Thousands of Syrian refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley face displacement as a deadline to evacuate their informal tent camps expires on Saturday.
Camp residents within a seven-kilometre radius of the Rayak airbase were given five days to remove their homes following an eviction order delivered orally earlier this week by the army.
The move, reportedly taken for “security” reasons, would represent the largest-ever eviction of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
It would cut a circular swath through one of the most densely inhabited areas of camps in the country, uprooting as many as 11,000 people across at least 92 settlements.
“We’ve been at it since six in the morning, in the rain,” says Alaa’a Turan, as he and his relatives rip piece after piece from the frame of a tent shelter they once built together in the Salaam wa Makhaba camp, on the outskirts of Dalhamiyeh township.
For Turan and his family, this is their third forced displacement since they fled government shelling in Homs five years ago.
“It’s a shame. But if the government tells us to do something, we do it. Nobody knows the reason,” he adds, shaking his head.
Residents were given five days to remove their homes from the premises [Barrett Limoges/Al Jazeera]
Talib Bizzazi, originally a painter from Homs, is the manager of the camp, and lives several tents over from the Turan family.
The Salaam wa Makhaba camp, holding about 75 white-faced tarp tents packed wall-to-wall within a dizzying maze of alleys, is among the luckier settlements contacted.
The army has simply instructed the Turan’s and their neighbours to move 500m away, to a vacant potato field owned by the same landlord.
But for hundreds of Syrian families with just hours remaining on the clock, it’s still unclear where home will be next.
So far, more than 4,000 people have vacate their land since the order was issued earlier this week. Most of them have temporarily moved into other informal camps around a few neighbouring towns, or into smaller urban centres such as Bar Elias, according to data collected by local organisations.
But while local NGOs and aid agencies scramble to pull together resources for the humanitarian fallout of the decision, finding relocation areas that could accommodate the potentially overwhelming number of displaced people has been a tall order.
Unlike in other neighbouring countries such as Jordan and Turkey, Lebanon has no formal refugee camps – a policy stemming from a complex history with Palestinian refugees and worries that a long-term Syrian presence will disrupt the country’s sensitive sectarian balance.
Instead, a sprawling web of smaller informal settlements has been erected across the region on privately-owned land, clinging to the sides of highways, under bridges, and tucked away in the corners of potato fields in the fertile Bekaa Valley.