In this investigation, Syrians tell their stories, how they fled death and sought refuge in Lebanon fearing the Assad regime’s oppression, how they were arrested and their towns destroyed over their heads. They also recount the story of their eviction from the camp, not mentioning the landlord’s name, scared of persecution or harm as they continue to live in the town.
On the morning of July 13, Dalya and her two children waited on the main street for someone to give them a lift to the capital Beirut, after she was forcibly evicted from her residence in Taalbaiya town in al-Beqaa.
Dalya (46) is a Syrian refugee living in Lebanon. She is also a widow — her husband died in one of the Syrian regime’s barrel bomb attacks, which hit her home in Eastern Ghouta in Damascus Countryside. Besides chronic diseases, as an asthma, hypertension and diabetes patient, what adds to her suffering is that she could not afford to buy any of her medicines for almost six months.
Working on the farms, Dalya barely made10, 000 Lebanese pounds (US$2) per day. However, as COVID-19 found its way to Lebanon and a nationwide emergency state was declared, in response, she lost her job. Dalya, accordingly, could no longer pay the rent for the place where she lived.
Dalya, having spent an hour standing there on the street, now sits on her black suitcase, stuffed with all that she owns. I was living in a hangar [barn], set up for poultry farming in the first place, she said. She cleaned the place, connected it with the electrical power grid and laid down water lines. The place was made habitable for a monthly 150,000 Lebanese pounds (about US$25).
“I was two months late on paying the rent. The woman that owned the hangar decided to kick us out, despite these harsh conditions. Is it really possible that while people are ordered to stay at home, we get evicted?” She hugs her children, who were overcome by fatigue.
A public bus finally stops for the woman and her children. With everything on board, the bus fares to Beirut.
Dalya is subjected to forced eviction from shelters unfit for human use. Nevertheless, she was not alone in this. Thirty other Syrian families had to suffer the same fate after they sought refuge in Lebanon, escaping the atrocities of war that followed the March 2011 protests.
Families at risk
Dozens of Syrian families lived in the al-Massri camp in Saadnayel before the landlord coerced them to evacuate, allowing them to stay there till the end of June.
The camp people, thus, referred to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) several times, but all their attempts at reporting the situation were to no avail. The commissioner did not respond, and they were ultimately evicted.
The interviewed refugees expressed the same sentiment over and over again; they all lacked stability, particularity under the pandemic. While people around the world seek to stay at home and commit themselves to quarantine, worried over contracting COVID-19, Syrian refugees are being forcibly evicted from their tents and houses.
A large proportion of Syrians cannot afford to pay rent, neither for houses, nor the lands on which they have set up their tents, especially since many property owners have raised rents exponentially. Furthermore, rents must be exclusively paid in dollars nowadays, given the worsening economic downturn, crashing exchange rates of the Lebanese pound, spiking prices, and mounting rates of poverty and unemployment in Lebanon.
Syrian refugees’ unemployment rates since mid-March 2020:
61% of women refugees
46% of men refugees
7% of the families are forcing children to work, after parents lost their jobs
Source: UNHCR – Lebanon
On June 19, a resident of the al-Massri camp live-streamed the forced evacuation of the camp’s population. The tents were dismantled, but the matter still went unaddressed by any official entities. The landlord denied media outlets and organizations access into the camp to assess the situation or even negotiate the possibility of allowing the people to stay in their sole shelter during these most challenging times while the country is in pandemic mode.
Due to restrictive Lebanese residency policies, only 22% of an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon have the legal right to live in the country, leaving the vast majority to live under the radar, subject to arbitrary arrest, detention, and harassment. Their lack of legal status means they cannot move freely through the ubiquitous checkpoints that predate COVID19, have difficulty getting services such as health care or education, and find it difficult to register births, deaths, and marriages, Human Rights Watch stated in a report published last April.
Forcibly evicted from the al-Massri camp, only a few families managed to rent a garage or a small room in a nearby place. Others, however, sought their neighbours or moved to different camps, intending to live with relatives while searching for a place to shelter them.
Tracking the movement of several families, seven ended up in two hangars, barns, within a 10-minute walk from the al-Massri camp.
“The barns were still full of trash and livestock waste when we moved in. We rented them for 600,000 Lebanese pounds (US$100), which we divide among us. You can see it for yourself, we are cleaning the place of garbage and dirt. But still, it is not a place to live in,” one refugee said, standing in front of his new place of residence.
The two barns, where 29 people, including 13 children, live today, have tin roofs, dilapidated, cracked and full of holes. The walls are either destroyed or about to collapse, threatening to crush the people living within them. The place is thus accessible to rats and snakes, while at the same time poorly ventilated and lacking in proper hygiene. The barns are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
“What coerced us to move here [the barn] is that we cannot afford renting a cheap house. At the same time, we cannot set up a new tent due to state laws. So, we decided to use the tent’s canvas and wood to renovate the hangar. We also dismantled the bricks that made the tent’s bathroom and brought them here with us. We reassembled the bricks and patched up the holes in the hangar,” Abu Basil, a Syrian refugee evicted from the Saadnayel camp, said.
Abu Basil’s family does not only consist of eight people, but one of his daughters is also extremely suffering, yet traumatized over her brother’s loss, who died in a car accident when they first sought refuge in Lebanon, seven years ago.
Furthermore, his suckling granddaughter has been lately diagnosed as having a chronic disease, brain atrophy, and is in need of treatment and sustained healthcare. It is an abject situation that we are in, Abu Basil said, adding that aid and support are necessary.
In one corner, two birds are kept in a cage, which they also moved to their new residence. Looking at the birds, the family says: “The reason we are keeping them is that we are caged ourselves.”
23 forced eviction cases were recorded between mid-March and mid-July, all as a result of the refugees’ inability to pay rent for the house or land.
Source: Access Center for Human Rights (ACHR)
Living in non-viable places
Lying in the open air, being the remains of the place it once was, each of the holes in the hanger begs rain and the scorching heat during summer in, inviting also all types of insects and harmful creatures. The place is vast and high-roofed. The residents used the tents’ wood to create partitions. They divided it into smaller areas, craving order and privacy. However, it is impossible to spend winter in that place, for it is particularly hard to keep it warm.
The families recount their stories, how they escaped death and sought refuge in Lebanon, scared for their lives of the Syrian regime, how they were arrested and their houses destroyed by air raids. They also recount the story of their forced eviction from the camp, keeping the landlord’s name a secret afraid of persecution and harm as they continue to live in the town.
In fact, these families are scared of going back to Syria. Yet, their living conditions in Lebanon can barely be called safe.
According to Abu Basil, he and his family were evicted due to the decision providing for dismantling and flattening the camp. The dismantlement of several tents and shelters every now and then grew into a familiar occurrence in different areas, seeking to prevent refugees from settling down there. One reason for demolishing the camp is that many families were two months late on paying the tents’ rent due to the lockdown and their inability to work under the state-imposed COVID-19 mitigation policies.
A number of the forcibly evicted camp people stressed that the proposed justifications are only a hoax. The real thing, they said, is that the landlord decided to turn the land on which the camp was constructed into a horse barn.
No matter what the actual reasons are, the reality is that the life of this family and many others has become unbearably difficult. They today live in an unviable place, even after they themselves cleaned it and turned it with their own money from a barn into their living place.
One resident said that the UNHCR and other international partner organizations have visited the barn and assessed the refugees’ living conditions in their new shelter. They filmed the place and said they were sorry. They also apologized for their inability to provide any aid, “one organization helps camp residents exclusively. The other helps renovate houses, not farms.”
In the barn, the refugees contemplate their near future. Summer is ending and winter is around the corner. But still, the place is absolutely inhabitable.
“It is harsher than COVID-19, which affects people everywhere. In the case of the virus, measures can be kept to prevent contracting it; medicines can be taken to help boost the immune system and recovery. But we are helpless, nothing can help us get a shelter,” one refugee described their situation as a group.
In the al-Hindi camp in Bar Elias, another group of Syrian refugees is enduring the same suffering. They were asked to evacuate the camp, and a deadline was already set, while they have no other place to seek given the lockdown.
Even though his family consists of nine people, Abdulkarim, the father, cannot send his children to work, for they do not have identity documents. To make a living, he thus attempts to find informal jobs, such as gardening, or working on farms during harvest seasons.
“We were managing. We are now holding to patience because we have only till early September to evacuate the tent. Yesterday, [the landlord] saw me at the tent’s door and threatened me. ‘If you do not leave in a week, your stuff will end up on the street,’” Abdulkarim, a Syrian refugee, recounted his story and spoke of the circumstances pressing him to evacuate the al-Hindi Camp.
The refugees’ living conditions turned severe when the landlord decided to raise the rent on the land where the tents are set up for a number of refugees. To his misfortune, Abdulkarim was among the refugees notified of the need to pay the additional rent money.
The landlord is whimsical, Abdulkarim said. He has relatives neither in the camp nor in the area, unlike several other families who make up a network of relatives there, preventing the landlord from pressing them into paying further money in rent, which he finally kept as it is. He asked Abdulkarim and numerous other families to pay 300,000 Lebanese pounds (US$), or otherwise leave.
“What coerced us to move here [the barn] is that we cannot afford renting a cheap house. At the same time, we cannot set up a new tent due to state laws. So, we decided to use the tent’s canvas and wood to renovate the hangar. We also dismantled the bricks that made the tent’s bathroom and brought them here with us. We reassembled the bricks and patched up the holes in the hangar,”
Abu Basil, a Syrian refugee who lives along with his family in a hangar near the al-Massri camp in al-Bekaa, Lebanon.
Affected by Lebanese pound’s turmoil
Over twenty refugee families across al-Bekaa were interviewed, they were all equally distressed due to the dire living conditions in Lebanon, a situation that has been thus for months.
They are basically grappling with mounting prices and the Lebanese pound turmoil, which has been begging to the dollar, for it takes between 6000 and 8000 Pounds to buy a dollar, while the official bank exchange rate is 1500 pounds.
This spiralling reality increased the refugees’ inability to pay the rent for their homes, since many have turned unemployed with the spread of COVID-19 in Lebanon. To cope with their tightening finances, a group of Syrians is borrowing money to pay the rent, others are reducing their food consumption.
Intissar (41), a Syrian woman, shared the same house with 11 members of her family, including her father, a pneumonia patient, her mother, who suffers from chronic diseases, her widowed sister, along with her children, her brother, his wife and their children.
Intissar’s family rented the house seven months before they were expelled from it. When COVID-19 hit Lebanon in March, Intissar’s volunteer work in an educational organization stopped, so did her monthly grant of 300,000 Lebanese pounds (less than US$50). Worse yet, digging wells, her brother’s work, also stopped due to the imposed curfew.
“We could not pay the rent for three months in a row, which prompted the women owning the house to evict us in June. We turned homeless at the most critical time. A few days before we left the house, we borrowed money and paid her all the dues, but she unscrew the taps, vandalized the house and filmed it. She then went to the police station, and filed a complaint against my father,” Intissar said.
“On top of everything, and as if it was not enough that she expelled us from the house during the pandemic, she also demanded $100 as a compensation for the damage she did herself,” Intissar added, yelling.
A segment of Syrian refugees blames the United Nations High Commissioner for the deteriorating living conditions, especially when it denied a large proportion of refugees the aid it provided them, who could no longer afford food and drink, not to mention the rent, given that dozens of Syrians turned unemployed.
According to human rights reports, a large number of Syrian refugees lost their jobs. As a result, their living, economic, social and psychological conditions declined further, since most of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon depend on seasonal or day labour which either stopped completely or became rare. The lacking job opportunities, however, ensued the pandemic, which coincided with the country’s economic slump. Therefore, the refugees’ conditions under COVID-19 cannot be assessed in isolation from the existing economic crisis.
In a report, Access Centre for Human Rights (ACHR), a Syrian human rights organization that documents and monitors Lebanon-based Syrian refugees’ conditions, recorded over 23 cases of forced evictions and/or the threat of forced evictions between mid-May and mid-July 2020, all as a result of the refugees’ inability to pay rent for the house or land (in the case of those living in the camps).
Cases of eviction and/or threat of eviction were not limited to individual cases, for others occurred on the camp level. Several Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon have been threatened with eviction, and a few families were indeed expelled from them. Furthermore, the ACHR recorded two cases of camp evictions, and other three cases of camps threatened with eviction.
As of mid-March, a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Lebanon found that 61% of Syrian refugee women and 46% of Syrian refugee men have lost their jobs, whereas 7% of the Syrian families are sending their children to work, after their parents turned unemployed.
Due to a lack of money and rising food prices, the report added, refugees face difficulties buying their basic necessities. Till May 18, 75% of refugees went further into debt to pay for basic necessities, and 78% of families consulted reported difficulties buying food.
“Having lost their jobs, while goods prices soared insanely, the refugees have hit the low of almost no daily income — that is they cannot pay the rent for the house or the land on which the tent is set up. This increases the cases of both individual and mass eviction or threats of eviction of refugees from their residence places, whether in the camps or concrete homes, despite the COVID-19 outbreak and the urge to sustain quarantine,” an al-Bekaa-based Syrian human rights activist said, describing the living conditions of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
This investigation is hosted by the Syrian Investigative Reporting for Accountability Journalism (SIRAJ). Published on Daraj Media.