BEIRUT – Syrians from the border town Tell Khalakh have been fleeing a wave of violence over recent weeks to cross into neighboring Lebanon. But those seeking refuge now face an uncertain fate.
Syrian territory lies only a few hundred meters from the Wadi Khaled area in Lebanon, home to 17 villages scattered close to the Kabir River which runs along the border.
"Naturally, we are happy to take them into our homes, but I fear that in a few weeks we will have a real humanitarian problem on our hands," Mahmoud Khazaal, former mayor of the Bayouk village tells IPS.
Syrian pro-democracy protests, which started over two months ago, have drawn fierce response from the government headed by President Bashar Assad, whose family has been in power for more than 30 years.
Since the conflict hit Tell Khalakh, some 5,000 people have escaped to Lebanon, Khazaal estimates. As a result, the small population of 1,400 in Bayouk now hosts some 600 people from 120 Syrian families.
"The number of refugees is certainly higher, with many who have moved to Tripoli in Lebanon’s north still unaccounted for," Khaled Daher, MP for the Northern region of Lebanon told IPS.
Debaybiyeh and other villages around, located 20 kilometers from Tripoli and near the Syrian town Halat, are hosting about 400 Syrian families.
"The region simply does not have the means or capacity to tackle to the needs of so many people," says Khazaal.
North Lebanon is poor; according to a UNDP study about 17 percent of the people there live in extreme poverty. The former mayor complains that aid has been coming in only for a few days and in very small quantities.
"The Ministry of Social Works is providing food portions for a family of ten that will only feed two people. We need more."
Last week, caretaker social affairs minister Salim Sayegh declared that the ministry was mapping out the possibilities of accommodating a larger numbers of refugees, adding that schools and other municipal buildings in the north were being considered as locations.
"We are already facing sanitation problems due to the large number of refugees, with homes inhabited by dozens of people at a time," says Khazaal. "In addition, many refugees have serious medical conditions and the closest clinic is 40 kilometers away."
The scorching hot summer season ahead will only worsen the plight of the refugees, says Daher.
For the Syrians who have found refuge in the village, declining living conditions are far from being a priority.
Souad, a woman in her thirties, crossed the Kabir River on foot with three children. "We were targeted by snipers and my mother was shot in the arm. She is now at a Lebanese hospital," she told IPS on phone from her village.
Others, such as Mohamad, talk about the dead that have been left lying in the streets of the village, and of the neighborhoods that are constantly being bombed.
Refugees speak of masked men dressed in black fighting along soldiers, people they call "shabiha."
"The members of the army’s fourth regiment have sent armed Alawites from surrounding villages to attack our homes," adds Souad. "We can’t go back."
Refugee accounts are difficult to verify independently as Syrian authorities have banned all foreign journalists from the country.
Another problem that refugees face is their uncertain legal status in Lebanon. Some have been detained by Lebanese authorities. Human Rights Watch (HRW) says Lebanon’s security forces have arrested nine Syrian men and one child since May 15, allegedly for crossing illegally into Lebanon.
"I know of 15 cases of refugees being detained. Many are injured refugees who are now guarded by Lebanese security forces at hospital," says Daher.
The Lebanese army, which has beefed up its presence on the borders, has said that it has arrested three Syrian soldiers considered deserters, while turning a blind eye to the influx of illegal refugees.
"We do not believe that women and children are a security threat, but deserters are a different matter," says a military source. "We had to hand the soldiers back to Syria because they do not qualify for refugee status as per the agreements existing between the two countries. We do not want to be perceived as interfering in Syrian internal affairs."