While Assad prepares for a post-war order, Syrian refugees in Lebanon face an uncertain future, making their presence even more precarious.
Driving north from Lebanon ́s capital Beirut, we reach the Bekaa Valley and its biggest city, Baalbeck. Fields and small villages along the road dominate the scenery. Beyond the mountain range to our right, lies war-torn Syria. Looking closer at the rough landscape, makeshift settlements catch one ́s eye: sheds covered in plastic tarp, some of them marked with the light blue logo of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). The men, women, and children living here are refugees from neighboring Syria seeking shelter in Lebanon. The small Middle Eastern country is home to approximately 4.3 million Lebanese and currently hosts roughly 982,000 officially registered Syrian refugees according to the UNHCR – 350,000 of them in the Bekaa district.
Dire conditions in makeshift shelters
The situation looks different in Lebanon than the giant tent camps that are found in Jordan and Turkey. While some people were able to rent an apartment or were lucky enough to be among those who receive housing from the UNHCR, the majority has spent years in makeshift settlements across the vast Bekaa valley. Closer to the Syrian border, around the small city of Anjar, settlements ranging from small sheds for one family to larger camps are a dominant feature of the area.
The manager of the water and hygiene project of a local NGO, SEWA, explains that people prefer to settle in the countryside and serve as a low-wage labour force on the fields of local farmers. SEWA has teams on the ground, to officially register people with the UNHCR. This step is not only necessary for refugees to receive basic aid and support but also to apply for resettlement and reunification with family members who fled to other countries. Since the beginning of the violence in Syria, SEWA and international humanitarian organisations such as Save the Children, The Danish Refugee Council, and UNICEF have provided aid to refugees in the form of drinking water tanks, toilets and shower facilities as well as financial assistance to cover basic needs. Despite these efforts, a UNHCR survey in early 2018 found that the vulnerability of Syrian refugees in Lebanon has increased by 5% compared to 2017 and that 76% of the households live below the overall poverty line.
In dealing with the influx of Syrian refugees, Lebanon is dependent mainly on the international community which is financing projects on the ground. A local aid worker tells us that also some residents from the area have joined them as volunteers to support their new neighbours.
But not everyone agrees with refugees receiving shelter in the Bekaa. The reason for that lies in the division of the political attitude towards the civil war. Since the Bekaa is known as a stronghold of the Islamist party Hezbollah, which backs Bashar al-Assad’s troops in Syria, some of its supporters see the refugees as opponents aligned with rebel groups.
But the Lebanese residents’ objections are not simply political or religious. When talking to locals, who themselves struggle to find work to provide for their families, most of them expressed scepticism towards a long-term stay of Syrian refugees in the area. Wage dumping and the country’s weak economy make it difficult for locals to remain optimistic, but “even if we compete for work, we would never send them [the Syrian refugees] back to a country where they would get killed”, says a Baalbeck resident about the relationship between locals and those seeking protection.
Challenges for everyone in the Bekaa
The Bekaa Valley and the city of Baalbeck have been far from stable during the war. When the conflict with ISIL spilt across the border in 2016, Hezbollah won over the population’s support as their protector from an ISIL invasion. Armed groups and private ownership of firearms remain a destabilising factor for the fragile security situation in the Bekaa. This has frayed the social fabric of the population, as well as the economic situation, especially in regards to tourism. Violent clashes between rival families have recently led to small protests of shop owners demanding for the Lebanese Army to establish the rule of law in Baalbeck. So far their claims haven’t been heard.
What does Assad’s land grabbing law mean for Syrians in the Bekaa?
When the Syrian regime introduced the so-called “Law Number Ten” in April 2018, which obliges Syrians to provide proof of ownership of their property. For those living in exile, it is difficult or impossible to do so, since many find themselves unable to return to Syria and have nobody left back home to do the job for them. This attempted land grabbing by the Assad regime leaves those displaced with nothing left to return to and could have a devastating long-term impact on the social order within Syria.
It is uncertain how many of those refugees living in the Bekaa are affected by Assad’s policy of demographic change. What is certain is that many more individuals will experience another loss after losing everything already.