Amman- In the wake of a violent dispute between Syrian refugees and the Lebanese Civil Defense, the Lebanese government has transferred the population of the “Caritas” Syrian refugee camp in Deir al-Ahmar to the outskirts of Maqne, a town in the Baalbek governorate.

The refugees must now contend with a total absence of services like electricity, water, and sanitation in their new camp, which is several kilometers distant from the nearest market.

“There is no food or water, not even public amenities,” Abu Omar al-Homsi, a camp resident, told Syria Direct. “The road to the camp is not paved; it’s a dirt road.” Al-Homsi noted that in order to buy bread from outside the camp, “it will take twenty minutes if you are taking private transport.”

There are also fears concerning the new campsite’s security. The old location was just 100 meters from a Lebanese army station, giving residents a sense of security, according to an employee with the Access Center for Human Rights (ACHR).

The employee, who spoke anonymously for security reasons, added that “the new campsite is miserable, and there are no security patrols in the area.” He also noted that “the area is located along a smuggling route, something which frightens the residents.”

Syrian Refugees set up their new tents on the outskirts of Maqne. Source: Abu Omar al-Homsi

Despite verbal commitments from UNHCR representatives to give basic support to the refugees in the new camp, there still has not been “any UNHCR activity in the camp,” al-Homsi told Syria Direct.

According to the ACHR employee, who recently attended meetings between Lebanese and international officials regarding the living situation of the Syrian refugees near the town of Maqne, “The International Rescue Committee visited the new camp on the outskirts of Maqne and promised to give aid to the refugees.”

“However, these are just promises until now,” the employee added.

Syria Direct tried to reach sources in UNHCR’s MENA office to better understand its role in supporting refugees in the area, but it had not responded at the time of publication.

According to al-Homsi, the refugees bore the brunt of the move’s cost. “We personally covered the cost of deconstructing the tents in Deir al-Ahmar and moving them to the new sites, in addition to paying for the installation of temporary tents for protection from the sun and wind,” al-Homsi said.

“Some have not set up their tents, as they are waiting for organizations to give them assistance.”

Without any support from NGO’s, the lives of the refugees in the new camp depend on the camp’s “supervisor” (Shaweesh), who employs a number of residents in agriculture or workshops, and helps facilitate necessary activities, such as transport, for a fee.  

According to al-Homsi, “most of the camp’s residents are farmers who have some financial backing, and the supervisor (Shaweesh) tries to help them sell their goods in the market in these conditions [in the absence of NGO assistance].”

Caritas, the previous camp in Deir al-Ahmar, was made up of 120 tents. The majority of its residents were from Idlib and Homs, as well as a minority from Raqqa, the employee of ACHR told Syria Direct from Deir al-Ahmar.

The employee added that “Only 100 tents were moved from Deir al-Ahmar; twenty remain intact as their owners have been detained following the attack on the [Lebanese] civil defense.” A human rights center in Lebanon has been contacted to follow up on their case, “but [the defendants] still do not have representation from a lawyer.”

Syrian refugees disassembling their tents after the Lebanese government’s decision to evacuate them from “Deir al-Ahmar.” Source: Abu Omar al-Homsi

The Lebanese government decided to transfer the Caritas camp residents from Deir al-Ahmar to Maqne after a dispute between the civil defense and refugees.

The dispute began after a fire broke out on the evening of June 5th on the outskirts of the Caritas camp, near the Deir al-Ahmar village in the Baalbek governorate. As a result of the incident, some civil defense equipment was damaged and an employee was injured. The town’s population, angry with the Syrian refugees after the dispute, began to threaten them and call for the camp’s removal.

There were conflicting accounts as to who was responsible for the dispute. The Lebanese government said that the Syrian refugees assaulted a member of the civil defense as he tried to extinguish the fire.

For their part, the Syrians accused the civil defense employee of running over two tents on purpose, and described the assault on him as a reaction to the trampling of their homes.

The governor of Baalbek, Bashir Khader, said in a statement that “the residents of Deir al-Ahmar are the owners of the town; we cannot make them welcome refugees by force.” 

Caritas was subsequently closed and its residents transferred to the remote outskirts of Maqne, where land is being rented for the residents.

 

Calls for refugees to return grow louder

Eli Mahfouz, a lawyer and president of the “Change Movement,” a Lebanese political party that is part of the March 14th alliance, said that the Syrian refugee crisis is taking on dangerous new dimensions in Lebanon.

He tweeted:  “What happened must spur the government to make bold decisions, the least of which should be deportation of the offenders.”

However, reactions to the incident in Deir al-Ahmar were not uniform. The Lebanese lawyer and human rights activist Tareq Chindeb, told Syria Direct: “I think that the incident in the Deir al-Ahmar camp was designed to provoke [the Lebanese] against the refugees in Lebanon, and occurred under the leadership of Hezbollah and the Aouni political and security movement in order to put pressure on refugees to return to their country.”

Chindeb added that “What happened was contrary to international law and treaties and requires quick international action. The Lebanese government must open a genuine investigation to find out who provoked such an event.”

He also went on to note that “Hezbollah is the reason that some of these refugees are in Lebanon,” alluding to Hezbollah’s support of the Syrian government during the ongoing civil war.

Discussion of returning refugees to Syria is not a recent phenomenon in Lebanon; however, as the country faces a worsening economy, pressure on Syrian refugees to return grows.

Within the government, there is growing consensus around pushing Syrian refugees to return, especially among the Christian and Shia parties, and following the formation of a new government earlier this year that includes a number of pro-Assad politicians.

On more than one occasion, the Lebanese foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, has called on the Syrian refugees in Lebanon to return to Syria. He has described the hypothetical journey back to Syria as a “safe return,” rather than a “voluntary return,” which is what it is usually referred to in Lebanese political discourse.

According to Nasser Yassin, the director of research for the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, the change in rhetoric and description of a Syrian repatriation as a “safe return” is “false … the Lebanese politicians are using [the slogan] to increase the pressure [on refugees] to return.”

Yassin told Syria Direct, in a prior interview, that “this is just a play on words. Because if it’s safe, if the [refugees] perceive that the return is safe and it’s safe back home, it means they’re voluntarily making the decision to return—simply.”

“This is a way to demystify this issue around safe and involuntary returns.”