For some young men among the more than 300,000 registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon’s eastern Beqaa Valley, sleeping outside feels like the safest option amid an ongoing wave of deportations to Syria, where a 12-year war rattles on and returnees fear government reprisals.
Ali, a 38-year-old Syrian refugee, spends his nights out in the open on the outskirts of the Beqaa Valley town where his family has a tent in one of the clutch of informal camps, which offer little protection from the harsh winter conditions.
Like all those The New Humanitarian spoke to for this story, he asked that his real name not be published for security reasons. Having first fled Syria’s war for Lebanon in the early years of the conflict, he said he was sent back across the border after Lebanese armed forces raided the camp where his family lives in September 2023. He managed to make his way back to Lebanon in December.
Since then, Ali has been spending his nights outside, in a different location each night. When The New Humanitarian sat with him, he planned to sleep on a riverbank, picking plants for a small fire to keep warm, wrapping himself up in just his coat. He sees this as the only way he can protect himself from deportation and a tightening of restrictions on refugees that Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International say began around April 2023.
Lebanon has the highest number of refugees per capita in the world – one in four – including an estimated 1.5 million Syrians. Exact numbers are unknown because the government stopped allowing the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, to register new arrivals in 2015.
In July, Human Rights Watch described the wave of deportations, which impacts Syrians across the country — believed to include thousands of people, including minors — as the “most severe” since Syria’s war began in 2011. There has been little media attention since, but refugees say they are ongoing.
“Raids are continuing under the radar. In fact, they have increased in the last few months,” a source at an international aid group, who asked to remain anonymous because they did not want to jeopardise their ability to work in the camps, told The New Humanitarian.
For Ali, this means eking out an existence as far from his family as he can manage, hoping not to be sent back to Syria again. “Everyone deserves to have a better life than this,” he said, moving his hands towards the fire.
Lebanon has never allowed official camps for Syrian refugees. Access restrictions make it difficult to get to the informal camps where many Syrians live, and The New Humanitarian found refugees were extremely afraid of speaking to the media, often expressing concern that journalists were members of the security services, making it difficult to accurately document the continuing trend with reliable numbers.
Lebanon’s Ministry of Interior did not respond to requests for comment on the deportations, nor did representatives of the Lebanese Armed Forces.
‘I was sleeping when they came’
Ali said Lebanese soldiers arrived at his family’s settlement late one night last September.
“I was sleeping when they came,” he recalled, sitting near his wife in her tent (he is less fearful of raids during the daytime). “They pointed a gun at my head and told me to get in the car. My children were crying because they were terrified.”
Ali said he was taken to the border and handed over to Syrian security forces, where his worst fears turned into reality. He spent two and half months in prison, where he says he was tortured.
While The New Humanitarian could not independently verify his allegations, Amnesty International and others have documented the torture of returnees in Syria.
‘’The soldiers inside the prison were cursing us, throwing excrement at us, and repeatedly beat us before they put me in solitary confinement. I couldn’t tell whether it was day or night. I only got one loaf of bread to eat every two days or so,’’ Ali said, adding that one of his torturers cut his arm with a knife, and the wound was left open for several days.
‘’They threw a needle and a string at me. I had to suture the wound by myself,” he said, as his wife nodded her head beside him.
Mohammed, another 38-year-old Syrian refugee, said he was also tortured in Syria. He was arrested inside Syria in August 2023 for avoiding military conscription. He had left Lebanon of his own volition as he sought to cross Syria to reach Türkiye and, eventually, Europe.
“[Soldiers] stubbed out cigarettes against my back, my head, and my legs. They kept me in underwear for the whole time,” he told The New Humanitarian. ‘’They broke one of my bones, and they kept hitting me with a shoe in the wound.”
Both men said they were forced to join the Syrian military after being released from prison but bribed officers so they could flee, crossing illegally back into Lebanon — in December and October, respectively — to reunite with their families in the Beqaa Valley.
Like Ali, Mohammed was also spending his nights away from his wife and children. Despite the freezing cold, on that night he considered the forest to be his safest option.
Increasing restrictions, and growing anti-refugee rhetoric
When reports of a new wave of deportations first emerged in April 2023, the army told Human Rights Watch it was implementing an April 2019 decision to deport Syrians who had entered “irregularly”, and that raids were based on credible security threats.
In July 2022, Lebanon’s Minister of the Displaced had announced a plan to force 15,000 refugees back to Syria. While this has not come to pass, deportations are ongoing, anti-refugee rhetoric has become common, and over the 12 years of Syria’s war, national and local authorities have made it harder for refugees to move freely and work legally.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati has said that Syrian refugees “could create harsh imbalances that could affect Lebanon’s demographic balance”. Other anti-refugee rhetoric blames refugees, incorrectly, for Lebanon’s economic collapse, which has thrown most of the country into poverty.
The deportations and general atmosphere of fear are not the only things making life increasingly difficult for Lebanon’s Syrian refugee community.
In addition to the army’s destruction and confiscation of infrastructure in informal camps, some municipalities have imposed new restrictions on the movement of refugees (although other curfews and discriminatory measures date back years), as well as new rules that make it harder to rent housing.
The Lebanese government “wants to create an environment in which Syrians won’t have any other option but to leave”, the source at the international aid group said. “It doesn’t want any permanent infrastructure in the camps.’’
Leila, a 40-year-old mother of seven who lives in the Beqaa Valley, said that despite the fact that she is a registered refugee – in Lebanon legally – it has become increasingly difficult to find work. “The laws are very restrictive about where we can go, buy, and work,” she said. “I used to work [as a farmhand], but I can’t travel [to look for work].
The need for this employment is even greater amidst Lebanon’s economic crisis and shortfalls in aid funding: In 2023, the UN asked for $5.86 billion to support Syrian refugees and host communities in the region. It received only 14.6% of this money, and aid programmes have been cut since.
Hitting some families hard is the fact that more men — often the family’s wage earners — are being deported to Syria. Leila’s own husband died two years ago, and the only one of her children of working age is currently hiding from the army. He looks after someone’s property, far from the camp where she lives, in exchange for some measure of safety.
‘’It has been two months since my son went to the mountains to hide from the army,’’ Laila said. ‘’When we hear cars at night, we are terrified. We cannot sleep at night. It is only after dawn that we feel comfortable enough to sleep.’’
‘We will come back’
Myriam, a 38-year-old Syrian refugee and women’s rights advocate who has been in Lebanon for nearly a decade, described the atmosphere of fear caused by the raids.
“They enter the tents to remove our men and seize our solar panels and internet routers,’’ she said, nervously double-checking that nobody was listening in, concerned about surveillance even at home. ‘’The army closely monitors everything entering or leaving the camp — food, fuel, supplies, and even gifts for our relatives are strictly regulated.”
Myriam and her husband ended up leaving their informal camp because of the raids. They found somewhere to rent but are having to use their savings to make ends meet. Rent costs $100 per month, and her husband only earns $20 per week at the plastics factory where he works. UN food aid helps them get by.
Despite the desperation in Lebanon, she said that going back to Syria, where the conflict is far from over, is unthinkable. “We will stay here no matter how hard things get,” Myriam said. “Even if we get deported, we will come back illegally.”
Additional reporting was provided by a Lebanese journalist whose name is being withheld due to security concerns. Edited by Annie Slemrod.