BEIRUT: Several hundred Syrian refugees have been displaced from an informal settlement in the Baalbeck town of Deir al-Ahmar since the imposition Wednesday of severe restrictions on their movements, amid calls for their forcible removal.
Local media gave estimates of around 700 refugees displaced, while the UNHCR provided The Daily Star with an estimate of 385.
Most of the refugees are currently residing in the area surrounding the nearby town of Iaat, leaving more than 100 tents at the Deir al-Ahmar camp vacant.
In a statement, Lisa Abou Khaled, a spokesperson for the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), told The Daily Star that some 71 families, or approximately 385 people, were staying with friends and relatives in other locations. Many interviewed by the UNHCR said they had gone overnight, leaving everything – including personal documents and medicine – behind.
“A number of refugees said that they spent the night in the open before finding a place to stay in the morning,” Abou Khaled said.
The issue was sparked Wednesday, after an attack on Civil Defense firefighters that was reported to have involved men from the settlement. Tense exchanges with locals followed, and the Lebanese Army raided the camp after the incident, arresting 33 Syrian men, according to local media.
An Army spokesperson could not be reached for comment.
One member of Civil Defense was severely injured in the attack, during which the men pummeled the fire engine with rocks, smashing its windshield.
It was widely reported by local and state media that the attack was an apparent response to a delay from Civil Defense in dispatching a team to extinguish a fire inside the camp.
However, Abou Khaled said that refugees told the UNHCR that the Civil Defense vehicle “drove into two tents, one of which sheltered two children, which triggered the residents’ reaction.”
Deir al-Ahmar Mayor Latif Qazah told The Daily Star Thursday that he had asked security forces to remove the specific camp, from which he claimed the men involved in the incident had originated. “We are pressuring them to leave our area. Let them get out of this area and may God be with them,” he said.
Abou Khaled said that the collective punishment of refugees would serve only to worsen the situation.
"It is important that tensions and incitation to violence are controlled to ensure a peaceful environment for both communities. A collective punishment of Syrian refugees in Lebanon will further escalate the situation,” the statement said.
Local media reported that the refugees were asking for a grace period during which they could find new land to pitch their tents. But a number of local municipalities Wednesday issued a statement calling for refugees not to be allowed to return to the settlement because of “the incident,” citing security needs of both the towns and their residents amid “public anger” over the day’s events.
“It is important that the refugees who evacuated from the site are allowed to return to collect their belongings from their tents,” Abou Khaled said.
Baalbeck-Hermel Gov. Bashir Khodr Wednesday issued a decision banning all movement of Syrian refugees in the area. A statement announcing the decision said it aimed to “protect the security of the townspeople and Syrian brothers alike” due to the “great anger gripping the youths of the town,” and to “avoid any problems that may occur between the parties.”
“[After the incident] they were going to go burn down the camp,” Qazah said, referring to inhabitants of his town. “To prevent this from getting out of hand, we called the governor and security forces, and he [the governor] made the decision to ban their movement till Friday morning.”
Deir al-Ahmar is the second town to have a ban on Syrians publicized in recent weeks. Last month, a banner prohibiting the movement of “foreign workers” – often used as a substitute for Syrian refugees – caused an outcry after being prominently draped over a main road in the resort town of Faraya.
It read: “Foreign workers and their families are forbidden from loitering or being present on Faraya’s main road day or night.”