Refugees in Lebanon say they face financial punishment, interrogation, and detention if they return to Syria — but have to cope with harassment and loss of their property if they do not.
Freelance journalist Sulome Anderson tells the story after two days interviewing inhabitants of camps near the Lebanese town of Arsal, close to the Syrian border. About 800 refugees — out of almost 1 million registered in Lebanon — recently returned to Syria, but many others remain in uncertainty between the camp conditions and the risks at home.
Around 800 refugees were recently returned to Syria from Arsal, a town in Lebanon near the Syrian border currently hosting over 50,000 refugees. These are photos I took when the refugees gathered for the journey to be returned. pic.twitter.com/XGlNrsrLfZ
— Sulome Anderson (@SulomeAnderson) July 10, 2018
Anderson sets the context that the UN refugee agency UNHCR is cutting funds for refugees, so countries such as Jordan and Lebanon are seeking to send them back across the border. The Assad regime is also putting out the public line that, after its Russian-enabled offensive taking much of Daraa Province near the Jordanian border, it is welcoming back the displaced.
The refugees speak of “horrific” conditions and harassment and persecution by local residents. They say a 15-year-old intellectually disabled boy was doused with gasoline and electrocuted to death.
But the Assad regime demands that returnees are questioned by intelligence personnel. Camp residents say that many are being imprisoned and tortured, and that Lebanon’s Hezbollah, an essential ally of the regime, is involved in processed. Those who are not confined are taken to their local areas to pay fees for all utilities they would have used during their years of absence. They are monitored and confined to their areas for six months without being allowed through checkpoints.
The refugees also must register in an attempt to reclaim their homes, if they have not been destroyed. In April, the regime passed Law 10, which demanded all displaced Syrians must make the claims within 30 days or risk losing forfeit of property.
According to those in Arsal, some returnees have found relatives who will accommodate them, but others have disappeared into prisons or are under threat from the pro-Assad local militias of the “shabiha”.
A 36-year-old man with a wife and 3 daughters says he has put his family on the waiting list for the next group of returns, even though he will be immediately conscripted into the regime army:
We are very desperate. Because we fled our country, [the regime] will probably put us right at the front of the battle. But I would prefer war to living here in Lebanon. I’d willingly die to keep what’s left of my pride.
Life-or-Death Stories That Go Untold
Anderson notes that, despite the crisis for Syria’s refugees, stories are likely never to be heard.
She explains that an editor ask for “pre-reporting” before commissioning an article for publication. Anderson tooks on the risks of going to an area which had an Islamic State presence and where kidnapping is prevalent.
When the journalist presented the interviews she had gathered, the editor say that she was sorry but the outlet could not publish. Anderson, with no compensation for her effort, was greeted with “crickets” from other editors whom she approached.
I’m tired of fighting so hard to do an important job I love and know I’m good at. This was the last straw. I now intend to give up being a freelance foreign correspondent, move back to the States and focus completely on writing my second book, which is on radicalism in America.
I’m one of many journalists i know who have made the same decision in recent years. It has become completely unsustainable for my mental health to continue doing this job. The end result is that countless important, life-or-death stories like this will go untold.