BEIRUT: Around 17,000 refugees in the eastern Bekaa Valley have been ordered by the Lebanese Army to vacate their informal camps, according to UNHCR, reportedly in an attempt to prevent infiltrations by militants in the vulnerable border region.
“UNHCR and its partners were made aware that Syrian refugees in informal tented settlements in the areas of Majdal Anjar, Kfar Zabad, and Barr Elias have been issued with notices to evict by the Army,” said Lisa Abou Khaled, an external relations associate at the U.N. Refugee Agency based in the Bekaa Valley.
Around 4,000 people have already left the camps, she said, prompting the U.N. and fellow aid agencies to scramble to get more information about whether anyone has been made homeless by the move. Around 65 sites are believed to be at risk, she added.
“We are now following up with hosting communities and refugees to get more information on those evicted in order to assess their needs and if possible refer the most vulnerable to collective shelters that are ready to receive them,” Abou Khaled said.
“We are extremely worried about their situation, especially in light of the storm coming next week,” she added, referring to forecasts that predict the arrival of another brutal weather system that will herald the return of snow and sub-zero temperatures to the Bekaa Valley.
Of the 1.5 million refugees estimated to be in the country, only around 180,000 live in what UNHCR refers to as informal tented settlements, clusters of makeshift shacks that are built out of tarpaulin sheets, corrugated iron and wood offering little in the way of protection from cold and wet weather. The vast majority of these are in the Bekaa Valley.
Speaking to The Daily Star, a senior Army source confirmed that the military had asked refugees in camps along the border with Syria to relocate.
“The aim of this move is to prevent terrorists from crossing into Lebanon and hiding in these camps,” the source said. He said he did not have an exact figure regarding the number of refugees that had been asked to leave.
For nearly a year, the Army has been waging a war with radical militant groups, including ISIS and the Nusra Front, who are holed up on the Lebanese-Syrian border.
Last August, fighters from both groups temporarily seized control of the border town of Arsal, leading to a five-day battle that resulted in the capture of more than 30 security personnel. Since then, the militants have made a number of attempts to penetrate the border, but have been fought off.