This article is based on a forthcoming policy paper examining the causes, characteristics, and consequences of the eviction of Syrian migrants and refugees from Riyak, Lebanon in 2017, in light of recent developments encouraging Syrian refugees to return to their home country.
Lebanon’s Eviction of Syrian Refugees and the Threat of de facto Refoulement
In the Bekaa Valley town of Bar Elias, some forty Syrian refugee families have been stranded for over five months in a cramped garage. Their recent ordeal started when they were evicted from an informal tented settlement near the town of Riyak, where they had been residing since fleeing the war in Syria. After the families were ordered to leave by the Lebanese Army some one and a half years ago, they relocated to a settlement in Bar Elias until, one year later, they were evicted once again. Since then, they have been waiting for permission to erect new tents in the area, having paid over $4,000 in accumulated rent for their substandard shelter in the meantime. Although the families received a green light from governorate-level officials and clearance from relevant security agencies, they cannot legally act until they receive permission from the Ministry of Social Affairs. However, they have not been told how to obtain such permission and who to turn to, leaving them to contend with contradictory advice and unconfirmed rumors about indefinitely-pending permits.
The situation of this particular group of refugees in the Bekaa is not unique. Municipalities as well as security agencies regularly force Syrian refugees in the area to take down their tents, mostly without formal justification or due process. This places refugees and support organizations in uncertain, insecure, and unpredictable situations. For instance, the Riyak eviction was carried out in spring 2017, when the Lebanese Army forcibly removed some 8,000 Syrian refugees living in informal tented settlements within a 7 kilometer radius around the Riyak military airbase—a facility that is home to the Bekaa’s largest runway and played a key role in supporting military operations targeting militant organizations in the country’s border regions. After a de facto end to displacement activities early this year and an unofficial reassurance by security agencies that the evictions would cease, the aforementioned governorate-level official was told by informal sources that the evictions in this region might pick up again as the army is seeking to further clear the area around Riyak. Another estimated 15,000 people currently remain at risk of eviction in what could be Lebanon’s most concerted refugee displacement effort to date.
Syrian refugee life in Lebanon: Evictions and returns
Lebanon, which hosts over 1 million Syrians who were forced to flee war in their home country, has the largest number of refugees in the world relative to its population. As a result of the opposing views that political factions hold regarding the Syrian war and the refugee crisis, the government’s position was initially one of denial and later of inconsistency and ambiguity. However, the one thing Lebanon’s political elites agree on is the importance of ensuring that the refugee presence is temporary. For refugees, this has resulted in two things: Evictions and returns.
The Lebanese government has refused to permit the establishment of formal refugee camps. The most marginalized refugees consequently live in so-called “informal tented settlements”, which are increasingly vulnerable to arbitrary eviction. In 2017, Syrian refugees—both those living in informal settlements and those self-settled in urban areas—reported that the most common reason for leaving their place of residence in Lebanon was eviction. According to UNHCR, 13,700 people were evicted in 2017 and 41,956 individuals remain at risk of eviction. The majority of these evictions were conducted by state actors such as municipalities and security agencies, often under the pretext of unspecified “security” concerns.
Since the Syrian regime declared victory over opposition forces earlier this year, many Lebanese politicians and authorities have increasingly insisted on the viability of returning Syrian refugees. This is in line with Lebanon’s only formal policy document on the Syrian refugee crisis, the October 2014 Syrian Displacement Policy, which calls for encouraging refugees to leave Lebanon “by all possible means.” In May, the General Security, tasked with regulating refugees’ entry and stay, presented concrete proposals for their return. More recently, in the context of a Russian-sponsored refugee return plan and in coordination with the Syrian regime, Lebanon has been organizing the return of Syrians through return centers headed by the General Security, sometimes in coordination with Hezbollah.
These two recent developments—expanding evictions and growing insistence on return—are increasingly interlinked. Evictions have been turned into an instrument to encourage and facilitate refugees’ return to Syria. While written eviction orders direct refugees to leave a specific locality, these are often accompanied by verbal orders to “go back to Syria.” Pressuring Syrian refugees to leave Lebanon through subjecting them to irregular, ever-looming evictions occurs in the context of a broader policy of endemic marginalization that abandons refugees to extreme poverty and systematic exploitation. At the national level, restrictive and arbitrarily applied residency policies have left over 70% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon without legal residency status. This severely hampers refugees’ mobility and their access to services, livelihoods, and justice, even more so as securitized local governance approaches are determined by curfews, checkpoints, and harassment.
Arbitrary eviction and the ‘politics of uncertainty’
Evictions such as those in Riyak have been implemented outside a legal framework and are characterized by the promulgation of misinformation. This undermines the ability of refugees to challenge their displacement or properly prepare for it. The fragmented eviction process in Riyak did not follow legal procedures and requirements, and was characterized by excessively vague communication by security agencies. Hiding behind opaque security concerns, those agencies did not properly inform affected refugees or local authorities, NGOs, and humanitarian agencies that sought to help these refugees. The timelines and parameters of evictions, as well as relocation options and requirements remained unspecified throughout the process. In short, as News Deeply concluded: “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.”1
This irregularity was largely avoidable. Interviews with members of the emergency response team that helped refugees affected by the eviction revealed that at times misinformation seems to have been deliberately produced to prevent refugees from resisting evictions. State agencies involved in evictions are thus either actively exacerbating the vulnerability that is likely to result in refugees’ return to Syria or cannot be bothered to prevent it. In this way, the Riyak case and the increasing number of similar evictions, also by actors other than security agencies, such as municipalities and landlords, demonstrate how Lebanon’s refugee governance is geared toward manufacturing refugees’ vulnerability through producing institutional uncertainty with the aim of “encouraging” refugees to return to Syria.
Displacements directly pressure refugees to leave Lebanon by aggravating their marginalization. This is done by forcing them to incur debts to finance their relocation, by undermining income-generating strategies and disrupting education, and by undercutting informal protection mechanisms. Evictions also subject refugees to permanent limbo. The resultant insecurity and uncertainty in terms of shelter are of such an existential nature that they severely undermine refugees’ survival options in Lebanon. This posits an implicit incentive for return to Syria. The “voluntary” nature of refugee return is thus largely illusory when evictions are omnipresent and deliberately irregular, arbitrary, and unaccountable, and when post-eviction relocation is increasingly barred.
1. Abby Sewell and Charlotte Alfred, “Evicted Refugees in Lebanon have Nowhere Left to Run.” News Deeply (28 September 2018), at: https://www.newsdeeply.com/refugees/articles/2017/09/28/nowhere-left-to-run-refugee-evictions-in-lebanon-in-shadow-of-return.
Photo: Adel Jarran at the settlement outside Dalhamiye in the Bekaa Valley from which he was evicted in May. Source: Abby Sewell.