x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Lebanon braces for an influx of Syrian refugees

A community leader in Wadi Khaled places the number of refugees at about 5,000 people who fled from nearby Syrian towns including Tel Kalakh and Al Arida.

BEIRUT // An estimated 1,400 Syrians have fled across the border into northern Lebanon in the last week to escape violence in their towns, according to the United Nation's refugee agency.

A spokesperson for UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said yesterday the agency believes there are now about 4,000 Syrian refugees staying in villages in the northern Lebanese district of Wadi Khaled.

"Many of those who have crossed the border recently have come without any belongings, having fled what they say was heavy military bombardment of Tel Kalakh and surrounding areas," Andrej Mahecic, a spokesperson for UNHCR said at a press briefing in Geneva. "Most have found shelter with relatives or host families, and some are residing temporarily in a school in [the area of] Tall Bire."

Mohammed Ahmed, a community leader in Wadi Khaled, placed the number of refugees at about 5,000 people who fled from nearby Syrian towns including Tel Kalakh and Al Arida since a government crackdown on pro-reform protests escalated late last month.

As the violence in Tel Kalakh and surrounding towns continued, hundreds of mostly women and children fled the few kilometres across the border into Lebanon. Human rights activists estimate that more than 35 people have been killed in Tel Kalakh alone in recent weeks.

"There are so many families and they are staying with residents here," Mr Ahmed said yesterday in a telephone interview from Wadi Khaled. "The border is closed now. We are all worried about this situation. It is very difficult, but we have to do what we can to help."

In a statement released yesterday, Human Rights Watch alleged that some of the Syrians who fled the recent violence have been detained by Lebanese security forces. The international human rights watchdog believes at least ten male refugees have been held for crossing into Lebanon illegally. While calling for their release, the organisation urged authorities not to deport them back to Syria.

The normally porous border area is now believed to have been largely secured after Syrian and Lebanese troops were reportedly deployed on either side.

"They have enforced the security on the border and focusing on preventing more people from crossing over," said Rami Nakhle, a Syrian activist currently in hiding in Beirut. "The military has now withdrawn from parts of Tel Kalakh and is surrounding Al Arida town."

A 30-year-old man, who would not reveal his name but identified himself as a Syrian refugee staying in Wadi Khaled, said yesterday that he had escaped the escalating violence in Al Arida more than a week ago.

"I left because of the shooting in our town and the tanks," he said. "I have my family here and the people in this area are helping us, but the situation is very difficult."

The man said he is currently being sheltered in a home along with 50 other refugees. Like others who have fled, he said the shabiha - a term for pro-government thugs - have been responsible for a lot of the violence in his town.

After the influx of refugees into north Lebanon last week, the caretaker prime minister, Saad Hariri, instructed local relief authorities to provide assistance to the thousands now being provided with temporary shelter. Mr Mahecic said the UNHCR is also working with Lebanese authorities to support the refugees, distributing mattresses, blankets and food packages.