“We are invisible here,” says Abu Leila, a Syrian refugee, as he stood in front of the ashes of his former camp. Like countless others, he and his family have fled the war in Syria only to face a battle for survival in Lebanon. According to the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, more than a million Syrian refugees are now living in Lebanon. Of these, some 400,000 have settled in the Bekaa valley, which runs along the Syrian border.
Abu Leila, originally from Aleppo, has lived with his family and 275 others in a makeshift tent in an unofficial camp known as Jdita for two years. Like most Syrian refugees in the Bekaa, they live on Lebanese privately owned land and hold loose agreements with their landlords in exchange for farm work or payments. Despite the lack of safety and security, living in such illegal camps has been their only option.
This vulnerable reality hit Jdita hard when on May 31 it was burnt to the ground. According to the fire’s witnesses, it was an arson attack which was set using petrol in the middle of the night. The message was clear: evacuate our land by choice or by force.
While there were no fatalities or major injuries, 27 tents and most of the camp’s possessions, including many of their ID cards, were destroyed. When the camp was visited a week later, the scene was devastatingly bleak. A mother whose young son was sifting through a pile of charred belongings said, “We have the clothes we are wearing and that’s it.” Her husband explained that he had not slept since the incident out of fear of another attack on the new shelters they had begun building.
Their attempt to rebuild the camp was in vain as the refugees had a day earlier been warned of an imminent eviction by their landlord. Unwilling to point the finger, one man hammering plastic into a wooden pole said, “Only God knows who lit the fire. What is certain is we are not welcome here.” He continued, “Just tell me where we should go with all these children? Only the street is left!”
Yet even the streets pose a threat to these unofficial refugees. As an elderly man explained, “We fear leaving this site because most of us don’t possess any identification and we risk being arrested by the army.” His fears are well founded as, in response to the refugee influx, the area has seen a security crackdown in recent weeks by the Lebanese forces.
The UK-based international charity Save the Children and the UNHCR have been providing basic aid to the camp. Both have independently confirmed that they have no powers of intervention with regards to the Jdita refugees’ eviction that was carried out last week. A representative from the UNHCR has since said: “We have been informed that the refugees have identified another plot of land where they can move.” It goes without saying that a new plot of land they have no legal right to live on will once again rob these refugees of their long-term security.
Tensions and fears are running high. On a practical level, the refugees have posed an immense strain on local communities and the country’s infrastructure. On a demographic level, Lebanon’s already fragile sectarian state has been pushed to unsustainable limits by the vast numbers of mainly Syrian Sunni refugees who continue to cross its borders. The humanitarian organizations mentioned are attempting social cohesion projects that bring the host and refugee communities together. Nevertheless, without increased aid and support from the international community, both the refugees and the Lebanese people will continue to be victims of this seemingly endless humanitarian disaster.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.