by eliminating any problems between both parties.
School caravans are in danger also
In a related context, organizations operating in the region are concerned that the decision of the Supreme Defense Council may include the removal of camp school “caravans.”
These concerns were caused by unofficial news about the intention of the Lebanese authorities to remove the “school caravans” from the camps, although the caravans are temporary and mobile. These caravans were intended to be mini schools in order to ensure “the refugee children’s safety in the camps,” according to relief officials Ziad Aziz and Fadi al-Halabi.
According to al-Halabi, there are 50 caravans in the Beqaa area dedicated to the education of about 3,000 children.
Al-Halabi said: “Hope caravans constitute a clear and explicit message to the refugees not to surrender despite the absence of education facilities, and that schools can be found wherever you were and will accompany you until your return to Syria. It also sends a message to the Lebanese society that we as Syrians are guests and we are not intending to stay forever in Lebanon. We were obliged to leave our country due to circumstances beyond our control. The education file is urgent and we should not wait for anyone to come up with solutions for us.”
Under the pretext of violations: Government-backed “military” demolition decision
In May, the Supreme Council of Defense, affiliated to the Presidency of the Lebanese Republic, issued a decision to demolish all the concrete structures built by the Syrian refugees in the unofficial camps in the town of Arsal.
The decision stipulates the demolition of about 1,400 cement tents distributed over 26 camps in Arsal by removing the concrete roofs and walls, so as to allow an only one-meter wall to avoid the danger of floods in the winter, according to statements by the mayor of Arsal, Bassel al-Hujairi, to Anadolu News Agency on June 12.
The Supreme Council of Defense granted the refugees a deadline until June 10 to demolish all “semi-permanent buildings” before extending it until the beginning of July, while forcing the refugees and landowners to carry out the demolition operations themselves.
The authorities argued that these concrete tents violate the laws in force in the country, as this requires a building permit by the municipality of Arsal. Moreover, the transformation of cloth tents into permanent residences constitutes a “security threat” in terms of the settlement and long-term residence of Syrian refugees in these lands.
As soon as the Supreme Council of Defense issued its decree, the Lebanese Ministry of State for Refugees Affairs announced its full and immediate readiness to implement the decree. The ministry posted a tweet via its official Twitter account, in which State Minister for Refugees Affairs, Saleh al-Ghareeb, said: “The decisions of the Supreme Council of Defense regarding the displaced Syrians will be implemented and this will be demonstrated in the media.”
All the cement structures in Arsal are to be demolished by the beginning of July. 70 percent of the demolitions have already been completed, according to the mayor, who told Anadolu News Agency that thousands of Syrians are living in the open because of the decree.
Settlement concerns at the forefront: Excuses behind the curtain of law
Legally speaking, no party can hold the Lebanese authorities accountable for the decision to demolish the concrete structures in the camps of Arsal. All the voices condemning the demolition decision have been launched from a purely humanitarian platform.
In this context, Lebanese lawyer and international humanitarian law expert, Diala Shehadeh, pointed out that allowing refugees to turn cloth tents into concrete and cement tents differs according to the laws in place in countries of refugees around the world.
In view of the situation in Lebanon, the lawyer said in an interview with Enab Baladi, that the Lebanese law prohibits anyone, whether a citizen, resident or refugee, from building any building without obtaining a permit from the concerned municipalities.
However, Shehadeh noted that most of the buildings built in the municipality of Arsal and other border municipalities are unauthorized, as citizens there often build houses, shops and additional floors without obtaining a building permit, as it is very expensive. She pointed out that this has been occurring for years and has become as a custom in those areas suffering from difficult economic conditions.
Nevertheless, Diala Shehadeh, director of the Center for the Defense of Civil Rights in Lebanon, believes that the demolition decision violates in some of its aspects the Lebanese law, which obliges municipalities to warn violators before demolishing their buildings so that they seek another shelter. This has not occurred in Arsal, as the implementation decree was immediately issued without warning the refugees, which led to the displacement of a large number of them, as she put it.
On the other hand, the decree violates the rights of Lebanese landowners in Arsal, considering that the lands on which the cement structures are built are not public properties. They are rather private properties rent by their owners to the Syrian refugees. Therefore, there must be a legal written justification for this decision, according to Shehadeh.
At this point, the lawyer pointed out that the Supreme Council’s decree conceals other purposes, which are aimed at pressuring the Syrian refugees in Lebanon under “false” legal pretexts. She described the decree a “crime against humanity” by forcing refugees to live in “humiliating” conditions, whether they chose to stay in Lebanon or return to their homeland.
In their turn, human rights organizations have raised the issue of the non-eligibility of the Supreme Council of Defense to issue such a decree. Similar decisions are usually issued by the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities, giving it a security and military nature that intimidates Syrian refugees, the official of the Union of Relief and Development Associations, Ziad Aziz, told Enab Baladi.
He added to Enab Baladi that from the legal standpoint, “the Supreme Council of Defense has no right to issue such an oral decree except in the event of a state of emergency, because this is the prerogative of the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities.”
This was confirmed by lawyer Diala Shehadeh, who clarified that an official written decision must be issued by the Lebanese government, based on a legal reference, especially as the lands are private and not public properties.
The premonition of settlement: The Palestinian experience as an example
Most of the official Lebanese statements revolve around fears of settling Syrian refugees in Lebanon to avoid repeating the Palestinian scenario.
Ain al-Hilweh camp of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon has been and is still a premonition that concerns the state since its establishment in 1948 to shelter around 15,000 Palestinian refugees who were displaced from the villages of Galilee in northern Palestine following the declaration of the establishment of the State of Israel (the Nakba).
Over the years, the tents inside Ain al-Hilweh camp have been transformed into separate concrete rooms and then have become high-rise buildings in alleys and neighborhoods, all of which have gone out of the control and laws of the Lebanese state, along with the existence of militants who are classified by the state as “dangerous terrorists.”
In 2017, Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil published photos from Ain al-Hilweh camp in the 1960s showing that there were only cloth tents inside it. He called on the Lebanese people not to allow the establishment of any camp on their lands, to “preserve” their homeland.
The Lebanese government bases its comparison between Arsal camp and Ain al-Hilweh camp, on the fact that Arsal camp has previously sheltered “extremist” armed militants, who were parties to the Syrian conflict, and whom the government considered a “security threat.”
Commenting on the aforementioned, Lebanese lawyer Diala Shehadeh considered that these settlement fears are “futile and useless,” given that the Lebanese army carried out two military operations in the outskirts of Arsal in 2014 and 2017, and they announced the “sweeping” of the outskirts and the expulsion of all the armed militants with their belongings and their families. The camp has then become sheltering only women, children and refugees seeking safety, as the lawyer puts it.
She added that the decree of the state to demolish the cement tents in Arsal will not necessarily force the Syrian refugees to return to their homeland, especially if their return would put them at risk, as they may move to other lands inside Lebanon where they will build their tents.
“Pressure may generate violence”
Human rights and humanitarian organizations are concerned over the fate of 35,000 Syrian refugees who are facing the threat of homelessness following the decree of the Lebanese state to demolish their tents and its refrain from providing them with alternative shelters.
At this point, there have been many queries about the party that would be entitled to compensate the refugees for the damage to which they have been subjected. Lawyer Diala Shehadeh believes that the Lebanese state does not want to provide an alternative shelter when they have turned a blind eye to the situation of homelessness from which they have become suffering.
Shehadeh added to Enab Baladi that it is now the responsibility of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the humanitarian and relief organizations operating in Lebanon to rent or buy lands in Arsal and establish tents that would shelter the affected refugees.
However, the biggest concerns lie in the ignition of hatred between the refugee community and the hosting society, according to the official of the Union of Relief Associations in Lebanon, Ziad Aziz, who warned in an interview with Enab Baladi that pressure on the Syrian refugees would lead to a clash between the two communities, especially with the existence of “inciting” campaigns against them and holding them accountable for the deteriorating situation in Lebanon.
Lawyer Diala Shehadeh also warned that the decree to demolish the camps would generate violence and crime in the asylum community because of the weakness of the already “vulnerable” refugees and their inability to return to Syria for fear of security pursuits.
In the context of the tightening on Syrians: The tents crisis is part of the “voluntary” repatriation efforts
The crisis of the demolition of cement shelters of Syrian refugees in the Lebanese camps comes at the peak of the tightening on refugees, and it is accompanied by a series of government decrees and media campaigns that are aimed for the same purpose.
This situation has recently led to tension between the Syrian refugees and the Lebanese people. This has been manifested in the crisis of Deir al-Ahmar, which started on June 5, as a result of a problem between the residents of the camp near Deir al-Ahmar and civil defense officers following a fire that broke out in the tents. This ended with the closure of the camp and the burning of tents by the villagers.
Some others blame Syrian refugees for attacking two civil defense officers. However, the director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, Nasser Yassin, told Enab Baladi during an interview that “the collective punishment which took place expelled refugees and burnt their tents.”
Amnesty International denounced the incident in Deir al-Ahmar and declared in a statement issued on June 12 that “the attack is a clear example of the escalating hostility forcing many refugees to leave Lebanon and return to Syria in spite of the persistent violations of international humanitarian law that take place there.”
Forced “voluntary” repatriation
Decisions to remove concrete tents were justified as “settlement concerns.” Meanwhile, Lebanese officials were stressing the need to expedite resolving the refugee issue through repatriation.
Last year, Lebanon started taking measures to repatriate Syrians, the first of which was carried out through coordination between the Lebanese General Security and the Syrian regime.
The Lebanese General Security estimated the number of Syrian returnees following this coordination to reach 172,046 refugees, between 2017 and 2019, according to a statement issued on 20 March.
In light of UN calls to make Syrians’ repatriation from Lebanon voluntary and secure, several media reports revealed that Syrians were arrested or killed following their return.
Former Lebanese Minister of State for Refugees Affairs, Mu’in al-Marabi, was concerned over the fate of Syrian refugees returning home.
During an interview with London-based newspaper, al-Hayat, published on Friday 2 November, al-Marabi declared that the Syrian regime committed several “sectarian” violations against returnees from Lebanon to Syria. Three Syrians who returned to the village of Barouha in the countryside of Homs eight months ago were killed for “unknown” reasons.
According to a report published by the Washington Post on 2 May, many Syrian returnees heading to regime-held areas were subject to investigation and interrogations, forced to report their relatives and tortured.
Campaigns for and against hate speech
Amid calls for repatriating them, Syrians were subject to series of Lebanese measures, including Lebanese General Security Forces closing their shops last April claiming they do not hold work permits.
Lebanese Foreign Affairs Minister Gebran Bassil recently sparked controversy after publishing a tweet saying: “It is common sense to defend the Lebanese labor force against any other, whether Syrian, Palestinian, French, Saudi, Iranian, or American, for the Lebanese need to have priority over any other.” This statement caused him to face charges of racism.
Following the incident which occurred at Deir al-Ahmar camp, racist hashtags were spread all over social media sites with slogans such as “Welcome to Racism” and “I am the greatest racist” in support of the attitude of the villagers against the refugees.
On the other hand, Lebanese people organized a campaign entitled “Against Hate Speech” in response to Bassil and the anti-refugee calls. The participants published a hashtag holding the title of the campaign. They called for easing the tension between the Syrians and the Lebanese and organized a protest on 12 June in Beirut to confirm their position.
Purely Governmental responsibility or Popular Pressure
Some of the official Lebanese statements fearing “Syrian settlement” in Lebanon are being supported by similar popular reactions made evident through publications and comments via social media. This calls into question whether these government decisions are driven by popular pressure rejecting the Syrian presence in Lebanon.
Enab Baladi conducted a poll on its Facebook account, asking the following question: “Who do you believe is responsible for issuing decisions to remove the cement tents of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon?”
78 percent of the respondents, which account for 1,200 participants, considered government policies to be responsible for the decision requiring the tents to be removed, while 13 percent insisted that popular pressure was driving these decisions.
Some participants blamed Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil for inciting against Syrians. Mohamed Kheir Salloum believed “Bassil’s racist speech” to be the reason. Abdel Rahman Ghanoum also thought that Bassil has vested interests in pressuring the Syrians.
Hisham Younus said that Lebanese rulers are being “horrible” to their people, so treating Syrians the same way will not be surprising.
Some participants have pointed out that Hezbollah is most likely involved with the decisions to clamp down on Syrians, including Muhammad al-Muhammad, who considered the Shabiha of the party responsible for these decisions, while Yasser Malkani argued that the “direction of the Syrian government” was the engine.
While most of the respondents felt that the Lebanese people had nothing to do with pressuring the government to take decisions involving the demolition of cement tents, Bashar Nabil Jarkas considered the people and the government to be both responsible for these decisions.
Tension between refugees and host community
A complex crisis, can be solved by Lebanon and Syria
Interview with Ziad el-Sayegh, an expert in public policies and refugees
The repercussions of the Syrian crisis in Lebanon have been dominating media recently, reflecting the escalating tension between the refugees and the host community following the recent incidents taking place, including demolishing cement tents, Gibran Bassil’s statements and the burning of the tents near the village of Deir al-Ahmar.
Enab Baladi met Ziad el-Sayegh, an expert in public policies and refugees in order to address the reasons behind this escalation, try to find solutions to ease the tension and put an end to the crisis. El-Sayegh tried to clarify some points regarding the tense atmosphere surrounding the Syrian presence in Lebanon.
What are the main reasons behind the crisis?
“The exasperating Syrian refugee crisis and the limited resources in Lebanon have contributed to the creation of tension between the refugees and the host communities in light of the decreasing international aid,” he said.
In addition to the previously mentioned two reasons, he explained that “the period of Syrian tutelage is still engraved in Lebanese memory. Meanwhile, Syrian refugees have a limited perspective regarding the possibility of returning to Syria in the future.”
As for the crisis reaching a serious advanced stage, el-Sayegh attributed this to “the persistent dictatorship and terrorism in Syria mainly,” in addition to “the international community’s failure to put an end to the state of war in Syria and provide guarantees for refugees to return.”
El-Sayegh believes that the Lebanese state shall also assume part of the responsibility, as it does not have “a policy reconciling the human and the sovereign aspects (Lebanese sovereign concerns), and the diplomacy of return (i.e. following what rule will return be conducted?).”
“There is a political game in Lebanon making use of populism and improvisation to consolidate its electoral bases, suggesting that the refugees are causing all the problems in the country. On the other hand, accusing the Lebanese of racism has become a piece of cake for Syrian refugees,” said el-Sayegh.
Can this reality be mainstreamed?
The expert Ziad el-Sayegh describes the prevailing atmosphere in the Lebanese community towards Syrians as “tense” and rejects to justify this situation as ultimate, because it is “a specific political atmosphere and portrayed as public,” as he puts it.
“Since 2011, the Syrians have been living in Lebanon and sharing everything with them. Lebanese people have been helping and supporting them.”
On the other hand, el-Sayegh admits that “there are some practices resulting from the unbearable presence of Syrian refugees, which leads to committing some mistakes against them, but the Syrian refugee cannot accuse the Lebanese of racism.”
El-Sayegh is afraid that the situation may further exacerbate, for “Lebanese are fed up with situations, because they are jobless. Syrians will have to work in specific sectors in case the Lebanese law was enforced, leaving unemployed Lebanese and Syrians too. ”
Amid complex and tangled data: What to do?
Solutions to the crises of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon can be offered by the Lebanese government and the Syrian regime. The international community also plays a key role in resolving some of its crises.
According to el-Sayegh, the Lebanese state is supposed to introduce “a policy that reconciles the human, sovereign and diplomatic dimensions.”
The international community must “tackle the causes of the crisis the Syrian regime is party to, rather than focusing on providing humanitarian aid.”
“Around 300,000 Syrian refugees, or 24 percent of the total number of Syrian refugees belonging to areas such as Akkar, Western Beqaa and Arsal, can return to the regions of Qalamoun, Western Qalamoun, Zabadani and al-Qusayr. However, these Syrian areas are being held by the regime and Hezbollah, its ally. Both are capable of facilitating the return of these people to these areas. This would ease the burden on Lebanon and help Syrian refugees reclaim their lives in their land.
“Instead of triggering a conflict between the Lebanese and Syrians,” el-Sayegh calls for “joint action to secure guarantees for the return of refugees, and exerting pressure on the Syrian regime through the international community.”
He also believes that Russia “should better contribute in this issue, because it has presented an initiative that has not reached a conclusion.”
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