BEIRUT – Three years ago, Ahmad Mohsin was forced to relocate his campsite in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley after soldiers raided the community of Syrian refugees where he lived and smashed their belongings. The message was clear, he said: they were not wanted.
On Tuesday, Mohsin, 39, was preparing to break down his camp again, after an order came from the security services to move once more.
Even as donor nations raise money for Syria’s neighbors to host refugees of the country’s civil war, a leading international rights group and the U.N.’s refugee agency say Lebanese authorities are evicting refugees from towns and camps in the country on questionable legal grounds.
Mohsin, from Syria’s third largest city Homs, said on the second order to move he went to a local official to ask for help.
“He said, go back to Syria,” said Mohsin. Neither the local official nor the military could be reached for comment.
Human Rights Watch said it documented evictions in 13 towns and villages putting more than 3,600 Syrians on the streets since 2016. It said the Lebanese Army uprooted another 7,500 refugees near a military base around Christmas 2017.
Meanwhile, the country’s General Security apparatus, which handles border security, arranged for 500 refugees in the Shebaa farms area to return to their villages in western Syria, one week ago. The U.N. did not participate in the operation, saying it did not believe Syria was safe enough for returnees. (The refugees said on Lebanese media they were returning voluntarily.)
In Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley, the Army can designate areas as military zones and close them off to campsites. Their boundaries are rarely clear and appear to shift without notice.
Mohsin said he was informed by military intelligence that his campsite sits on a “military corridor.” The camp is approximately 8 kilometers (5 miles) from the Riyaq air base linked to the Christmas evictions.
In 2015, soldiers raided the camp in its old location looking for Mohsin, the camp’s foreman, and announced they wanted the tents moved immediately. Afraid, Mohsin denied his own identity.
“The soldiers went through the homes, beating down the doors, breaking things,” he said. “Then he started saying things to us, things I don’t know how to repeat now, things that really bothered us.”
They moved to their present site, just a few hundred meters (yards) away, and along the same dirt road now deemed off-limits.
A local business owner who is developing a private park along the same road said he was aware the area was designated as a ‘military zone’ but said he didn’t expect any restrictions on his venture.
Omar Elmais said he hoped to pave the road and light it along the way to his park, which he said would include a pond and an entertainment area.
Ibrahim Samaha, the owner of the land where Mohsin’s community keeps camp, said he received the necessary permits to let the Syrians move to another spot of land away from the road. He also confirmed that the military had uprooted the community in 2015.
According to the U.N.’s refugee agency, UNHCR, 1,300 Syrian families were evicted from their camps and homes in the Bekaa Valley in 2017. It said close to sixty percent of the evictions were ordered by the military intelligence. Another 30 percent were ordered by local officials.
Ziad El Sayegh, an adviser to the Lebanese minister of refugee affairs, said new campgrounds were found for the refugees evicted from around Riyaq air base.
“In fact the army undertook to protect these refugees, like it protects the Lebanese people,” he told The Associated Press.
There are nearly a million Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, according to the U.N., and an estimated 70 percent of them live in poverty.
Though President Bashar Assad in neighboring Syria appears to have put down the revolt against him, the U.N. and rights groups say the country is still not safe for refugee return.
The country has suffered catastrophic damage, and many men say they are afraid they will be arrested when they return, on charges of fleeing military conscription.
Meanwhile, Lebanese politicians say their country has been strained under the weight of the refugees, who together with a Palestinian refugee population of 175,000, make up roughly one fifth of the country’s population — the highest portion in the world.
And with national elections less than two weeks away, politicians are making the refugees into a ballot box issue.
Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who leads President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement party and is the president’s son-in-law, said in January it was time for refugees to return home.
It is a common refrain among the country’s Christian politicians, who are playing on fears in Lebanon that the overwhelmingly Muslim Syrian refugee population is a threat to Lebanon’s national identity.
Meanwhile, local officials in Lebanon are throwing Syrians out of their towns in a violation of their rights as refugees and residents, said Human Rights Watch.
The rights group said it was a worrying trend, at the time of an international donors’ summit in Belgium to support Lebanon and other countries neighboring Syria.
Local officials in several municipalities ordered Syrians out en masse, posting eviction notices on their doors, and sometimes sending the police to physically intimidate the refugees if they did not comply, said Human Rights Watch.
The evictions did not appear to have the formal support of the national government, nor any legal basis. Human Rights Watch called on national authorities to step in and stop the evictions.
Syrians face numerous barriers to employment, education and housing in Lebanon, with many forced to live under the radar because Lebanon ordered the U.N.’s refugee commission to halt refugee registrations in 2015.
“Right now, Syrian refugees do not have the guarantee that they are safe in their homes,” said Bassam Khawaja, a Lebanon researcher for Human Rights Watch.