Syrian refugees destroy homes as pressure mounts to leave Lebanon

Higher Defence Council orders cement dwellings razed in Arsal region near border

Nasser al-Kanj pulls out a broken stove from the rubble of his home destroyed by the Lebanese army in Al Shouhada camp, Arsal. Sunniva Rose / The National
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In the parched mountains of Arsal in north-east Lebanon, Sobhieh Alia, 60, sat in the shade of her home with her three young granddaughters for the last time on Wednesday.

The next day, Mrs Alia said, the roof above them would be gone.

The din of jackhammers surrounded them as other Syrian refugees set about destroying their homes.

“We have been working since yesterday morning to take down the walls and the roof from my cousin’s house,” a young man shouted above the cacophony.

Mrs Alia said: “It makes us sick. I feel like I’m suffocating."

Sobhieh Shakr Alia and her granddaughters inside their home before its destruction in Qarya Hayat camp, Arsal. Sunniva Rose / The National
Sobhieh Shakr Alia and her granddaughters inside their home in Qarya Hayat camp, Arsal, before its destruction. Sunniva Rose / The National

In April, the Higher Defence Council, a military body under the authority of President Michel Aoun, ordered Syrian refugees in Arsal to destroy all homes built of anything other than timber and plastic sheeting by June 9. The deadline was extended to July 1.

Up to 15,000 people living in 3,000 homes will be affected by the decision, international charities say.

The order is expected to be extended to other towns in the region in what is seen as another move by Lebanese authorities to pressure Syrians into going home.

With the civil war in neighbouring Syria now in its ninth year, Lebanese authorities fear Syrians will settle for the long term.

Nearly one million Syrians are registered with the UN in Lebanon, which is about a quarter of the population. Another half a million are believed to be in the country without documentation.

In the Arsal region bordering Syria, where Syrians and Lebanese have a long history of inter-marriage, there are 60,000 Syrians compared with 40,000 Lebanese, the mayor says.

nw0407 arsal
nw0407 arsal

In what was widely regarded to be a warning, the army destroyed a small number of homes in several refugee camps in the early hours of Monday, and said it would return to finish the job.

“Hundreds of soldiers surrounded us at 5am," said Nasser Al Kanj, 54, while pulling a broken stove from the rubble of his home. “People just had time to take out their belongings and watch.”

The army told the Syrians to demolish their homes or watch the soldiers do it.

Doing it themselves meant they could protect their belongings and would be allowed to leave the walls standing to the height of one metre.

A few days before the deadline, less than half had been dismantled, the charities working with refugees said.

Only 14 camps out 130 have cement homes, locals said. They said that they did not know such cement homes broke the law.

Syrians pay rent for their houses that were built on privately owned land, either by themselves or by their Lebanese landlord.

The decision technically applies to all constructions on private land without a permit. A local NGO told The National  that regulations were fluid and not always enforced.

Rooftop view of Qarya Hayat camp, Arsal, of men destroying their own homes. Sunniva Rose / The National
Syrian refugees work on destroiying their homes in Qarya Hayat camp in Arsal. Sunniva Rose / The National

Most refugees in Arsal live in tents and were not affected by the Higher Defence Council’s decision.

But as anti-Syrian sentiment rises, they worry that the Lebanese authorities could crack down on other infringements that were long ignored, such as shops operating without licences or cars driven into the country but never registered locally.

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil's party, the Free Patriotic Movement, has been increasingly calling for Syrians, employees and shop owners in particular, to go home.

Syrian refugees are only allowed to work in cleaning, construction and gardening, but the law is widely ignored.

Many Syrians refuse to go home, fearing arrest or military conscription.

But few Lebanese believe that destroying the refugees' homes will encourage them to go back to a country devastated by war, and where fighting continues in some regions.

“Some Lebanese political parties are putting pressure on Syrians to return, but it won’t work," said Bassil Al Hujairi, president of the municipality of Arsal.

"They may want to go back to their country but they are afraid. Returns are not safe."

Many Syrians say they have only two options: wait in Lebanon until Syrian President Bashar Al Assad leaves power, or emigrate to Europe – an uncertain prospect as European countries have been closing their doors to refugees.

For now, Syrians in Arsal have been given materials such as wood and plastic sheeting to build new tents over the ruins of their cement homes.

The UN refugee agency has been lobbying Lebanese authorities to give the Syrians more time to dismantle their homes.

“Arsal hosts one of the most vulnerable refugee groups in Lebanon," a spokeswoman said.

Mr Al Kanj is still waiting for tent materials but has organised a small space for him and his family behind the camp where he had stacked their mattresses, kitchenware and other possessions.

"We manage,” he said.