Syrians in Lebanon Fear Unprecedented Restrictions, Deportations 

A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)
A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)
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Syrians in Lebanon Fear Unprecedented Restrictions, Deportations 

A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)
A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)

The soldiers came before daybreak, singling out the Syrian men without residence permits from the tattered camp in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. As toddlers wailed around them, Mona, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon for a decade, watched Lebanese troops shuffle her brother onto a truck headed for the Syrian border.

Thirteen years since Syria's conflict broke out, Lebanon remains home to the largest refugee population per capita in the world: roughly 1.5 million Syrians - half of whom are refugees formally registered with the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR - in a country of approximately 4 million Lebanese.

They are among some five million Syrian refugees who spilled out of Syria into neighboring countries, while millions more are displaced within Syria. Donor countries in Brussels this week pledged fewer funds in Syria aid than last year.

With Lebanon struggling to cope with an economic meltdown that has crushed livelihoods and most public services, its chronically underfunded security forces and typically divided politicians now agree on one thing: Syrians must be sent home.

Employers have been urged to stop hiring Syrians for menial jobs. Municipalities have issued new curfews and have even evicted Syrian tenants, two humanitarian sources told Reuters. At least one township in northern Lebanon has shuttered an informal camp, sending Syrians scattering, the sources said.

Lebanese security forces issued a new directive this month shrinking the number of categories through which Syrians can apply for residency - frightening many who would no longer qualify for legal status and now face possible deportation.

Lebanon has organized voluntary returns for Syrians, through which 300 travelled home in May. But more than 400 have also been summarily deported by the Lebanese army, two humanitarian sources told Reuters, caught in camp raids or at checkpoints set up to identify Syrians without legal residency.

They are automatically driven across the border, refugees and humanitarian workers say, fueling concerns about rights violations, forced military conscription or arbitrary detention.

Mona, who asked to change her name in fear of Lebanese authorities, said her brother was told to register with Syria's army reserves upon his entry. Fearing a similar fate, the rest of the camp's men no longer venture out.

"None of the men can pick up their kids from school, or go to the market to get things for the house. They can't go to any government institutions, or hospital, or court," Mona said.

She must now care for her brother's children, who were not deported, through an informal job she has at a nearby factory. She works at night to evade checkpoints along her commute.

A sign that reads "The return of the displaced is a right and a duty", is placed along a highway in Jounieh, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)

'WRONG & NOT SUSTAINABLE'

Lebanon has deported refugees in the past, and political parties have long insisted parts of Syria are safe enough for large-scale refugee returns.

But in April, the killing of a local Lebanese party official blamed on Syrians touched off a concentrated campaign of anti-refugee sentiment.

Hate speech flourished online, with more than 50% of the online conversation about refugees in Lebanon focused on deporting them and another 20% referring to Syrians as an "existential threat," said Lebanese research firm InflueAnswers.

The tensions have extended to international institutions. Lebanon's foreign minister has pressured UNHCR's representative to rescind a request to halt the new restrictions and lawmakers slammed a one billion euro aid package from the European Union as a "bribe" to keep hosting refugees.

"This money that the EU is sending to the Syrians, let them send it to Syria," said Roy Hadchiti, a media representative for the Free Patriotic Movement, speaking at an anti-refugee rally organized by the conservative Christian party.

He, like a growing number of Lebanese, complained that Syrian refugees received more aid than desperate Lebanese. "Go see them in the camps - they have solar panels, while Lebanese can't even afford a private generator subscription," he said.

The UN still considers Syria unsafe for large-scale returns and said rising anti-refugee rhetoric is alarming.

"I am very concerned because it can result in... forced returns, which are both wrong and not sustainable," UNHCR head Filippo Grandi told Reuters.

"I understand the frustrations in host countries - but please don't fuel it further."

Zeina, a Syrian refugee who also asked her name be changed, said her husband's deportation last month left her with no work or legal status in an increasingly hostile Lebanese town.

Returning has its own dangers: her children were born in Lebanon and do not have Syrian ID cards, and her home in Homs province remains in ruins since a 2012 government strike that forced her to flee.

"Even now, when I think of those days, and I think of my parents or anyone else going back, they can't. The house is flattened. What kind of return is that?" she said.



UN: More than Half of Cropland in Hungry Gaza is Damaged

A crop duster plane flies over a field, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, near the Israel-Gaza border, Israel, February 19, 2024.REUTERS/Susana Vera/File Photo Purchase Licensing Rights
A crop duster plane flies over a field, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, near the Israel-Gaza border, Israel, February 19, 2024.REUTERS/Susana Vera/File Photo Purchase Licensing Rights
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UN: More than Half of Cropland in Hungry Gaza is Damaged

A crop duster plane flies over a field, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, near the Israel-Gaza border, Israel, February 19, 2024.REUTERS/Susana Vera/File Photo Purchase Licensing Rights
A crop duster plane flies over a field, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, near the Israel-Gaza border, Israel, February 19, 2024.REUTERS/Susana Vera/File Photo Purchase Licensing Rights

More than half of Gaza's agricultural land, crucial for feeding the war-ravaged territory's hungry population, has been degraded by conflict, satellite images analysed by the United Nations show.

The data reveals a rise in the destruction of orchards, field crops and vegetables in the Palestinian enclave, where hunger is widespread after eight months of Israeli bombardment.

The World Health Organisation warned on Wednesday that many people in Gaza were facing "catastrophic hunger and famine-like conditions".

Using satellite imagery taken between May 2017 and 2024, United Nations Satellite Centre (UNOSAT) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found that 57% of Gaza's permanent crop fields and arable lands essential for food security had shown a significant decline in density and health, Reuters reported.

"In May 2024, crop health and density across the Gaza Strip showed a marked decline compared to the average of the previous seven seasons," UNOSAT said on Thursday.

"This deterioration is attributed to conflict-related activities, including razing, heavy vehicle movement, bombing, and shelling."

The decline, UNOSAT said, marked a 30% increase in damaged agricultural land since it published its last analysis in April.

Israel's ground and air campaign was triggered when Hamas stormed southern Israel on Oct. 7.

The offensive has killed more than 37,000 people in Gaza, according to health authorities in the Hamas-run enclave, and has caused mass destruction and cut off routes for aid.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Wednesday there were more than 8,000 children under five years old in Gaza who had been treated for acute malnutrition.

As well as damage to crop fields and orchards, greenhouses across the Gaza Strip had also sustained significant damage, UNOSAT said.

The Gaza Strip has an estimated 151 square kilometres of agricultural land, which makes up about 41% of the coastal enclave's territory, according to data from UNOSAT.