Beirut, Lebanon – At least 50 Syrian refugees, including children, have been evicted from an informal settlement along Lebanon‘s Litani River as part of an anti-pollution drive, bringing the total number of refugees forced out of the area this year to 1,500.
Sami Alawieh, director of the Litani River Authority (LRA), said on Saturday the agency sent in bulldozers to demolish the camp in southern Tyre because refugees there were polluting the already heavily contaminated river.
“If the refugees erect tents on our agricultural land and their waste seeps into the ground and the river, then, of course, we need to move them,” Alawieh said.
A video of Thursday’s demolition, posted on Twitter by the LRA, showed refugees looking on helplessly as the bulldozer’s metallic teeth brought down their makeshift homes, made of tarpaulin and tin sheets.
At least 180 refugees were evicted in February from an informal settlement in the nearby town of Zahrani in a similar fashion, with the LRA claiming the refugees’ tents were on the site of an irrigation project.
The LRA has carried out five such operations this year, evicting at least 1,500 Syrians from makeshift camps around Litani. The agency accused refugees of throwing waste into the river or in agricultural lands, blocking irrigation canals.
Amid mounting concern over the mass evictions, Alawieh said resettling refugees was not part of his mandate.
“I think the refugees have rented homes in cities, but I don’t know,” he said. “In any case, this is UNHCR’s responsibility, not ours.”
The LRA wrote to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in August, asking the body to stop the Syrians, who had fled war in their country, from causing environmental damage, he said.
But the UNHCR and other agencies failed to take “serious action”, he said, and “the LRA has proceeded to eliminate the encroachments to stop sewage effluents from polluting irrigation waters.”
Lisa Abou Khaled, spokeswoman for the UNHCR, said the LRA “did not speak to anyone from UNHCR ahead of” the refugee evictions in Tyre.
She added: “We are in touch with the affected families and following up on their needs.”
Authorities in Lebanon, which hosts more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees, have been at loggerheads with the UNHCR, accusing it of discouraging refugees from returning home despite fighting waning in Syria’s eight-year civil war. The agency backs voluntary returns, and has refused to push for mass returns because of concerns over safety.
Activists have expressed concern over discrimination and harassment of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and say some politicians are quick to blame the displaced people for social and economic ills in the country.
Nasser Yassin, director of research at the Issam Fares Institute, suggested the LRA’s actions against the Syrians amounted to discrimination.
The LRA’s approach “feeds the narrative that the refugees must go, that they are burdening our resources, burdening our river and the eviction is an example of that,” he said.
Lebanese authorities have “been restricting movements of Syrian refugees, closing shops run by them and much more”, he said. “All of this needs to be seen in the big picture of creating a hostile environment for Syrian refugees to push them out, even if conditions for their return are not yet favourable.”
Alawieh at the LRA dismissed the claim, saying: “I will remove the Syrians or the Lebanese or anyone polluting the river. I would do it again if I find more refugees.”