Eight arrested after blaze at Lebanese refugee camp

Disagreement with Syrian labourers leads local farm owner to open fire inside informal camp

Lebanese authorities arrested eight people after a fire ripped through a refugee camp in the country’s north on Saturday evening, displacing hundreds in a dispute that appeared to pit Syrian refugees against their hosts.

The fire broke out started in the informal camp in the town of Miniyeh after an argument between Syrian labourers and a local farm owner.

Camp residents told The National that a Syrian man in the camp demanded unpaid wages from his local employer.

Angered, the farm owner rallied armed members of his extended family, who barged into the camp firing weapons in the air.

“I didn’t know where it was coming from,” said Sabiq Helew, 36, who fled Syria’s Hasakah province in 2013.

Mr Helew said youths from the family then set fire to a tent in the centre of the camp, which houses about 80 Syrian families, most of whom have fled the civil war.

The fire spread, destroying every shelter and leaving hundreds of displaced people homeless once more.

With flames lighting up the coastal town and shots ringing in the air, Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces were sent to restore order.

On Sunday, as children played in the ashy remains of the camp, dozens of soldiers stood watch.

Lebanon’s army said it arrested two Lebanese and six Syrians in connection with the blaze.

Mr Helew said he helped his four children over a wall surrounding the camp to escape the flames and gunshots.

“I pushed my wife and children over the wall, then I climbed over the wall," he said.

"We hid in the trees behind until 2am. I was afraid to come out. I knew that if one tent burns, all the tents will burn."

Yet far from being an isolated dispute Mohanad Hage Ali, a research fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Centre, said it was symptomatic of the Lebanese state’s withering amid a punishing financial crisis.

"In Lebanon we have this general discussion of local security. As the state collapses – and we are seeing cracks though not the full collapse, there will be attempts to provide security at a local level – through local militias, Zaims, or family-based groups," he told The National.

“The security of the country was subsidised by the inflated public sector – there was a low crime rate across the country because of that. Now, the Lebanese policeman and the Lebanese soldier are making much less, so the willingness to sacrifice on behalf of the state is falling.

“These incidents will be responded to in a collective fashion – it’s a primitive way of responding. It’s a dog-eat-dog situation. Increasingly it’s becoming as such, with the Syrians being the soft belly of Lebanon – they are unarmed, with no political representation and literally no one defending them, it makes them much more vulnerable.”

As the tents of what was once a refugee smouldered in the winter sun on Sunday, Syrians and Lebanese were desperate to stress that the actions were by only a small minority, and not a symptom of worsening relations between the two communities.

Lebanon hosts more than 1.5 million refugees but has been beset by its own problems in recent months, with the surging coronavirus tallies and a deepening financial crisis.

Yahya Bikai, 40, a Lebanese businessman who owns a building next to the camp, said he hoped the area could be rebuilt to give shelter to Syrians who had lost their tents.

"It's finished. It was a personal issue about money. It's nothing to do with Lebanese versus Syrians," Mr Bikai told The National.

“They are my neighbours. They’re more than brothers to me. If they want to live in my house, I don’t have a problem with that.”

Indeed, several witnesses told The National that as the fire began to spread, it was locals as well as fellow Syrians who rushed to the aid of those in the camp, bringing water and sand to fight the flames.

Others in Miniyeh, and the nearby city of Tripoli, opened their doors to the displaced.

But for all of the goodwill of most Lebanese, an exhausted Mr Helew said he was putting his faith elsewhere.

“The Lebanese have been very good to us but the UN needs to rebuild this camp. We can rely only on them. Them, and God.”