Syrians, facing orders to demolish homes, fear fate in Lebanon

Dima Al-Kanj, 30, a Syrian refugee, gestures near the rubble of her dismantled concrete hut at a makeshift Syrian refugee camp in the Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon July 4, 2019. (Reuters)
Updated 08 July 2019

Syrians, facing orders to demolish homes, fear fate in Lebanon

  • The army demolished at least 20 refugee homes on Monday, seven global aid agencies say

ARSAL, Lebanon: Dima Al-Kanj's house is now a pile of rubble and twisted metal.
It was just a concrete hut near the Lebanese border, but she had spent five years trying to make it cosy for her children after fleeing the war in Syria.
Then, under army orders, she had to smash it.
"Every year, we fixed up one thing after another so that we could live in what you'd call a home," she said, standing in the room levelled to the ground in the remote Lebanese town of Arsal. "Now, there's nothing left."
Kanj is among thousands of Syrian refugees who will be left stranded by a government decision to dismantle "semi-permanent structures" in eastern Lebanon, aid agencies say.
At least 15,000 children could become homeless.
Lebanon is toughening enforcement of work and housing rules - some of which were ignored for years - on its more than 1 million Syrian refugees. Lebanese politicians have also ramped up their calls for the Syrians to leave.
The army demolished at least 20 refugee homes on Monday, seven global aid agencies said.
In the makeshift Arsal camp where Kanj lives, home to 450 people, refugees said the army arrived at dawn with a small bulldozer taking down a few shelters.
Soldiers came again two days later as a reminder that people must remove their concrete walls and metal roofs.
Kanj, 30, has since paid men from a nearby camp to knock down her hut with jackhammers. She preferred to do it herself than face a forcible demolition.
She and her four small children are now crammed into their neighbour's hut across the dirt road with a dozen people.
"We're all sitting inside the same room on top of each other with our stuff," she said. "We can't rent a place or leave or do anything at all."
People at the camp said they would follow the rules but have found it hard to meet deadlines and find money for equipment. They must also get rid of the rubble.
Some worry they will not manage to cobble together the permitted tents from wood and plastic sheeting, which would barely shield them from Arsal's harsh winter.
The military first told them of the order some two months ago and has since allowed grace periods. The army has not commented on the demolitions, but a military source said the forces were executing a legal regulation.
"Of course, we're scared of the future," Kanj said. "God knows what more decisions (authorities) will come up with next."
'START FROM SCRATCH'
Human Rights Watch described the shelter order as "one of many recent actions to crank up pressure on Syrian refugees to go back." These include more arrests, deportations, shop closures, curfews, evictions and other measures in the past months, it said on Friday.
Some Lebanese officials have called the mainly Sunni refugees a threat to Lebanon, warning the concrete huts would lead to their lasting settlement.
It is a thorny topic in a country with a fragile sectarian political system where informal settlements of Palestinians have expanded after they came decades ago.
Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, the president's son-in-law, has pushed hard for Syrians to go home, insisting they should not wait for an elusive peace deal to end the war.
Last month, he said town councils could get refugees to leave by "implementing the law and protecting public order".
But activists accuse his party and other politicians of fueling hostility towards refugees and blaming them for Lebanon's long-existing problems.
Abou Firas, a Syrian refugee who oversees the same Arsal camp, said they would leave if they could.
As fighting died down and Damascus reclaimed much of Syria, tens of thousands of refugees have returned, Lebanese authorities say. Still, aid agencies say many have fears about going home, including reprisals, military conscription, loss of property, or fresh waves of violence.
"There's a lot of uncertainty about our fate," said Abou Firas, who must demolish his family's hut too. "We don't intend on permanently settling here."
"This room becomes a part of you," he added. "You put effort into fixing it up ... and suddenly you find yourself having to start from scratch."


UN food chief: Beirut could run out of bread in 2 1/2 weeks

Updated 12 min 48 sec ago

UN food chief: Beirut could run out of bread in 2 1/2 weeks

  • Beasley said a ship with 17,500 metric tons of wheat flour should arrive in Beirut “within two weeks"

UNITED NATIONS: The head of the UN food agency said Monday he’s “very, very concerned” Lebanon could run out of bread in about 2 ½ weeks because 85% of the country’s grain comes through Beirut’s devastated port — but he believes an area of the port can be made operational this month.
David Beasley, who is in Beirut assessing damage and recovery prospects, told a virtual UN briefing on the humanitarian situation following last week’s explosion in the Lebanese capital that “at the devastated site, we found a footprint that we can operate on a temporary basis.”
“Working with the Lebanese army, we believe that we can clear part of that site,” Beasley said. “We’ll be airlifting in a lot of equipment, doing everything we can.”
Beasley said he had met with Cabinet ministers — who all resigned later Monday — and told them the UN needs “absolute cooperation now, no obstacles” because people on the streets are angry and said they need international help but “please make certain that the aid comes directly to the people.”
For the first time since last week’s blast, two ships docked at Beirut’s port on Monday including one carrying grain, according to state media.
The head of the workers union at the port, Bechara Asmar told Al-Jadeed TV that since the grain silos were destroyed by the explosion, the material will be pumped directly to trucks or bags after being sanitized.”
“This is a glimmer of hope,” Asmar said about the first arrivals adding that the port’s 5th basin where the ships docked remains intact despite the blast.
Beasley, the executive director of the World Food Program, said a ship with 17,500 metric tons of wheat flour should arrive in Beirut “within two weeks, and that’s to put bread on the table of all the people of Lebanon and that will give us a bread supply for 20 days.”
“While we’re doing that, we’ve got a 30-day supply of about 30,000 metric tons of wheat that we’re bringing in, and then another 100,000 metric tons over the next 60 days after that,” Beasley said.
Najat Rochdi, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Lebanon, told a press conference after briefing UN members that Beasley went to the port with engineers to assess what can be done.
“They are very optimistic to start actually this rehabilitation as soon as this week to increase the capacity of the port of Beirut,” she said.
Rochdi said she understands a ship will be arriving Thursday with some construction material, followed by a ship with wheat and grain, “to address the issue of food security and to hopefully make sure Beirut is not going to be short of bread.”
UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told diplomats the “swift and wide-ranging” humanitarian response is just the first of a three-phased response to the tragedy.
“The second — recovery and reconstruction — will cost billions of dollars and require a mix of public and private finance,” he said. ”The third element is responding to the Lebanon’s pre-existing socioeconomic crisis which is already exacerbated by COVID-19.”
Lowcock, the undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, stressed the Beirut explosion last Tuesday “will have repercussions far beyond those we see in front of us now.”
He urged donors, international financial institutions and the wider international community to “come together and put their shoulder to the wheel,” stressing that the Lebanese people will be served best by a collective response.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told UN member nations the voices of Lebanon’s angry people “must be heard.”
“It is important that a credible and transparent investigation determine the cause of the explosion and bring about the accountability demanded by the Lebanese people,” he said. “It is also important that reforms be implemented so as to address the needs of the Lebanese people for the longer term.”
Guterres also pledged that “the United Nations will stand with Lebanon to help alleviate the immediate suffering and support its recovery.”