Lebanese move may render 35,000 Syrian refugees homeless

Two boys watch the demolition of their refugee camp as Lebanon fears building work inside tents could represent the start of resettlement or permanent residence of Syrian refugees. (Photo/Supplied)
Updated 08 June 2019

Lebanese move may render 35,000 Syrian refugees homeless

  • Civil groups say the Lebanese army has ordered refugees to rip down the structures by Monday

BEIRUT: More than 35,000 Syrian refugees face being left homeless following a demand by Lebanese authorities for them to demolish makeshift walls and ceilings built inside their tents.

Civil groups say the Lebanese army has ordered refugees to rip down the structures by Monday.

A Syrian civil engineer, Aref Mohammed Satouf, who has been helping carry out the demolition work at the giant Arsal camp about 125 km northeast of Beirut, described the situation as “ridiculous.”

“My family and I fled Syria with the outbreak of the conflict there and took refuge in a tent like thousands of other refugees who live in Arsal,” he said.

“We used plastic sheeting to protect ourselves from the harsh weather in winter, but it was difficult. So, people built concrete floors and walls to allow them to stay without getting buried under the snow. We also built walls inside the tent to separate the sitting area from the bathroom.”

Satouf added: “The Lebanese government gave its decision to demolish the walls, and we do not mind at all, but the instructions we have received are inconsistent.”

Lebanon’s Higher Defense Council, headed by President Michel Aoun, issued its ruling during a meeting in April attended by the prime minister, interior and defense ministers, and security leaders.

Arsal Mayor Basil Hujairi, said: “The demolition decision includes more than 2,500 tents with stone walls built inside as well as ceilings.”

He said walls with a height of 2.5 meters had to be knocked down or reduced to only 1 meter. “People have started to abide by the decision, and demolitions are being carried out, but people are also facing difficulty and confusion.

“For example, there is currently heavy rain even though it is summer. The region has harsh weather during winter, with temperatures dropping to between 6 and 12 below zero, and during summer there are floods caused by melting snow on the eastern mountain range. Also, the snow in Arsal piles up half a meter high every year,” added Hujairi.

Lebanon fears that building work inside tents could represent the start of resettlement or permanent residence of Syrian refugees in the country on similar lines to Palestinians.

But 430 civil associations and activists have described the thinking as “illogical because the situation is different. Palestinians have lost their land and become occupied by another entity, while Syrians have not lost their passports and their government is welcoming them.

“It is also unrealistic to consider the cessation of war in some areas in Syria a sufficient and legitimate justification for the return of refugees.”

SPEEDREAD

Clashes between Syrian refugees and Christians in Deir El-Ahmar, a town in the Bekaa, saw a camp set on fire after refugees fled after claiming they had received threats.

In a memorandum signed by the civil associations, they noted their “fear of pressure on Syrian refugees to force them to return to Syria, and this is contrary to Lebanon’s international obligations.”

The communication pointed to “the lack of an infrastructure and health structures in Syria, reprisals, demographic changes, changes in the protecting environment, the existence of nongovernment militias that are not under the control of the central government in Syria, and the absence of a solution for the compulsory army service, dissidents and deserters.”

The associations, which work with Syrian refugees, said that about 7,000 tents at camps in Arsal, the Bekaa and in northern Lebanon had stone walls and were inhabited by thousands of refugees, most of them registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

They believed that “the decision to remove the stone walls and tin and zinc ceilings means leaving more than 35,000 Syrian refugees homeless and without alternatives, noting that most of these refugees are from Syrian areas that suffer very poor security and economic conditions.”

Arsal alone houses 65,000 Syrian refugees, 45,000 of whom benefit from UNHCR assistance.

Hujairi said: “What is the difference if a wall’s height is 2 meters or 1 meter? And how can a wooden ceiling or plastic sheeting be acceptable, but not other types of ceilings?”

Meanwhile clashes between Syrian refugees and Christians in Deir El-Ahmar, a town in the Bekaa, saw a camp set on fire after refugees fled after claiming they had received threats.

Hujairi said refugee authorities were trying to track down around 1,500 people who had left the camp.

Lebanese MP Marwan Hamadeh, said: “Because of the ethnic and sectarian incitement practiced by some authorities, Lebanon may lose the image it has built during the past years as a country that hosted refugees and treated them humanely.

“Now, after the vague decisions of the so-called Higher Defense Council, which has not been vested with procedural powers that only belong to the Cabinet, some local bodies and extremists, especially those associated with the authority, are inciting against camps and refugees and turning each incident into a reprisal.

“This means demonizing every foreigner, increasing tension inside Lebanon and destroying Lebanon’s reputation among Arab countries and the international community at a time when we seek the necessary aid and investment to revive our economy.”

Refugee Satouf added: “The people in the camps are lost. There is no clear information, it is all inconsistent. The Lebanese army informed us that we must reduce the walls’ height to 1 meter, the municipality provides different instructions, and the UNHCR gives other information.

“What about the shared walls separating the tents? If we demolish one wall, two or more attached tents will be destroyed. The army has allowed us to keep a wall that separates tents, as well as one to separate bathrooms, but it refused to allow a wall to separate shower and bathing areas.”

Satouf pointed out that families do not receive wood and sheeting to complete pitching the tent until they are sure these will not get demolished, which might take several days during which time families remain homeless while waiting for wooden pillars to hold the sheeting.


Security forces keep radical protesters away from French Embassy in Beirut

Updated 18 min 27 sec ago

Security forces keep radical protesters away from French Embassy in Beirut

  • Calls for a demonstration by radical Islamic groups spread on social media platforms
  • Security forces had anticipated Friday’s protest and tightened security in the heart of Beirut

BEIRUT: Lebanese security forces prevented the arrival of hundreds of protesters at the French ambassador’s residence and the French Embassy in Lebanon on Friday.

They feared the recurrence of riots similar to the ones that erupted in front of the Danish Embassy in Ashrafieh, Beirut, in 2006, and led to 28 people being injured, damage to storefronts, and the burning of the consulate building and terrorizing of people.

A few hundred worshippers left mosques after Friday prayers and marched to defend the Prophet Muhammad.

Calls for a demonstration by radical Islamic groups spread on social media platforms.

Khaldoun Qawwas, Dar Al-Fatwa’s media spokesperson, told Arab News: “These groups have nothing to do with Dar Al-Fatwa, which has already announced its position regarding what happened in France in two separate statements.”

Sheikh Abdul Latif Deryan, the grand mufti of Lebanon, in a statement issued a week earlier, said that “freedom of opinion and expression does not entail insulting the beliefs and symbols of others, and this requires a reconsideration of the concept of absolute freedom.”

He stressed the “renunciation of violence and confrontation of radicalism and terrorism that has no religion or race.”

Security forces had anticipated Friday’s protest and tightened security in the heart of Beirut, since the embassy and the French ambassador’s residence are located where roads leading to the city’s western and eastern neighborhoods intersect. This led to a huge traffic jam in the capital.

The protest’s starting point was the Gamal Abdel Nasser Mosque in Al-Mazraa, situated only a few kilometers from the Residence des Pins (Pine Residence).

Three major security checkpoints — one set up by the riot police — separated the Residence des Pins and protesters, some of whom were transported by buses from the north of Lebanon to Beirut.

Protesters held Islamic signs and chanted slogans denouncing France, its President Emmanuel Macron and its former colonization of the country. Some protesters tried to remove barbed wire and threw stones, water bottles and batons at the security forces. Another group burned the French flag. Security forces responded by throwing tear gas canisters, leading to the retreat of the protesters.

In a statement, Lebanon’s Supreme Council of the Roman Catholic condemned “the terrorist attack in the French city of Nice.”

The council considered that “this terrorist crime has nothing to do with Islam and Muslims. It is an individual act carried out by terrorists haunted by radicalism, obscurantism and the rejection of the French people’s historical civilizational values. Through their acts, they abuse the spirit of tolerance, coexistence, acceptance of the other and the freedom of thought and belief which all religions call for.”

The council called for “staying away from defaming religions and beliefs and inciting hate and resentment among people, raising the voice of moderation, wisdom and reason, working together in the spirit of the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together announced by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb from the UAE last year.”

During the Friday sermon, Grand Jaafari Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Kabalan condemned “any criminal act against any people, including the French people.” He added: “We categorically reject what happened in Nice yesterday, strongly condemn it and consider it a blatant and insolent attack on Muslims before others.”

He simultaneously condemned “the official French position that affronted the Prophet, took lightly and made light of the feelings of millions of Muslims.”