What will Michel Aoun’s presidency mean for Syrian refugees facing an increasingly hostile climate in Lebanon?
Bekaa Valley, Lebanon – Five times in as many years, the Lebanese army has forced Abu Ahmad and his family to dismantle and move the plywood-and-tarpaulin structure where they have lived in the Bekaa Valley since 2012.
“It took me 15 days to build this one,” Abu Ahmad told Al Jazeera, sitting on a thin red mat inside the family’s most recent hand-built structure. “Imagine – as soon as I finished building the last one, the army came and told me I had 10 minutes to take it down.”
Their tent and 67 others in the village of Dalhamiyeh are among hundreds of informal clusters of Syrian refugee tents that dot the fertile plain, Lebanon’s breadbasket, along the border with Syria.
Abu Ahmad’s life in Lebanon has been one of near constant worry and instability, including fear of another “security”-based eviction by the Lebanese army; fear he will be unable to scrape together enough money for rent on their small scrap of land; fear of damaging his children’s future by sending them to work at local farms rather than to school; and increasingly, fear of when and how he will return home.
As a pair of rotating fans beats back the stifling summer heat, Abu Ahmad, a taxi driver from the central Syrian city of Hama, says he is concerned that his family’s next move may be a forced march back across the border.
“We’re scared that at a certain point, they are going to try and force us to return to an area in Syria they consider safe. We don’t want to be forcefully returned. We know those areas aren’t safe,” he said.
Abu Ahmad’s fear peaked after a series of mass refugee returns organised by Hezbollah, a Lebanese armed group and political party that has long served as a key ground force fighting on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In a swift six-day campaign in July, Hezbollah routed fighters belonging to the armed group Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham from a mountainous border area near the town of Arsal, long exposed to spillover violence from the war in Syria. Taking advantage of the area’s rugged terrain, hardline fighters had for three years used it to set up bases, and to attack and kidnap members of the Lebanese armed forces. An estimated 50,000 refugees had accumulated in the lawless enclave by the time Hezbollah moved in.
As part of a ceasefire deal to end the battle between Hezbollah and Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham, at least 7,500 Syrians – including hardline fighters, their families and refugees living in the area – were bussed out of Lebanon and into Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, an area now almost entirely controlled by Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham.
The evacuation was quickly followed by a separate deal with a different rebel group operating in the area, in which Hezbollah led the transfer of another 3,000 refugees and rebels in the Arsal area across the border to Syria’s Qalamoun region.
The exodus marked the largest formal repatriation of refugees since the war in Syria began nearly seven years ago. But international relief organisations were not given access to the returnees either prior to, or during, the transfers, and have cautioned that conditions for a safe and voluntary return might not have been met.
“We believe many of the refugees that were brought to Idlib are not from there. If they’re not returning to their homes, it’s not considered a return; it’s secondary displacement,” said Mike Bruce, an advocacy officer with the Norwegian Refugee Council in Lebanon.
Lisa Abu Khalid, a spokeswoman for the United Nations refugee agency in Lebanon, told Al Jazeera that “conditions are not yet conducive for refugee returns to take place in safety and dignity”, noting that the UNHCR was “concerned” that they were brought to an area where active fighting is taking place.
The operation in Arsal has brought questions to the forefront about the future of the five million Syrians displaced into Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. In Lebanon, in particular, it comes as anti-refugee rhetoric has reached a pinnacle.
Lebanese leaders from across the political spectrum – including President Michel Aoun – have increasingly called for Syrian refugees to return home, voluntarily or not. Municipalities in the Bekaa have called for the shutdown of businesses run by Syrian refugees and the expulsion of refugees from their respective jurisdictions. Tens of thousands of people have signed online petitions calling for refugees to go home.
With an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees, Lebanon has the highest number of refugees per capita worldwide. The burden is exacerbated by Lebanon’s weak political system: Politicians use refugees as deflection points as infrastructure projects stall, daily blackouts roll across the country and a years-long rubbish crisis remains unsolved.
The electricity situation is so bad that the energy minister this month inked a deal with Damascus, under which the neighbouring war-torn country will help Lebanon keep its lights on.
“This is where the pressure starts,” Sima Ghaddar, a Beirut-based policy associate with the Century Foundation, told Al Jazeera. “Negative perceptions become public facts [and] Syrian refugees become the reason behind all of Lebanon’s economic, social and political problems.”
While Abu Ahmad said that his personal relations with the local Lebanese community have been cordial, he worries that increasingly strident anti-refugee stands by community and political leaders could increase the domestic appetite for further mass returns.
“I’d return today if it was safe. I think any Syrian here would,” he said. “You think we like living in tents like this, sending our children out into the fields instead of educating them?
“But return to where?” he added. “To Idlib? We know it’s not safe there.”
Syria’s neighbouring countries are increasingly pushing for refugees to be returned to “safe zones” proposed as part of a Russian-led “de-escalation plan” for Syria’s seven-year war. But active fighting is still present in three of the four zones, including the province of Idlib.
Nearly two million people are packed into Idlib province, Syria’s last northern rebel redoubt. Idlib has long been the dumping ground for evacuation deals that have emptied besieged rebel-held areas across the country; half the civilians now in Idlib have been internally displaced, and most rely on aid.
The future of the province is bleak. Civilians are exposed to bombing by both the Syrian government and the US-led international coalition as they increasingly target hardline fighters, steadily depleting aid and collapsing public services.
“To be honest, all I see here are people arriving, not leaving,” Abu Ahmad’s neighbour, Abu Ziad, told Al Jazeera. “Just last night, some of my relatives arrived from Deir Az Zor.”
Several tents away, a grandmother, her daughter-in-law and four young children sit in a baking hot tent with no fans. Still reeling from their journey, the grandmother tells of their escape, aided by smugglers, from an area in Syria’s western desert controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group, which is now under attack by Syrian government troops and US-backed forces. The family is broke and exhausted; the children are visibly disturbed.
Abu Ahmad notes that a return to government-controlled Syria is out of the question for many men who fear they could be attacked for fleeing the country or forcefully conscripted into the army. The situation in Idlib is looking increasingly grim and Deir Az Zor is out of the question for his family.
“Of course, we want to return,” Abu Ahmad said, “but only when it’s safe.”