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(Beirut) – The Lebanese Armed Forces demolished about 20 Syrian refugee shelters on July 1, 2019, contending they did not comply with long-existing, but largely unenforced, housing codes, Human Rights Watch said.

The armed forces also have been forcing refugees living in semi-permanent shelters on agricultural land to dismantle their own shelters’ concrete walls and roofs and replace them with less protective materials, or face army demolition of their homes. The forced shelter dismantlement under an order by the Higher Defense Council significantly reduces the adequacy of refugee housing to withstand harsh weather conditions, particularly in the Arsal region, where winters are severe.

“This crackdown on housing code violations should be seen for what it is, which is illegitimate pressure on Syrian refugees to leave Lebanon,” said Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch, who watched Syrian refugees in Arsal and the Bekaa Valley demolish their shelters. “Many of those affected have real reasons to fear returning to Syria, including arrests, torture, and ill-treatment by Syrian intelligence branches.”

Dismantled shelters in a Syrian refugee camp in Arsal, Lebanon, June 20, 2019. © 2019 Bill Frelick/Human Rights Watch

The order applies to 3,500 to 3,600 refugee families in Arsal, about half of the shelters in Arsal, according to the head of the Arsal municipality, Bassel al-Hujeiri. Some estimates say that up to 15,000 children in Arsal will be affected. It also applies to Syrian refugees living in hard shelters built on agricultural lands nationwide, but with variations in demolition and material specifications. The law is currently also being enforced in the Bekaa Valley, Baalbek, and Hermel. The order is based on the 2004 Lebanese Construction Law Act, which nongovernmental organizations that have been operating in the camps for years say has rarely – if ever – been enforced.

In late June 2019, Human Rights Watch interviewed 40 affected refugees in Arsal and the Bekaa Valley, who said the orders coincided with more frequent army visits to the informal tented settlements, which some refugees characterized as “raids.” They said the army had been arresting men and boys, usually for brief periods, because they lacked proper residency papers or on suspicion of security violations.

The shelter order and the raids are not isolated pressures on Syrian refugees in Lebanon. They coincide with new Higher Defense Council decisions authorizing the summary deportation of Syrians crossing the border irregularly and crackdowns on unauthorized foreign workers and Syrian-operated businesses. New regulations from the General Directorate of Security limit Syrian childrens’ ability to acquire legal residency based on a parent’s legal residency under a Lebanese sponsor.

“The demolition order is one of many recent actions to crank up pressure on Syrian refugees to go back,” Frelick said. “They include ramped up arrests and deportations, closing of shops, and confiscation or destruction of unlicensed vehicles, on top of other long-standing restrictions, including curfews and evictions, and barriers to refugee education, legal residency, and work authorization.”

The demolition order also comes at a time of heightened anti-refugee political rhetoric. President Michael Aoun recently said that, “The wave of Syrian displacement has produced negative repercussions that have impacted all Lebanese sectors,” and that the return of refugees “can’t wait for a political solution to the Syrian crisis.” Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil recently accused Syrian refugees of intending to stay in Lebanon and called on them to return to Syria.

A partially dismantled shelter in a Syrian refugee camp in Arsal, Lebanon, June 20, 2019. © 2019 Bill Frelick/Human Rights Watch

“This is not about housing regulations,” the head of the Arsal municipality, al-Hujeiri, told Human Rights Watch. “It is a political decision. The reason the government is now suddenly making refugees tear their walls down is to pressure them to return. We wish the refugees would return to their country, but we shouldn’t be pressuring them to do so.”

But not a single refugee interviewed said that they would return to Syria because their shelters were less adequate.

“The Lebanese say we have come and taken over their country and live in villas, but just look at the condition of the bathroom – we live with insects and mice,” a 35-year-old widow from Homs whose husband died in detention after his arrest in 2011 said through her tears. “We ran away from war and murder to come here and find they don’t even want us to live like this. Everyone would like to live in his own country, but I cannot go back. Now my children will be in even more misery in this camp, but at least they will stay alive.”

Lebanon has hosted more than an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees since 2011, the highest per capita number of any country in the world. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called for other countries to increase their assistance to Lebanon and to resettle greater numbers of Syrian refugees living in Lebanon. Lebanon’s refugee-hosting fatigue has been exacerbated by a lack of international support. The UN appeal for more than US$2.24 billion in international aid to meet the humanitarian assistance needs of Syrian refugees in Lebanon for 2019 was only 15.8 percent funded as of July 3, 2019. Donor countries should make protecting refugee rights and sharing responsibility for humanitarian needs their priorities.

Human Rights Watch recognizes that many of the refugee shelters on agricultural lands do not comply with existing Lebanese housing codes. However, in compliance with Lebanon’s obligations not to regress on ensuring the right to adequate housing for everyone in the country, and given that soft shelters will not be adequate to protect refugees from winter elements, the Higher Defense Council and other Lebanese authorities should temporarily waive the restrictions on concrete block walls for Syrian refugees in informal tented settlements, until suitable alternatives are available.

“Lebanese authorities should scrupulously respect the principle of nonrefoulement, which means not returning refugees to possible danger,” Frelick said. “Lebanon shouldn’t create pressures that cumulatively coerce refugees to return involuntarily in conditions that are not conducive to a safe and dignified return.”

Reconstruction of a dismantled shelter begins in a Syrian refugee camp in Arsal, Lebanon. © 2019 Bill Frelick/Human Rights Watch

Dismantling Shelters

On May 25, the Higher Defense Council reportedly set a June 10 deadline for Syrian refugees to dismantle their own shelters. The deadline was later extended to July 1. Rather than providing written orders, the Lebanese authorities passed instructions to international nongovernmental groups, leaving them to instruct Syrian refugees on specifications for compliance and to provide new shelter materials to comply with the order.

The order says that Syrian refugee shelters built on agricultural lands in Arsal are permitted only a foundation five cinder blocks high. Upper walls and roofs must consist of timber beams and plastic sheeting or canvas, and interior walls can, at most, be thin plywood. In the rest of the country, hard foundations can be no higher than two cinder blocks. Cement foundations are to be removed.

The Lebanese Construction Law Act, No. 646 of 2004, which forms the basis for the Higher Defense Council decision, says that a building permit is required to construct non-permanent structures on agricultural lands, and specifies building materials of wood and stone.

In addition to interviewing 40 refugees, Human Rights Watch interviewed municipal officials, landlords, and representatives of humanitarian organizations. The General Directorate of Security denied or did not respond to repeated requests for interviews. Names and other identifying information about refugees interviewed have been withheld for their security.

A 30-year-old refugee from Idlib with a wife and six children who had been living in an informal tented settlement in the Marj area of the Bekaa Valley said that he was awakened by loud knocking at his door at about 5 a.m. around three months ago. He said that soldiers were everywhere and four entered his shelter. One said that his shelter was not a tent and that they looked more like settlers than refugees:

The soldier said, “You should leave our land.” I told him I would go back now if I could. He handed me a pickaxe and told me I had to dismantle my shelter. He told me to destroy the walls all the way to the ground. He stood and watched me. By noon I had dismantled one wall. The soldier said he would come back to see that I had destroyed three more walls.

They are doing this now because they want Syrians to leave. This is not my opinion; it is the reality. Everywhere I go, all the authorities say to go home, we are feeling the pressure from raids on the camps, our shelters, I used to work in a shop, but I cannot afford to pay a Lebanese sponsor. Even a taxi driver said to me, “You took our land, our country. Why don’t you go?”

This man said that no one provided him with any new shelter materials. The army said someone would come in three days with proper shelter materials, but he said no one came. “I had to clear the rubble myself and bought wood and fabric and put it up myself, though that put me US$200 in debt.”

Men work to dismantle the walls of a shelter in a Syrian refugee camp in Arsal, Lebanon. Once dismantlement is complete, they will receive plywood and tarp from humanitarian organizations to rebuild the upper portion of the walls and the roof in compliance with Lebanese housing codes. June 21, 2019. © Bill Frelick/Human Rights Watch

In Arsal the army told refugees to dismantle their own shelters to waist height, or they would return to demolish them to the ground. A 63-year-old refugee at the Aqaba camp in Arsal said:

I dismantled my house myself. It took three days to do it. Look at the blisters on my hands. That was 15 days ago. Now I don’t have the money to rebuild my shelter the way they want me to, and no one has given me shelter materials, except some wood for beams. I don’t know why they are doing this to us.

The man tacked blankets to the wooden beams to serve as walls, and used thin scraps of plywood as a roof, though they are already sagging and moldy, and the sky is visible through cracks in the ceiling.

The impact of dismantling the shelters is immediate, especially for refugees who have not received acceptable replacement shelter materials. All refugees interviewed said they worry about how they will survive the coming winter.

A 33-year-old woman sitting in her partially dismantled shelter in the Ibn Walid camp in the Bekaa Valley said that insects and vermin are coming into the house and that she saw her children playing with a toad in the house that morning: “The corrugated metal roof blew away last winter. I can’t imagine what this winter will be like. We also had flooding. What will stop the water from coming in the shelter?”

Lack of Replacement Shelter Materials

International groups required to enforce the government’s orders have borne the brunt of much of the refugees’ anger and resentment. This has been exacerbated by often slow and inadequate provision of alternate shelter materials. A 28-year-old man in El Ekhwe camp in the Bekaa Valley poured out his anger and frustration:

The [he named the group] should have given us the wood to rebuild our shelters. They come here in their SUVs, their full stomachs, and clean clothes. One talked to me. He told me how I had to knock down the illegal walls of my shelter. Then he didn’t even come back to see how I am living now. The NGOs give us instructions and then turn around and forget what they have seen.

Anger spilled over in the Aqaba camp when a delivery of shelter materials by a nongovernmental group for 114 families fell short, leaving 14 families without materials. “I dismantled everything, but I still haven’t received my [supplies to rebuild],” said one of the shortchanged refugees. “I don’t have any cover from the sun.”

Camp Raids, Arrests

Refugees in Arsal and other parts of the Bekaa Valley report more frequent army raids on informal tented settlements, with men arrested and motorcycles and other vehicles checked for improper licenses, and sometimes broken for not being properly licensed.

A 30-year-old woman who has been living as a refugee in Lebanon for eight years, said that the army has been raiding Camp Walid in the Bekaa Valley with increasing frequency:

The army came three times, in the early hours, around 5:30 a.m. During Ramadan, they arrested my sick uncle, my husband, and three of my brothers-in-law. They kept them for six hours and one of my brothers-in-law for 12 hours. They took my brother-in-law’s motorcycle and destroyed it.

The soldiers destroyed an empty shelter that they said looked more like a house than a tent. They pushed all the furniture and other stuff outside and destroyed the house. The neighbors were screaming. The only thing concrete in my shelter is the bathroom wall, but an army officer told me I had to tear it down or they would destroy the shelter. I am worried they will come back and destroy my house. My husband is scared because we don’t have legal papers. We hear they are deporting people but so far they haven’t deported anyone from this camp.

A 35-year-old man living in the Aqaba camp in Arsal described an army raid the previous day:

Yesterday, the army came and took some people from the camp. They also took some motorcycles and broke them and threw them away. A soldier came to our shelter and said our walls were seven cinder blocks high and should only be five high, so we will have to knock down two levels of blocks. He asked me, “Why don’t you go back to your country?” I told him I can’t go back. I deserted the army, and they would take me again if I went back.

Similarly, a 45-year-old man in al-Rahma camp in Arsal said: “The army came yesterday and took some people. I don’t know if they have been released or not.”

A Syrian refugee man whose age and camp are being withheld for his safety described his arrest:

The Lebanese Army came to our camp four months ago. They arrested about 400 men and boys. I was taken. They came to the camp at 5 a.m. I thought of running away, but the camp was surrounded, and running away could make it worse. The soldiers asked for my papers. I told them I didn’t have any. They put my hands behind my back with plastic handcuffs. They did not speak in a polite way, but didn’t hit me, only shoved me. I was loaded with about 35 others in an army truck. They took us to an army base, and then at 3 a.m. the next day, they released us, just leaving us there. It was only the Army, not the GSO. About 30 of the men were not released. They are in Roumieh Prison now.

Since I got back, the Shaweesh [camp leader] told me that Military Intelligence asked about me. Now I leave the shelter at 4:30 a.m. every day so I will not be captured. I am really scared. I am a defector from the regime, and I know they want to get me. I can’t go back.

Another man described his longer period of detention following his arrest in early 2019:

I was held for 43 days. The GSO arrested me in a shop where I was working illegally. They handcuffed my hands behind my back and shoved me into the back of a car. They pulled up on my arms, hurting my shoulders, and pushed my head down and kicked me in the head. At the GSO office, an officer in a GSO uniform punched me about 20 times, and when I fell to the ground, he would kick me. This took place at the GSO office in Beirut that is next to a bridge and that has a prison connected to it. He didn’t ask me any questions; he just beat me.

They transferred me to the Ministry of Defense in Beirut where I was well treated. They threatened to put me in Roumieh Prison for 75 years, but they didn’t hit me. They accused me of faking my ID, but it is a real ID and matches my passport. When they brought me before a judge, the judge laughed at the charges against me, and told me I could leave.

This man is still suffering from his ill treatment:

I never used to believe people who said they had mental health problems. But I have depression. I am too depressed to do anything. In Syria I used to cry if someone died. Now, I cry all the time, every time I lay my head on a pillow.

A 49-year-old woman said the army raided her camp twice, and one time arrested her 17-year-old son: “They put my son in handcuffs and took him away but brought him back at midnight the next night. In Syria, if they take your son to prison, he doesn’t come out. In Lebanon, he does.”

A Lebanese Landlord Speaks

A Lebanese landlord who owns the property on which one of the camps is built said:

Military Intelligence keep visiting me to tell me to make the refugees on my property destroy their homes. I told them, “You tell my refugees to leave the camp. I won’t tell them…If you want them out, you need to find them another place to stay. I’m not going to push them out.” Two days ago, they went to the camp and told the refugees they would have to leave.

The landlord estimated that he would lose about US$30,000 in property damage and reduced or lost rents if the army demolishes the camp on his property. He said, “The government’s rhetoric is about refugees building permanent structures and taking over our land. Well, this is my land. The refugees aren’t taking over anything.”

Other Pressures

Deportations, Departure Orders

The Higher Defense Council adopted several unpublished decisions on April 15 to stop Syrians from crossing the border irregularly into Lebanon and on May 13, the general director of General Security issued a decision to summarily deport all Syrians caught crossing the border irregularly after April 24, and hand them directly to Syrian government authorities. The state-run National News Agency reported on May 24 that the Lebanese Armed Forces, Internal Security Forces, and General Security had deported a combined 301 Syrians nationals to Syria since May 7.

On May 24, Human Rights Watch reported on the deportation of 16 Syrian nationals, including at least 5 registered refugees, from the Hariri International Airport in Beirut. Most of the refugees interviewed were aware that there was some new directive relating to deportations of Syrians, and many expressed concerns they might now be deported.

Others said that General Security has begun stamping “departure” in the passports of Syrians found living or working illegally. Syrians are restricted to working in agriculture, construction, and cleaning, and are not permitted to work without a Lebanese sponsor.

A 41-year-old refugee in Arsal said that his brother-in-law who was working as a carpenter had “departure” stamped in his passport. A Syrian refugee doctor said he was recently dismissed from his job at a health clinic and that General Security had put a “departure” stamp in his passport when he went to renew his legal residency, as he had done for several years without problem.

A Syrian professional woman who works in an office in an urban area described her rising fears of deportation after officials put a departure stamp in her passport:

I had renewed my legal residency for the past four years by falsely claiming that I was a domestic cleaning worker, rather than a professional office worker. But the most recent time I went to GSO to renew my legal residency, they said I was working illegally and stamped “departure” in my passport. I think my Lebanese neighbors must have reported me to the GSO. I am now living in constant fear that the GSO will come back for me and deport me. I know 15 other people through social media who have “departure” stamps in their passports in the past four or five months.

On June 27, Labor Minister Camille Bou Sleiman, reportedly set a July 9 deadline for Lebanese employers to legalize their foreign employees or face a penalty of 2 million Lebanese pounds (US$1,333). Bou Sleiman indicated that companies or shops that continue to break the law will be shut down.

Several people interviewed expressed concerns that the authorities would soon renew a campaign to close Syrian refugee-owned or managed shops. In December 2018, General Security had announced a campaign to close Syrian-owned shops and in February 2019, it was reported to have closed down Syrian-owned shops in Sidon. On June 9, OTV, a station owned by President Aoun’s family, showed a youth group affiliated with the president’s party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), entering shops in the Beirut suburb of Jdeideh to check whether they employed Syrians.

Other Obstacles

General Security has been creating new obstacles in its already convoluted and cumbersome procedures for Syrian nationals to renew legal residency and work authorization, reducing the number of Syrian refugees with legal residency. About 73 percent of refugees do not have legal residency. On May 17, General Security issued a decision that Syrian children under age 15 not born in Lebanon would no longer be able to establish legal residency in Lebanon based on a parent’s sponsorship by a Lebanese national. Human Rights Watch did not encounter any families who were aware that they were directly affected by the new decision, but nongovernmental groups told Human Rights Watch they regarded this as another measure to further marginalize Syrian refugees living in Lebanon.

Labor Minister Bou Sleiman reportedly said that only 1,733 Syrians have valid work permits out of the nearly one million Syrians registered with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Even the number of refugees is now unknown, since the government has not allowed UNHCR to register new arrivals from Syria since 2015.

Few of the refugees interviewed had valid legal residency, and some had not registered with UNHCR. Most said that the high cost of getting a Lebanese sponsor for legal residency was a barrier to renewing their legal residency, along with General Security’s annual $200 renewal fee, which is still often required even though the government has officially waived the fee. Some said that officials simply send them away repeatedly with instructions to come back later.

A 24-year-old woman said that she and her two daughters were able to register with UNHCR but that she could not register her husband and son and was told instead that they had to find Lebanese sponsors instead: “But my husband could not afford to pay for a Lebanese sponsor and he entered this country illegally, so he and my son are not here legally.”

According to a joint UNHCR and World Food Program (WFP) report, 69 percent of Syrian refugee households in Lebanon in 2018 were living below the poverty line.

UNHCR’s 2018 humanitarian appeal for Lebanon was only 48 percent funded, leaving a gap of US$1.194 billion. Some of the refugees interviewed said that UNHCR had stopped or cutback on humanitarian assistance. A 63-year-old man with a wife and seven children in the Aqaba camp said:

UNHCR stopped providing humanitarian assistance to us. We used to get 369,000 Lebanese pounds [about US$246, which would be US$27 per person] per month and then they stopped completely six months ago. My wife went to their office in Zahle to complain. They scanned her iris, but didn’t give her any reason for cutting our aid.

Even those receiving aid said that it is less than previously. A 70-year old man in the Aqaba camp in Arsal said:

Why did UNHCR stop the food card? They used to give us a good amount of help, but nowadays it is not enough, US$27 per person per month. We are broke because of the high prices in the shops here.

The inadequacy of humanitarian assistance is a constant refrain. In Bar Elias, Bekaa Valley, a 49-year-old woman with five children and a husband missing in Syria said:

I have to pay a monthly rent of 85,000 Lebanese pounds [about US$57]. I can’t pay the landlord. I am drowning in debt. I receive about 200,000 Lebanese pounds [US$133, which is US$27 each] from UNHCR every month for myself and the four children under 18. My 18-year-old son is now the father of the family. He works hard, long hours, but does not have a Lebanese sponsor and his employer exploits him, and his clothes are old and ripped and he is always tired. He earns 100,000 Lebanese pounds [US$67] per week, and we still don’t have enough to eat.

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