The New York Times reports: In the makeshift tent settlements that dot fields and villages in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, Syrian refugees are digging in, pouring concrete floors, installing underground sewerage and electric wires, and starting businesses and families.
What they are not doing is packing up en masse to leave, despite exhortations from Syrian and Lebanese officials, who have declared that safety and security are on the march in neighboring Syria and that it is time for refugees to go home.
But as a new round of peace talks convened Thursday in Geneva, Syrians interviewed at a randomly selected camp in the Bekaa Valley this week offered a unanimous reality check. Their old homes are either destroyed or unsafe, they fear arrest by security forces and they know that despite recent victories by pro-government forces, the fighting and bombing are far from over. They are not going anywhere.
About 1.5 million Syrians have sought refuge in Lebanon, making up about a quarter of the population, according to officials and relief groups, and there is a widely held belief in Lebanon that refugees are a burden on the country’s economy and social structure.
Nearly six years into a war that began with a security crackdown on protests against President Bashar al-Assad, countries once eager to see him ousted are now more focused on containing the migrant crisis and defeating the Islamic State, and are willing to consider a settlement that allows Mr. Assad to remain in power.
That leaves many governments invested in vague hopes that such a settlement, however rickety or superficial, will somehow stop the metastasis of the Syrian crisis and ease fears of Islamic State terrorism — often conflated with concerns about ordinary Syrian refugees — that have fueled the rise of right-wing politicians.
And it gives many countries a strong stake in declaring Syria safe for return, even without resolving the political issues that started the conflict, including human rights abuses by the Syrian government.
Mr. Assad, Syrian officials and their allies in Lebanon are reading that mood. The Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has called for the return of migrants, and Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun, has called on global powers to facilitate it.
But in a tent settlement in the village of Souairi, Syrians made clear that neither a fig-leaf deal nor an outright government victory would send many of them home.
Every family interviewed had at least one member who had disappeared after being arrested or forcibly drafted by the government. The refugees said they cared less about whether Mr. Assad stayed or went than about reforms of the security system. Without an end to torture, disappearances and arbitrary arrests, they said, they would remain wary of going back.
Virtually all said that they dreamed of going back, but that it was increasingly a dream for the next generation. [Continue reading…]