The Syrian refugee camp shelters in Arsal are set for demolition | Photo: Khaldoun Zeineddine
The Syrian refugee camp shelters in Arsal are set for demolition | Photo: Khaldoun Zeineddine

As many as 25,000 Syrian refugees in the Lebanese city of Arsal have been told that their homes are to be demolished from July 1. The government has extended a June 9 deadline to begin removing all refugee shelters built with materials other than timber and plastic sheeting. InfoMigrants visited one of the settlements in the city, where residents fear they will soon be left homeless.

To reach Arsal, we travel through mountainous country. The natural landscape is made up of caves, sand and rocks. The name Arsal itself means “the throne of God”. High and isolated, it is in the northeast of Lebanon, 40 kilometers from Baalbek city and 122 kilometers from the capital, Beirut.

Being close to Syria, Arsal became a destination for many Syrians fleeing the civil war, especially Sunni Muslims and political opponents of the regime. Before long, Syrian residents came to outnumber the local population.

As we pass a security checkpoint on the edge of the city and approach the center, Syrian shops appear, selling cheese, sweets and hardware supplies. There are also dozens of motorcycles imported from Syria. "At first glance, you feel that you are in Syria and not in Lebanese territory," says our guide. Another man who knows this part of Lebanon describes the town as “a reservoir for Syrian refugees."

We have come here to hear from some of the refugees, but only after meeting with the mayor, Basil al-Hujairi, are we permitted to enter one of the camps under official escort. As soon as we enter the settlement, we encounter children running around while the adults hold back, observing from a distance.

Syrian refugee in Aral  Photo Khaldoun Zeineddine

Cement shelters too 'permanent'

In Arsal there are more than 125 camps, home to around 35,000 Syrian refugees. It was here that the first “cement camps” for refugees were built, raising concerns among Lebanese that the refugees would settle permanently in their country.

Today it is the refugees who are worried, after the Lebanese Supreme Defense Council announced it would demolish the homes of more than 25,000 people. The mayor, Basil al-Hujairi, says the decision is “directly related to the fear of the Lebanese that the refugees will be staying in Lebanon and never return back home to Syria.”

Initially, the Lebanese authorities gave the refugees until June 9 before demolition was due to start. The deadline has since been extended to July 1.

14000-15000 children live in the Arsal camps  Photo Khaldoun Zeineddine

15,000 children at risk of homelessness

The residents of the cement camp we visited were very reluctant to speak or be identified. It took a huge effort by the camp staff to  persuade one man to talk. People were afraid of the demolition, the man finally said. He himself would be willing to go anywhere, he added, provided it was safe and he could “live a decent life.”

Another refugee living in Arsal since 2013 told an aid organization: “When I heard about the demolition decision, I thought to myself that I would sleep over my children and make them demolish the house above our heads.”

Wherever you look here, you see children. We are told that there are around 12,000 school-age children among the Syrian refugees. There are even more pre-school children under the age of six. In the dark atmosphere, the children are bright lights. Most of them go to school: about a quarter of them are educated in  the Lebanese curriculum and the rest according to the Syrian opposition approach.

Human rights organizations are worried that these Syrian children will suffer most from the proposed demolition of the more than 5,000 concrete shelters. Three groups – Save the Children, World Vision and Terre des Hommes – have called on the government to abandon the plan. 

Allison Zilkovic, the regional director of Save the Children, says that “for a child who does not eat very little, losing his home will be very shocking. Our teams are meeting with children who are still in turmoil as a result of losing their homes in Syria, they should not see their homes destroyed again otherwise they will experience the same trauma again."

Syrian representatives of the camps have tried to negotiate a solution that would both address the Lebanese concerns and ensure the refugees can live in suitable accommodation. A new agreement stipulates that  cement roofs and walls are to be demolished and floors must be raised a meter above ground, to ensure residents are protected from reptiles and insects in the summer, and from snow and rain in the winter.