Lebanon, a country of some four million people, says it hosts at least 1.5 million Syrians on its soil after they fled the long-running war in neighbouring Syria, many living in informal settlements in the country’s east. Nearly a million are registered as refugees with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
To discourage any permanent settlement, Lebanese authorities had given Syrians living in the region of Arsal until July 1 to demolish shelters made of anything but timber and plastic sheeting.
Families were forced to tear down any small cinderblock rooms they may have built, with the army stepping in to destroy at least 20 remaining hard shelters as the deadline passed on Monday.
“This crackdown on housing code violations should be seen for what it is, which is illegitimate pressure on Syrian refugees to leave Lebanon,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) refugee rights director Bill Frelick said in a statement on Friday.
“Many of those affected have real reasons to fear returning to Syria, including arrests, torture and ill-treatment by Syrian intelligence branches,” he said.
The demolition order is based on the 2004 Lebanese Construction Law Act, which NGOs that have long operated in the camps say that it has rarely, if ever, been enforced.
According to the order, hard foundations can be no higher than two cinder blocks, and cement foundations must be removed.
For Syrian refugee shelters built on agricultural lands in Arsal, foundations can be no more than five cinder blocks high. Furthermore, upper walls and roofs must be made out of timber beams and plastic sheeting or canvas, with interior walls, at most, be out of thin plywood.
Aids groups have estimated up to 15,000 people, including many children, to have been affected by the demolition order.
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 this week. “It’s up to God now.”
One family made to destroy their shelter last month told the AFP news agency they would not return to Syria as their Syrian home had been destroyed in the war, leaving them instead to face another harsh winter in a tent.
Echoing similar warnings from other rights monitors, HRW said the demolitions were just one of several methods used to pressure Syrians into leaving Lebanon.
“They include ramped up arrests and deportations, closing of shops, and confiscation or destruction of unlicensed vehicles, on top of other long-standing restrictions, including curfews and evictions, and barriers to refugee education, legal residency, and work authorisation,” Frelick said.
“Lebanon shouldn’t create pressures that cumulatively coerce refugees to return involuntarily in conditions that are not conducive to a safe and dignified return,” he said.
The timing of the demolition order came amidst an increase of anti-refugee political rhetoric in the country.
Lebanese politicians and part of the population have called for Syrian refugees to go home, blaming them for a string of economic woes in the country.
“The wave of Syrian displacement has produced negative repercussions that have impacted all Lebanese sectors,” President Michael Aoun recently said.
Bassel al-Hujeiri, the head of the Arsal municipality, told HRW that the demolition order was a political decision and had nothing to do with housing regulations.
“The reason the government is now suddenly making refugees tear their walls down is to pressure them to return,” he said. “We wish the refugees would return to their country, but we shouldn’t be pressuring them to do so.”
One Syrian refugee, whose husband was killed in government prisons after his arrest in 2011, told HRW that everyone dreams of living in their own country, but that she could go back.
“The Lebanese say we have come and taken over their country and live in villas, but just look at the condition of the bathroom: We live with insects and mice,” the 35-year-old widow said.
After several Russia-backed victories against rebels and armed opposition groups since 2015, the Damascus government controls around 60 percent of Syria’s territory.
Syria’s war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions at home and abroad since it started in 2011 with a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests.