Refugees race to prevent demolition of shelters

14 June 2019

PA

A Syrian refugee and her baby in front of tents at a makeshift camp at the border town of Arsal, Lebanon, in January

A Syrian refugee and her baby in front of tents at a makeshift camp at the border town of Arsal, Lebanon, in January

THE story of a woman whose hands swelled after she spent two days removing bricks from her shelter is one example of the challenges facing Syrian refugees who are racing to avoid the demolition of their homes, World Vision reported this week.

Nahla, aged 40, used a “very small tool” to remove “excess bricks”, the World Vision Lebanon Country Director, Hans Bederski, said this week. “It took her two days, and caused her hands to swell. Her neighbours were unable to help her, as they were rushing to fix their own tents.”

Syrian refugees in Arsal, near the Syrian border, had been given until Sunday to take down any “semi-permanent structures” which involved any construction or brick wall higher than five rows of bricks. Humanitarian agencies warned that the threatened demolition would leave more than 5000 Syrian families, including 15,000 children, homeless.

The Lebanese Armed Forces agreed to extend the deadline, but the pressure remains on families to comply with the order. On Wednesday, Mr Bederski reported that most families had removed half of their walls, while some had had to evacuate their tents altogether.

“Lebanon has been extremely generous in allowing so many refugees into the country, but the government has publicly stated that it does not want formal camps to be established, and these measures have been put in place to ensure this doesn’t happen,” he said. “However, refugees — especially children — must have somewhere safe to sleep at night. . .

“Refugees are, of course, worried about replacing brick walls with wood and sheets. Their primary concern is for when winter arrives, which is usually harsh in Arsal, and accompanied by a lot of rain, snow, and strong winds. Refugees complained that last winter, even with brick walls, rainwater still managed to enter their homes, and roofs could not withstand the snow.”

Arsal alone contains 5682 hard structures made of concrete, and other villages are expected to be affected. Lebanon is host to nearly one million Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR, most of whom have lived in the country for several years.

The deteriorating economic situation in the country, including limited job opportunities, had led to an “increased push from the Lebanese public towards the return of refugees”, Mr Bederski said. “Several conflicts have occurred in the past few months which have led to eviction of refugees from informal tented settlements in some areas, and increased restrictions on refugees regarding their movements in joining public events or going to public spaces.”

It was vital, he said, that refugees were given a choice “whether to stay in Lebanon or return to Syria”.

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