Beirut, Lebanon – The Lebanese army demolished at least 20 concrete settlements in three Syrian refugee camps in the village of Arsal, government officials and aid groups have said.
The demolitions took place early Monday morning following a decision by Lebanon‘s Higher Defense Council in April to take down refugee structures made of any material other than plastic and wood.
“At 4:30 am on July 1, military units moved into several camps in Arsal and demolished at least 20 homes,” said a joint statement by seven aid groups, including Save the Children, the Norwegian Refugee Council and Oxfam, adding that they feared more demolitions on Tuesday.
The statement said the presence of soldiers in those camps at dawn and the demolition of homes with heavy machinery was “a traumatising event witnessed by families who had already lost everything”.
“Depriving refugees of their already very basic shelter and leaving them out on the streets is not a solution,” it said.
The government’s ultimatum had forced the refugees to destroy their own homes in the weeks leading up to the deadline.
Last month, the Syrian refugees were given a grace period to take down or modify the structures themselves before a second deadline of July 1 was set.
Save the Children estimated that 15,000 people could be rendered homeless by the move, including 9,000 children, and urged the government to extend the deadline once again.
“We call again on the government to halt this move,” the organisation’s Middle East spokesperson Joelle Bassoul told Al Jazeera.
As of June 27, less than half of the hard shelters in Arsal – home to 60,000 refugees – had been demolished by their inhabitants, the aid groups said in Monday’s statement.
No alternative housing was mentioned in the government’s order.
“We have no idea where they are going to go now,” Khaled Raad, a Syrian refugee and member of a local committee in Arsal told Al Jazeera. “It’s up to God now.”
Arsal’s mayor Bassel Hujeiri was not available to speak to Al Jazeera on the matter.
The decision by the Higher Defense Council, a military body, had been welcomed by the Lebanese foreign ministry, which said the demolition drive would prevent refugees from permanently settling in Lebanon.
“Of course they – or any human being in the world – wouldn’t want to [permanently] settle in tents or semi-permanent structures,” Raad told Al Jazeera. “But if it’s a matter of taking down concrete versus dying, then we’ll take down the concrete.”
The government of Lebanon, which has a population of nearly five million people, estimates there are 1.5 million refugees in the country, while the UN High Commissioner for Refugees say they are a million.
The refugees have faced increasing pressure to return following a string of areas reclaimed by the Syrian army and its allies, notably Russia.
Lebanese authorities, who have organised convoys to assist Syrians who decide to return voluntarily, claim only around 170,000 refugees have returned since 2017.
Refugees have cited forced conscription into the Syrian army as one of the several reasons why they remain hesitant to return.
The move against the refugees also came as Lebanon faces austerity measures and a weakened economy, with massive debt and high unemployment.