Beirut, Lebanon – An accidental fire near a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon‘s Bekaa Valley has set off a chain of incidents that displaced 600 refugees while exposing deepening tensions with local residents.
The fire broke out on Wednesday near the camp at Deir al-Ahmar, north of Baalbek, which then led to an altercation between refugees and a firefighter.
While there are different accounts of who started it, Lebanon’s national news agency said the refugees were accusing the firefighters of intentionally arriving late. The injuries suffered by the firefighter were minor but the incident aggravated existing anti-refugee sentiment in the vicinity.
Bashir Khodr, the head of Baalbek-Hermel Governorate, ordered a curfew around the camp, ostensibly to protect the refugees. He told Al Jazeera that locals threatened to “burn the camp” and attack its inhabitants.
“There are hundreds of camps in Baalbek. If one incident gets out of control it can endanger the whole peace,” he said. “I imposed a curfew to maintain a larger peace.”
Nonetheless, the atmosphere turned tense. Officials told Al Jazeera that hundreds of refugees fled the camp to escape abuse at the hands of locals, and moved to the nearby town of Iaat, just north of Baalbek.
“I suggested to the municipality that there should be an exchange between camps,” Khodr said. “We could let the Syrians behind the attack on the firefighter move to another camp, while we hosted other refugees. But they did not accept it. The mood was very hostile.”
Nasser Yassin, director of research at the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut, said the Syrians had been subject to disproportionate “collective punishment”.
“They were pushed out by the municipality,” he said. “Vigilante groups went in and even the army went in. At least 32 Syrians were arrested. The action went beyond what was necessary.”
The next day, part of the camp was set on fire by locals but the blaze was extinguished before the whole camp was destroyed. The arson was limited to two tents, Khodr said. One local, who spoke to Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity, said that a few tents were burned to “punish” the Syrians.
The incident highlights the simmering hostilities between locals and the Syrian refugee population of about 1.5 million, the largest of any country per capita.
The presence of Syrian refugees has become a divisive political topic in Lebanon, with many politicians blaming them for Lebanon’s deteriorating economy. However, the Deir al-Ahmar incidents show how difficult life can get for refugees, analysts say.
“The [Deir al-Ahmar] incident gives us a vivid picture of the continuous pressure being put on Syrian refugees,” Yassin said. “There is zero tolerance for anything they do and there are more and more campaigns against them. For instance, they are under immense pressure to shut down their small businesses.”
“All of this is a part of a bigger story, a bigger strategy to make the lives of refugees miserable, to create a hostile environment so refugees can be pushed to leave. They will leave voluntarily but after we push them to go.”
The stated position of most political parties in Lebanon advocates the return of Syrian refugees. They have repeatedly said that Syria is now safe for their return.
However, under pressure from the international community, the Lebanese government has officially called for “voluntary” and not forcible returns.
Rights groups say that this policy only gives superficial assurances and that in reality, refugees face an insidious campaign, which manifests itself in many forms at a local level, to dissuade them from staying in Lebanon.
Last month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report on the deportation of 16 refugees who had said they feared persecution upon their return to Syria. HRW said that the refugees were forced to sign “voluntary repatriation” forms.
In April, the Lebanese government set a June 9 deadline for Syrian refugees in the town of Arsal, a major centre for them, to make their living quarters compatible with planning rules, threatening eviction if the deadline was missed.
Under the new rules, any walls higher than five rows of bricks, or about one metre high, would be demolished by the Lebanese army unless the refugees dismantled them first.
Activists say that such measures are coercive “push factors” forcing the refugees to leave.
Joelle Bassoul of Save the Children said the decision would impact about 26,000 people, including 15,000 children.
“Some of these children saw their homes destroyed in Syria, and others have only known Arsal as their home,” said Bassoul.
“We have raised our concerns regarding the situation of children in Arsal in meetings with the government, and we are hoping that the decision will be halted until a satisfying solution is found, one that respects Lebanese laws and regulations while protecting thousands of civilians from the physical and psychological impact of seeing their homes destroyed.”
The refugees of Arsal are worried that their homes will be flattened and hope that at the very least the deadline is extended to give them time to find money to pay for alternatives. Syrians are only allowed to fulfil low-paying jobs in the country.
Mouin al-Merhebi, a former State Minister for Refugees Affairs, told Al Jazeera the Lebanese government was “full of sectarian” politicians who wanted to push out the Syrians. Deir al-Ahmar is a majority Christian town, while most Syrian refugees are Sunni Muslim.
Under Lebanon’s balanced political system, the president is Christian, while the prime minister is Sunni. The current foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, a controversial and divisive figure, is also Christian, as well as being President Michel Aoun’s son-in-law.
“I am 90 percent sure what happened in Deir al-Ahmar was done on purpose,” Merhebi said. “President Aoun and Foreign Minister Bassil’s policy is to push the Syrians out. They will do it by hook or by crook.”
Lisa Abou Khaled, a UNHCR spokesperson, called for calm and said that high tensions made it imperative that the facts of the case were investigated carefully.
“In coordination with ministries of social affairs and interior, UNHCR and partners are currently evaluating the situation, and possible actions to facilitate shelter for the displaced families,” she told Al Jazeera.