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Two-minute exodus: Syrian refugees uprooted for Lebanese 'security'

Thousands of refugees have been evicted from camps near a military airport. For all the turmoil, many have moved just a few hundred yards
The new camp, 82, lies less than a kilometre from the original (MEE/Chloe Domat)

RAYAK, Lebanon - Two weeks ago, Dahlamiye 067 was an informal Syrian settlement of 105 tented households. Today it is gone, and the land is ready to be farmed again. Tamer Ishtawi, a Syrian refugee from Homs, checks he has left nothing behind.

"The Lebanese army came and said we had to leave because we were too close to a military base," he says. For several days he and some of his neighbours went in search of a new place to settle.

"We came by a first spot but it was still too close to the army. Then, we found another plot but it is too small," he says.

Nobody cares about us

- Abou Ahmad, Syrian refugee

"We were only able to raise 70 tents there. Here, we had a hundred. We are packed. Because of this, some people had to settle somewhere else.

"Others have been looking for weeks but they still haven't found a new home."

The evictions took place without violence but for these refugees who are already vulnerable, relocating to a new camp is a challenge.  

Only a couple of minutes away by car lies Dahlamiye 082, the new settlement. About 700 people from 067 moved there two weeks ago, and the camp is still work in progress.

Its alleys are filled with rubble, and most tents still need basic components such as plastic sheets, concrete flooring or wood boards.

Heavy machinery stands idle after demolishing Dahlamiye 067 (MEE/Chloe Domat)

"We brought down our tents, put everything we had in pickups and came here. I am restless now because I am scared it will happen again," says Mohammad Turki, a 43-year-old Syrian refugee from Deir Ezzor.

The pickup drivers asked for about $30 to handle the few hundred yards journey from the old camp.

For Mohammad and his neighbours it was a huge sum: infrequent farm work brings the odd dollar, and they have no other way of earning. 

The army told us to leave so we came here. I took nothing with me. I have nothing anyway.

- Syrian refugee, camp 082

"Nobody cares about us. We don't even have enough wood boards and water tanks for everyone," says a neighbour, Abou Ahmad, while trying to fix his new home where he lives with his wife and seven children. 

Next door to him, a 36-year-old widow also from Deir Ezzor just settled in with her eight children. 

"How do you want me to feel? I have no one to help me. My husband is dead and my children are too young," she says.

She points out to the empty room that is now her home. Her only belonging is a fuel stove she received from an NGO four years ago.

"The army told us to leave so we came here. I took nothing with me. I have nothing anyway."

Abou Ahmad (MEE/Chloe Domat)

The Lebanese army declined to answer questions on the matter.

The Lebanese army started giving out oral evictions notices early in April. What appears to be the concern is the proximity to the Rayak military base and airport.

Contrary to other countries such as Turkey or Jordan, Lebanon doesn't host formal refugee camps.

'Where would we go? Syrians fear eviction from Lebanon camps
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This specific policy is rooted in the country's recent history with Palestinian refugees and is supposed to prevent a long-term Syrian presence. 

Refugees settle on private land and form what the government refers to as "informal settlements".

There are more than 3,000 of these in the Bekaa valley but in October Lebanon passed a new law prohibiting any new settlements. What happens to the new camps built after the evictions remains to be seen.

The new camp at Dahlamiye 082 (MEE.Chloe Domat)

"The army has issued eviction notices to more than 10,000 refugees in the Bekaa, without a clear plan for where they will go," says Lamia Fakih, the deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

"Refugees here are living in fear of losing their homes."

So far, 1,800 households living within a 6km to 9km radius from the Rayak military airport were asked to leave.

This is the first massive eviction plan we have witnessed in Lebanon

- Reine Hanna, Medair

According to NGO Medair, which specialises in mapping informal settlements, several thousand refugees live in the eviction zones.

"If we consider a 6km area, then we are talking about 379 settlements or 17,917 individuals. If we expand to 9km, we are talking 717 settlements, or 39,630 people," says Reine Hanna, a Medair manager.

"This is the first massive eviction plan we have witnessed in Lebanon, and the issue is that it is not clear where they can go."

Animals graze outside the boundary fence of Rayak military airport (MEE/Chloe Domat)

The Rayak airbase

Built by Germany during the first world war, the Rayak airbase was then under the French Mandate's control before it was transferred to the Lebanese army. 

After having being left quasi-abandoned for decades, the base has recently regained strategic importance with the conflict in neighbouring Syria.

It is also the closest airport to the town of Arsal where the Islamic State has been holding nine Lebanese soldiers captive since 2014.  

In the village of Rayak, the decision to drive Syrians away from the airport doesn't cause much of a stir.  

"The Lebanese army asked Syrians to leave for security reasons and this decision leaves us indifferent," says a member of the local council. 

Lebanese forces and foreigners armies are using the base

- Rayak resident

"The airport is recently more active. Lebanese forces and foreigners' armies are using the base," says a resident, who asked to remain anonymous. 

"It is better for our security if the refugees stay away. Syrians create problems.

"A lot of them came to the country illegally, we don't know who they are and we don't know what they can do."  

The timeframe for the end of the evictions is still unclear.

For the NGOs, there is a risk that this decision could create a precedent allowing other displacements.

Social workers also fear that increased pressure on Syrian refugees could push some people to go back to Syria. 

"We really want to be sure that the evictions are not used as a backdoor to forced returns to Syria," said Mike Bruce, a spokesman for the Norwegian Refugee Council in an interview with Reuters.

Hundreds of families used to live here in Dahlamiye 067 (MEE/Chloe Domat)

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