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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Already desperate, Lebanon's Syrian refugees now face calls for expulsion

After five suicide bombers detonated their explosives in Syrian refugee camps in Arsal, Lebanese politicians have increasingly called for the expedited expulsion of Syrian refugees despite the ongoing war

A Lebanese army soldier gestures at a military vehicle at the entrance of the border town of Arsal, in eastern Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. Hassan Abdallah / Reuters
A Lebanese army soldier gestures at a military vehicle at the entrance of the border town of Arsal, in eastern Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. Hassan Abdallah / Reuters

Through stifling summers and punishing winters spent in tents and overcrowded apartments, many among the estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon have suffered through economic desperation, hopelessness, hostility and, sometimes, hunger.

But after last week's suicide attacks on Lebanese army troops carried out by extremists at refugee camps, they are also facing calls for their expulsion back to the war they fled.

On Friday, army raids on two Syrian refugee camps in the notoriously lawless town of Arsal on the Lebanon-Syria border were met with five suicide bombers, the Lebanese government said. One Syrian girl was killed and several soldiers injured in the attack that led to the detention of about 360 people, the authorities said.

It is unclear which group the attackers were affiliated with, but both ISIL and Al Qaeda’s former Syria branch Jabhat Al Nusra have holdouts near the town, which was captured briefly by the two groups in a joint assault in 2014.

After Friday’s attack, Lebanese politicians — some of whom have long warned that the crush of Syrian refugees poses an existential threat to Lebanon — are increasingly calling for their expedited expulsion even though the war in Syria is still raging.

“Terrorism is using displacement as a cover for its acts of terror,” said Gebran Bassil, who, as Lebanon’s foreign minister, son-in-law of the president and leader of a major Christian party, is one of the country’s most powerful men. “That’s why we must confront the refugee crisis bravely and through a firm decision from the Lebanese state.”

That firm decision, he said, was returning refugees to Syria as soon as possible, without waiting for a political solution to the conflict.

Sheikh Naim Qassem, the deputy secretary general of Hizbollah — the Iran-backed Islamist group fighting as a key ally of president Bashar Al Assad — called for Lebanon to coordinate the return of refugees with the Syrian government.

“The time has come for us to have the courage to begin a solution,” he said according to the state-run National News Agency.

Refugees are one of the few issues that unite Lebanon’s chronically divided political parties. While Mr Bassil’s Free Patriotic Movement and Hizbollah are allies, traditional enemies of Hizbollah are also intensifying their calls for Syrian refugees to be sent home.

Lebanon’s prime minister Saad Hariri — an anti-Damascus politician who was previously viewed as an advocate by refugees — warned in March that the refugee presence would lead to civil unrest if it continued.

For years, Lebanese politicians have claimed that refugees pose a grave security threat to the country and have used this sentiment to justify restrictions and crackdowns on the community.

In recent months, thousands of refugees who had settled near eastern Lebanon’s Rayak airbase have been forced from their homes after being deemed a security threat. Raids on refugee camps are common, but often, those detained are Syrian men who do not have residency documents — an often complicated and sometimes impossible task for refugees here.

Towns across the country have enforced curfews on refugees and detentions of Syrians at checkpoints are frequently reported, making many too afraid to stray far from their immediate surroundings.

After Friday’s attack, things could get worse.

The Syrian Coalition, which represents the Syrian opposition in exile, claimed the Lebanese army and Hizbollah attacked Syrian refugees in Arsal on Friday after the attack, resulting in the death of a number of refugees.

“Refugees were humiliated and treated as hostages by the Lebanese army and Hizbollah militias,” the coalition said. “The coalition calls on the Lebanese authorities to provide the necessary protection for Syrian refugees in accordance with international law until such time as they can return to their homeland.”

Pro-rebel hackers who hijacked the website of state television station Tele Liban claimed on Tuesday the army had killed 19 young men, ran a young girl over with a tank and “executed a disabled person”, according to local media.

Lebanese authorities restrict access to Arsal, making claims of deaths and abuse at the hands of the army and Hizbollah difficult to verify.

Photos circulated online after Friday’s incident showed men, some shirtless, lying face down on the ground with their hands zip-tied at what appeared to be a Lebanese military installation. Some men had their heads covered with hoods or shirts.

If calls to expel refugees gain more traction, the Syrians who have sought safety here could be in an even more precarious situation. Many are too afraid to return to Syria so long as the Assad regime is in power and the war continues. Many have lost their homes.

While the US and other powers have talked about establishing safe zones in Syria to protect displaced persons, these have yet to materialise. Even if they were established, human rights watchdogs have warned that safe zones have rarely actually been safe in past conflicts and that forcibly returning refugees to countries at war would put even more lives in danger.