BEIRUT – Adel Jarran and his teenage sons painstakingly pulled nails from the plywood walls of their makeshift home, while his wife and younger children rolled up blankets and piled up sleeping pads.
A tall, cheerful man with a strong country accent from Syria’s Idlib province, Jarran already knew the drill. This mid-May afternoon was the family’s third eviction since seeking refuge from the Syrian war in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley six years ago.
Within a few hours, their shack would be reduced to a pile of lumber and tarps and loaded onto a caravan of trucks rattling down a dirt track out of the field that had been the family’s home for the past two years.
Jarran’s family were among an estimated 12,000 people in nearly 300 refugee settlements who found themselves in a 6-by-9-km area around Lebanon’s Riyak military airport that was suddenly declared off-limits to refugees in late March.
It was set to be the largest mass eviction to date in the Bekaa Valley. “Evictions are not new, but Riyak is a black swan,” said the U.N. refugee agency’s (UNHCR) top official in the Bekaa, Josep Zapater – an unforeseen event with major consequences.
The evictions largely ground to a halt at the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in late May, after about 3,200 people had left, but have resumed in recent weeks.
This mass relocation of refugees has fueled anti-refugee politics in the area, posed some thorny questions for the U.N. and raised issues of U.S. and E.U. military aid. Above all, it has left thousands of Syrian refugees even more vulnerable at a time of escalating demands for them to return to Syria.
“We’re concerned this is a back door to forced returns,” said the Norwegian Refugee Council’s (NRC) spokesman in Lebanon, Mike Bruce. “The decision to go home based on no options – that is not voluntary. Returns because of evictions or because they can’t get enough aid – these are forced returns.”
‘Take Your Things and Move’
Lebanon has never permitted official Syrian refugee camps, so 1.5 million Syrians have found spaces for shelter or rent wherever they can – from apartments to abandoned factories. Around one-fifth of refugees live in 4,800 informal tented settlements mostly scattered across rural north Lebanon and the eastern Bekaa Valley.
The constant threat of evictions – by landlords, municipalities and security forces – means refugees can never settle. Refugees around Riyak said they had already moved on average three times before the latest order arrived.
Yet this was on a different scale. “Riyak was unusual in size,” said NRC’s Bruce. “Previous evictions were piecemeal.”
Everything about the Riyak eviction was unclear from the start, from exactly who it applied to, how long they had to leave, and crucially, where they were meant to go.
In late March, officials from Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) fanned out across the area, verbally notifying refugees in informal settlements that they had to leave for security reasons.
To avoid having to forcibly round up thousands of refugees, the LAF mostly took down a few tents in each settlement and gave the rest of the refugees a deadline to leave of their own accord.
“Other than the problem of the safety of our bases, we have no problem for the refugees to stay,” said LAF spokesman Ali Qansu.
In Jarran’s settlement, on the outskirts of the town of Dalhamiye, they first ordered some people to move their tents from one side of the field to another – a few hundred meters away – saying it would put them outside the prohibited area.
But a week later the army came back and said all several hundred refugees needed to vacate the camp after all. “The army said take your things and move, that’s all,” Jarran said.
The ‘No Camps’ Conundrum
The scale of the eviction caught the humanitarian community off guard. The security justification stopped humanitarians from opposing the LAF’s decision.
Many refugees became frustrated when they didn’t receive assistance finding somewhere to go or financial support to move.
Technically, refugees were forbidden from either staying or moving. Last year the Bekaa governor prohibited moving between settlements. Even before, it had always been difficult for evicted refugees to find places to go – requiring rent negotiations with a new landlord and permissions from the municipality and multiple security agencies.
“Moving a single tent is complicated. Moving 12,000 is a lot of people,” said UNHCR’s Zapater.
Faced with the prospect of thousands of refugees made homeless at the same time, the U.N. refugee agency and Lebanese officials cast around for a single space to house them – a refugee camp in all but name.
This made Lebanese authorities nervous. Lebanon is already home to some half a million Palestinians who fled the wars of 1948 and 1967. The longevity and lawlessness of the country’s Palestinian refugee camps had set Lebanon firmly against anything that looked like a camp – or even shelters that appear too permanent – for Syrians.
When the mayor of a border village called Majdal Anjar offered a plot to house 10,000 refugees, some aid workers were also concerned that moving refugees into one location so close to the Syrian border could be a prelude to mass returns. UNHCR had earlier made a point of resisting pressure for camps to be located near the Syrian border.
In the end, the land on offer was too uneven and the mayor ran into a political problem. His list of demands for aid in exchange for taking in the refugees – a municipal hall, health center, graveyard and a waste-sorting plant – was leaked to the local press, and villagers accused him of selling them out.
The incident also increased UNHCR’s concern that its assistance identifying sites for evicted refugees could be counterproductive – making refugees bargaining chips in exchange for aid. “If UNHCR got involved, the price of rent would go up,” Zapater said. “Refugees know better how to negotiate.”
Waiting for Aid
The same dilemma delayed international aid to the refugees, who were getting deeper into debt.
On average, they had to borrow $650 to move out of the eviction zone, according to data collected by humanitarian agencies. Many lost rent paid in advance, and now they had to pay moving costs, more rent and pay off occasional extortionists. The average household debt for Syrian refugees in Lebanon already stood at $857 – a fortune in a country where most refugees earn between $10 and $15 a day.
But UNHCR was hesitant to start giving out emergency cash aid before the evictions were finished. It could drive up rental prices, or even worse, give the impression that the U.N. was assisting with the evictions.
When the evictions dragged on for months, some humanitarian groups felt UNHCR had waited too long and started their own cash aid to evicted refugees. It was mid-July by the time UNHCR coordinated one-off cash grants of $300 to most of the evicted families, and put systems in place to respond to any future evictions.
“We assumed the eviction would be quick … at the beginning, the response could admittedly have been faster,” said UNHCR’s Zapater. “In part, we delayed joint planning to avoid giving an impression that the eviction was accepted by humanitarians, which could have accelerated expulsions, before actually analyzing the event.”
So, at the height of the evictions this spring, refugees were mostly left to figure things out for themselves. Jarran’s family, along with many of their neighbors, joined another existing camp about a kilometer away, where they already knew some people. They paid $50 to hire trucks to take their belongings to the new site, where they erected their shelters on their own.
Refugees Not Welcome
Despite the U.N. agency’s caution, refugees had already become political bargaining chips in the area. The evictions just made things worse.
The Bekaa Valley, lush with olive groves and vineyards, has a long history of seasonal agricultural workers from Syria. Yet its population has doubled with the arrival of the refugees, and the region, which already had some of highest poverty rates in Lebanon, is hurting economically from the closure of trade routes to Syria.
Some local politicians blamed the refugees, and rumors flew on social media and WhatsApp – and sometimes in local media – about refugees getting preferential treatment and threatening local jobs and security.
Humanitarian agencies, trying to correct their inattention to local dynamics in the chaotic early days of the crisis, increasingly prioritized aid to areas that reported tensions with refugees, creating perverse incentives for local officials to emphasize conflict to attract aid.
In late March, as the Riyak evictions began, there were protests against Syrian workers in Bekaa’s capital, Zahle, and some villages in the area. Several municipalities closed Syrian-owned shops. One municipality started charging refugees fees to stay, and other municipalities talked about following suit.
When the evictions got under way, many mayors refused to take in a single refugee.
The mayor of Zahle, which claims to be the largest Catholic city in the Middle East, took a particularly defiant stance. In April, he initiated his own campaign to evict 4,800 refugees already in the city. Other municipalities, like Majdal Anjar, tried to negotiate an aid package for accepting the evictees.
“No municipalities wanted them, [so] almost all of them were spread all over,” said Lebanon’s minister of social affairs Pierre Bouassi, whose ministry is responsible for refugee shelter. “Each one found his own solution.”
But refugees, with little bargaining power, few resources and even fewer rights, were in a poor position to cope with the eviction alone. “Refugees cannot be left to identify their own solutions,” said the NRC’s Bruce.
As doors slammed shut around them, many refugees headed to Bar Elias, a Sunni-majority town where the mayor bucked the political trend and made a point of welcoming hundreds of evictees.
“We don’t see them as refugees, we see them as guests of the town,” said Mayor Mahwas Araji, who is aligned with Lebanese factions opposed to the Syrian regime. “Seventy percent of the Syrians had come here before to work on the farms, so the people of Bar Elias feel secure [with them being here].”
But the refugees will not stay in Bar Elias forever, Araji insists. “God willing, the problems in Syria will end tomorrow and all the people will return to Syria.”
Relying on the ‘Shawish’
Abdullah Rahmin, a 35-year-old former taxi driver from Syria’s Raqqa, was relieved to find a rocky patch of agricultural land in Bar Elias in April, a few weeks after being evicted.
As the “shawish,” or superintendent, of his settlement near Riyak, Rahmin was in charge of finding a new location for its approximately 200 residents.
Rahmin first took the group to a nearby village, but they were asked to leave 10 days later and struggled to find somewhere else to go. “We went to ask many municipalities but we were not allowed,” he said. Eventually, the Bar Elias mayor helped Rahmin find a willing landlord and get security permissions.
The shawish system in Lebanon is a relic of seasonal labor before the war, when a Syrian shawish would recruit and manage workers for Lebanese farmers.
They have since become informal camp managers and security liaisons. As conduits of information and aid, the system is ripe for exploitation. The humanitarian community has had to work with them, as they are unable to fully get around them.
Lebanon’s restrictive refugee policies since 2015 have left 94 percent of refugees in the Bekaa Valley without legal residence in the country, leaving them vulnerable to arrest or extortion. With every eviction, refugees become even more dependent on the patronage of their shawish, as well as Lebanese sponsors, employers and landlords.
Yet the shawish’s power is relative – many are refugees without proper status themselves – and can be deployed benevolently.
Rahmin, who hasn’t had legal residence in Lebanon for three years and has moved six times, is now fielding constant requests for work from the community as he tries to build ties with local employers in his new neighborhood.
The father of four is also preoccupied with getting all the children into local schools – they missed their end-of-term exams because of the eviction.
One day, he hopes to go back to Raqqa – “once the terrorists go” – but not yet. He fears that decision may not be in his hands.
“If they tell us to leave, we have to, even if we have nowhere left to go,” he said. “This is the life of a refugee.”
A Pause in Evictions
The evictions were expected to take a few weeks. They ended up continuing for months and aren’t over yet. Some families have relocated within the eviction zone; others left, only to return to the area later.
The haphazard enforcement prompted numerous theories – perhaps it was the smaller settlements that were allowed to stay, or those mainly housing Syrians who had been there since before the war, or with the most well-connected landlords.
Many landowners tried to negotiate with authorities to keep their tenants. “What is often not understood in Beirut is that landlords are often the least interested in evictions, since they will lose valuable workforce,” said the UNHCR’s Zapater.
Nawfal Ahmed Saad, the landowner of the settlement from which Jarran was evicted, now frets about his loss of rental income: about $50 per family each month. He is compensating for the departure of his workers by hiring from nearby settlements that were spared eviction.
The father of nine girls and two sons, farming has been Saad’s family business for generations. For as long as he can remember, Syrians have worked in the family’s fields of “potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce, anything that comes into your mind – apples, cherries, everything – parsley, zucchini, onions,” Saad lists proudly.
Over the years, some fell in love, and Saad has Syrian cousins. “We are all one family with the Syrians, and were living together,” he said. “But now all the world’s problems have come here.”
An ‘Increasingly Strategic’ Airbase
The faltering pace of evictions heightened the question many refugees posed from the start.
“The airport has been here for a long time – why did they decide to evict us now?” Jarran asked back in May. “Of course there is another reason, but we don’t know it.”
Riyak airport, founded by German pilots in World War I, became Lebanon’s first airbase after independence. But for most of its history, the Lebanese air force remained small, with few planes among its fleet of helicopters.
In recent years, Lebanon’s military has attracted growing foreign military assistance, including from the U.S. and European countries, as it emerges from decades of debilitating civil war and Syrian occupation.
The air force is now being rehabilitated: The U.S. delivered Lebanon’s third armed-Cessna aircraft last December, and LAF pilots are currently training with the U.S. Air Force in the U.S. state of Georgia to fly A-29 Super Tucano planes that Lebanon purchased in 2015.
Riyak is conveniently located for the delivery of military aid to troops near the border with Syria. This spring, residents noticed a wall going up around Riyak’s airstrip and large military transport planes roar into the valley at night.
“We have many aircraft – the Cessna and choppers – as well the U.S. military aid to that air base,” LAF’s Ali Qansu said of Riyak. “People must be at a safe distance.”
Aram Nerguizian, an expert on the Lebanese military at the D.C.-based think tank Center for Strategic & International Studies, said the “growing role of Riyak in the LAF logistics supply chain in the Bekaa region and beyond” has changed the air base’s risk profile.
“The presence of U.S. ground crews and other personnel – even if only briefly – represents a responsibility wherein Lebanese security and military forces simply cannot justify even the slightest risk” of surface-to-air missiles and other threats, he said.
“U.S. military personnel are present on LAF bases throughout Lebanon conducting training,” Rachel Mikeska, the U.S. Embassy in Beirut press attaché, said in response to questions about U.S. military presence at Riyak, referring all questions about the refugee evictions to the Lebanese government.
The air base is also becoming a training and coordination hub for forces extending Lebanese control along the entire border with Syria for the first time since independence. This years-long effort, backed by the U.K. and later the U.S., gained urgency after the Syrian civil war broke out and is now nearing completion.
“Riyak sits at the nexus of a consolidation of the border effort,” Nerguizian said. “Riyak is increasingly strategic. With that, the security of Riyak becomes strategic.”
A few days after refugees received the first eviction notices in March, one of the E.U.’s top officials, Johannes Hahn, visited the air base.
He was there to launch a 300,000 euro ($358,000) refurbishment of Riyak, part of a 14 million euro ($16.7 million), six-year E.U. initiative to help various Lebanese security agencies cooperate on border management. When completed in early 2018, Riyak will be their training center.
“The worldwide threat of terrorism is on all our minds, but we also want to handle, in the best way possible, the legal obligation to ensure that people fleeing war can be hosted in safer places,” said Hahn, the European commissioner for the European Neighbourhood Policy & Enlargement Negotiations, before planting an olive tree in the grounds of the air base.
“We were not aware of the decision and we were not involved in this issue,” the E.U. delegation to Lebanon said in response to questions about the refugee evictions.
Over the summer, the Lebanese military and Shia movement Hezbollah ousted Syrian militants holed up around Arsal and neighboring areas in a series of separate offensives. Hezbollah, an ally of the Syrian regime, also brokered a series of controversial deals to transfer thousands of fighters and refugees in the area back to Syria.
Lebanese military officials warned humanitarian workers that evictions around Riyak may resume once the battle was over. A few weeks after declaring victory, LAF officials were back in the area issuing new deadlines for refugees to leave.
Security Threat or Security Theater?
In early September, a Lebanese extreme sports company held their first skydive from Riyak air base, in collaboration with an Italian skydiving team. A video shows the parachutists soaring over rolling fields, now partially emptied of refugees.
Why Syrian refugees in particular pose a security threat to Riyak, when others do not, is deeply contested.
A recent United Nations Development Programme study found that despite few actual incidents, residents of the Bekaa “excessively perceive refugees as a potential threat.” Many explained their fears by referencing Syrian militants’ attack on Arsal in the northern Bekaa in 2014, when some of the gunmen were reported to be sheltering in nearby camps.
“For better or for worse, Syrian settlements have already shown themselves to be a source of instability in and around Arsal,” Nerguizian said. “It does not make sense for unregulated tented settlements to be in such close proximity to LAF facilities.”
“Sometimes the refugees entered the runway [around Riyak]. This is not allowed,” said the LAF’s Qansu. “You see in the news we have arrested so many refugees for terrorism,” he added.
For Sima Ghaddar at New York-based think tank The Century Foundation, Lebanon’s security-led approach to refugees is more about politics than safety.
“Security in the settlements is merely a show of force, a security theater, which only provides a feeling of security to a paranoid Lebanese host community and a feeling of control to a dysfunctional state,” she wrote in an April article.
The Toll of Evictions
After the first wave of evictions around Riyak, some women stopped leaving their settlements or only using the bathroom in groups out of fear of strangers, according to an Inter-Sector working group report in July.
Most said they never interact with the local community anyway, or only rarely. “In all my 21 years working with refugees, this is the most fragmented refugee community I have seen,” said UNHCR’s Zapater.
Households headed by women faced the worst exploitation after eviction. To join a new settlement, half of them received demands to work for free, and one in five were told to send their children to work.
To date, there have been no mass returns to Syria connected to Riyak (in contrast to the mass transfer of refugees from around Arsal). Even so, humanitarians fear that repeated evictions could eventually push more vulnerable refugees to go back before they’re ready.
Meanwhile, the chorus of political leaders demanding Syrian refugees go home is growing louder ahead of Lebanon’s first election in nine years set for spring 2018.
In Abdullah Rahmin’s newly erected settlement outside Bar Elias, 60-year-old grandfather Ahmad Khalaf was struggling with the lack of water and electricity as he fasted for Ramadan this June.
A former farmer from Idlib, Khalaf would love to take his family back to Syria, but insists it’s not safe yet. “There’s the regime, and there’s the militias, and there’s the revolutionaries and there’s the terrorists, and there’s al-Nusra and there’s ISIS,” he said.
“God willing, the war in Syria will end and we will go back there,” Khalaf said. “We don’t have rights or a life in this country.”