Activists called for a second day of mass rallies to protest alleged torture and death of a 13-year-old boy.
|Lebanese soldiers patrol the village of Wadi Khaled, near the Syrian border town of Tal Khalakh after an influx of refugees crossed into Lebanon [EPA]|
Syrians from the border town of Tal Khalakh have, in recent weeks, been fleeing a wave of violence to cross into neighbouring Lebanon. But those seeking refuge now face an uncertain fate.
Syrian territory lies only a few hundred metres from the Wadi Khaled area in Lebanon, home to 17 villages scattered close to the Kabir River which runs along the border.
“Naturally, we are happy to take them into our homes, but I fear that in a few weeks we will have a real humanitarian problem on our hands,” says Mahmoud Khazaal, former mayor of the Bayouk village.
Syrian pro-democracy protests, which started more than two months ago, have drawn a fierce response from the government headed by President Bashar Assad, whose family has been in power for more than 30 years.
Since the conflict hit Tal Khalakh, some 5,000 people have escaped to Lebanon, Khazaal estimates. As a result, the small population of 1,400 in Bayouk now hosts some 600 people from 120 Syrian families.
“The number of refugees is certainly higher, with many who have moved to Tripoli in Lebanon’s north still unaccounted for,” Khaled Daher, MP for the Northern region of Lebanon says.
Debaybiyeh and other nearby villages, located 20 kilometres from Tripoli and near the Syrian town of Halat, are hosting about 400 Syrian families.
“The region simply does not have the means or capacity to tackle to the needs of so many people,” says Khazaal.
North Lebanon is poor; according to a UNDP study, about 17 per cent of the people there live in extreme poverty. The former mayor complains that aid has been coming in only for a few days and in very small quantities.
“The ministry of social works is providing food portions for a family of ten that will only feed two people. We need more.”
Serious need for humanitarian aid
Last week, caretaker social affairs minister Salim Sayegh declared that the ministry was mapping out the possibilities of accommodating a larger number of refugees, adding that schools and other municipal buildings in the north were being considered as locations.
“We are already facing sanitation problems due to the large number of refugees, with homes inhabited by dozens of people at a time,” says Khazaal. “In addition, many refugees have serious medical conditions and the closest clinic is 40 kilometres away.”
The scorching hot summer season ahead will only worsen the plight of the refugees, says Daher.
For the Syrians who have found refuge in the village, declining living conditions are far from being a priority.
Souad, a woman in her thirties, crossed the Kabir River on foot with three children. “We were targeted by snipers and my mother was shot in the arm. She is now at a Lebanese hospital,” she says.
Others, such as Mohammed, talk about the dead that have been left lying in the streets of his Syrian village, and of the neighbourhoods that are constantly being bombed.
Refugees speak of masked men dressed in black fighting alongside soldiers, people they call “al shabeha” [“ghosts”].
“The members of the army’s fourth regiment have sent armed Alawites from surrounding villages to attack our homes,” adds Souad. “We can’t go back.”
Refugee accounts are difficult to verify independently as Syrian authorities have banned all foreign journalists from the country.
Another problem that refugees face is their uncertain legal status in Lebanon. Some have been detained by Lebanese authorities. Human Rights Watch (HRW) says Lebanon’s security forces have arrested nine Syrian men and one child since May 15, allegedly for crossing illegally into Lebanon.
“I know of 15 cases of refugees being detained. Many are injured refugees who are now guarded by Lebanese security forces at hospital,” says Daher.
The Lebanese army, which has beefed up its presence on the borders, has said that it has arrested three Syrian soldiers considered deserters, while turning a blind eye to the influx of illegal refugees.
“We do not believe that women and children are a security threat, but deserters are a different matter,” says a military source. “We had to hand the soldiers back to Syria because they do not qualify for refugee status as per the agreements existing between the two countries. We do not want to be perceived as interfering in Syrian internal affairs.”
A version of this article was previously published on Inter Press Service.