A deal brokered earlier this month sent more than 7,000 Syrians who had been living near the city of Arsal in northern Lebanon back to Syria, but those who remained in Lebanon say they 'went back against their will'
Despite hardship of living in Lebanon, Syrians don't envy returning refugees
The sign at the entrance to the small farming town Khirbet Qanafar in eastern Lebanon lays out the rules clearly: refugees should be off the streets by 8pm in the summertime and 7pm in the winter.
Many of the Syrian refugee families living here have recently been moved to two camps outside the village, far from any infrastructure in the middle of cornfields and peach orchards, offering little respite from the sun or wind.
“They want us to go back,” said Abu Nasr, who lives in one of the camps. “They moved us to this isolated place. It’s hard to get electricity, it’s hard to get water.”
Khirbet Qanafar’s municipal council estimates there are about 1,000 Syrians and 3,000 Lebanese living in the area, which roughly reflects the overall dynamic across the country. Most estimates put the number of Syrians in Lebanon at between 1 to 1.5 million compared with about 4.5 million Lebanese.
A deal brokered earlier this month sent more than 7,000 Syrians who had been living near the city of Arsal in northern Lebanon back to Syria, the first major return of refugees from Lebanon since Syria’s war began six years ago. That arrangement was worked out between Hizbollah, a Syrian militant group called Fatah Al Sham, and the governments of Lebanon and Syria. It marked a departure from the Lebanese government’s previous stance that refugee returns to Syria should be guaranteed by the United Nations.
On Saturday, negotiations were being held for the return of about 3,000 more people in a similar deal, this one involving a Syrian rebel group called Saraya Ahl Al Sham.
The discussions of repatriation seem to have emboldened Lebanese who hope more Syrians will return home soon. The municipal council in Khirbet Qanafar issued a statement last week making clear it would not allow the camps in its area to grow any larger.
“The Syrians are visitors in Lebanon,” said Marcel Karam, a member of the council.
But Abu Nasr and other Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley said they were wary of deals that were not backed by the UN.
“The refugees in Arsal went back against their will,” said Ali, who fled Syrian city of Homs and now lives in a camp of about 220 families in the Lebanese town of Al Marj. Like the other refugees who spoke to The National, he asked that his full name not be used. “In this area, no one talked about going back. We are welcome here.”
But “welcome” is a relative term. Though the municipality in Al Marj does not place restrictions on movement like the one in Khirbet Qanafar, people in the camp described harassment by local residents and the army, as well as difficulties of finding work without legal permission to do so. Still, none said they wanted to return to Syria.
Many of the families in the Al Marj camp are from the northern Syrian province of Idlib, where most of the refugees from Arsal returned earlier this month. Idlib is largely controlled by Fatah Al Sham, which continues to fight the Syrian government.
“We have relatives in Syria,” said one woman in Al Marj. “They move from house to house to avoid the bombs.”
“They would like to come to Lebanon, but they are afraid to leave legally” because the Syrian army might take the men in the families for army service, the woman added.
Crossing illegally from Syria to Lebanon - as many of the refugees in the Al Marj camp did - is more difficult now than before because the UN stopped registering Syrian refugees in Lebanon in 2015, which means even that small bit of legal protection is no longer available to new arrivals who do not cross the border officially.
The woman and other refugees in the Al Marj camp also laughed at assertions made by some Lebanese that they are a financial burden on Lebanon, saying most of financial assistance they receive from the UN – currently about $173 (Dh635) per month – goes back to Lebanon.
“The UN gives us money and we pay it back to the government,” the woman said. “As if [the Lebanese] are supporting us. We pay for garbage collection, we pay for electricity.”
Mimicking the soldiers, a man in the tent - who gave his name as Abu Mustafa - walked out and shut the wooden door behind him. Suddenly, he kicked back open the tent's door and walked in shouting orders.
“That’s how the army comes in,” he said. “They do it at 5 in the morning, when the women are not dressed.”
“If the international community removed Assad, I would go back,” Abu Mustafa said. “But there are many people who have gone back, and they disappear. Maybe into prison, maybe into the army.”