Concern is growing among hundreds of Yazidis who fled their homes due to the Turkish intrusion of northwestern Syria to neighboring Lebanon, as the religious minority faces a possible forced return by Lebanese authorities.
An estimated 500 Yazidis fled the town of Afrin in early 2018 during the Turkish Operation Olive Branch against the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces. They say they fear being targeted by Islamist militants if they return home.
One of the refugees, Ronahi Hassan Alias, said her family's situation has become increasingly desperate as the political rhetoric grows against Syrian refugees in Lebanon. She worked as a schoolteacher before fleeing Afrin in January 2018 to the government-controlled areas in Aleppo, Syria. The family was displaced again later that year and forced to sleep on the streets and in the fields of Aleppo because the Syrian government failed to help the minority refugees.
“After all what we have been through, now we are threatened of a forced return to Syria. We are afraid because we cannot go back to Afrin and the Syrian government hasn’t offered us any aid,” Alias told VOA.
Alias said the Yazidi families lack basic humanitarian support in Lebanon, despite the country's high living costs. Like thousands of other Syrians in Lebanon, they face legal challenges due to the difficulty of receiving their refugee status paperwork.
“We are completely neglected, and no one is paying attention to our ordeal and what we are going through. We are out of solutions,” she said, adding it is unclear how they will be received even if they return to Syria.
“The men will be taken by the Syrian regime to fight its wars while children and women will be left on the streets,” she added.
Refugees in Lebanon
With an estimated population of just more than 6 million, Lebanon has hosted about 1.6 million Syrian refugees since the outbreak of violence in Syria in 2011, according to United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). The country also hosts a half-million Palestinian refugees.
Lebanese officials complain the large number of refugees has created a serious burden on the economy of their country. They urge the international community to help address the issue by quickly returning the refugees to their home countries or resettling them elsewhere.
Lebanon President Michel Aoun on Thursday warned that his country “would never survive” and “its demographics would change completely” if the Syrian and Palestinian refugees remained in his country with no obvious timeline to return home.
The Lebanese government has announced it may not be able to wait for international action on Syrian refugees any longer and soon may come up with a solution of its own. Lebanese Minister of State for Refugee Affairs Saleh Gharib last month said his ministry would submit a plan to the cabinet in the coming weeks.
According to the Syrian Yazidis Council, a Germany-based advocacy group for the Syrian Yazidi community, international protection is needed to ensure the safe return of the religious minority group to Afrin. In the absence of such a guarantee, the only choice the refugees are left with is relocation to another country.
Hassan Nasser, a representative of the council, said that many Yazidi refugees have applied to be relocated to another country in the hope of starting a new life. But they face numerous challenges, primarily due to lack of support networks to help them through the process.
“Once they file an application with the UNHCR office in Lebanon, they have to wait for an entire year just to get an interview. During this year, they must find a way to survive financially while hiding from Lebanese patrols that arrest undocumented Syrians regardless of their situation, and send them back to Syria,” Nasser told VOA.
Despite the hardships in Lebanon, most Yazidis prefer to stay rather than go back to Syria, where they can be exploited by the Syrian regime or targeted by Islamists, Nasser said.
Violations in Afrin
The predominantly Kurdish town of Afrin was home to about a half-million people, including religious minorities like Yazidis, Christians and Alawites. Many of the minorities have reportedly fled the town to escape persecution.
There is no official data on the number of Yazidis in Afrin, but Kurdish and Yazidi sources estimate their numbers were about 25,000 before Operation Olive Branch.
The town was also home to 300 Christian families, all of whom have left the area and settled in different parts of Syria.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based war monitor, recently reported Turkey has started building a wall in southern Afrin to separate the area from other parts of the Syrian territory. The Observatory has warned against “large-scale violations” committed by militants aligned with Turkey, from looting farmers’ crops to confiscating properties and arbitrarily arresting residents.