SOUAIRI, Lebanon — 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-regime 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 Bashar al-Assad, countries once eager to see him ousted are now more focused on containing the migrant crisis and defeating ISIS, 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 ISIS 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 regime.
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 regime 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 regime. 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.
“If the Lebanese president would offer me the choice of staying in prison forever here and going back to Syria now, I would choose prison,” said Khaled Khodor, 23, who spent four days in a Lebanese jail for sneaking across the border.
“They didn’t torture me or beat me,” he explained. “It was fine. In Syria, if you’re taken, you’re gone forever.”
Mr. Khodor is wanted by the Syrian authorities because he defected from the Syrian Army in 2012. He had two reasons, he said: his own horror at taking part in shelling the rebellious neighborhood of Baba Amr in the city of Homs and threats from rebels in his hometown.
Mr. Assad has promised amnesty to soldiers who defected. But Mr. Khodor said a cousin of his who believed the offer had been detained in Syria five months ago and had not been heard from since.
The only way he would go back, he said, is if there were international guarantees of his safety. Asked how that would work, he smiled and said: “I don’t know. That’s why I lost hope.”
This camp near the Syrian border is more pleasant than many, without the open sewers or trash heaps that blight many others. About 40 families rent patches of land from Mahmoud Hussein al-Tahan, who said the money was about the same as what he used to make growing eggplants and tomatoes.
Work is scarce, and most families are in debt to Mr. Tahan. A relief worker familiar with the camp said that only a small fraction of the children there were in school, and that parents said Mr. Tahan had made some of them work in his fields.
Mr. Khodor’s tent, which he shares with eight relatives, including his wife and three children, had a television, a stove and a concrete floor. Back home, his house has been destroyed.
“But I don’t care about the house,” he said, adding that if he trusted that his family would be secure, “we could live in a tent like this in Syria.”
Instead, new refugees are still arriving.
Mustafa Selim, 19, fled Syria with his mother and siblings just last fall. Battles had erupted near their house, and one brother had been arrested and forcibly drafted as he was traveling to his university. They do not know if he is still alive.
“The regime is lying when they say it’s safe and secure,” he said. “To survive in Syria, you have to be a soldier. It’s impossible to live as a civilian. And if you go to the army, it’s kill or be killed.”
Some refugees are managing to build new lives. Naumi Qassim, 38, rents a truck and drives from camp to camp selling vegetables and yogurt to those who cannot reach markets. He makes enough money to rent a room within walking distance of a school.
Still, his son, at 9, cannot read, he said. He said he believed that overwhelmed Lebanese schools shunted the worst teachers to the evening shift of classes packed with Syrians.
Mr. Tahan, a gregarious man who sought to portray himself as the refugees’ benefactor, dismissed the idea that they are harming the country’s economy and straining social services. He said the government pushed that view to get more money from the United Nations.
Refugees, he said, benefit the Lebanese, from the generator operators providing them with electricity, to the owners of shops where they spend their United Nations food vouchers, to landowners who benefit from their cheap labor. It is an argument often heard from international organizations, which say the burden of hosting the refugees is largely offset by the economic stimulus they provide, not to mention $1.9 billion in international aid in 2016 alone, the United Nations says.
Mr. Tahan said he expected the Syrians to stay for years, based on his experience in Lebanon’s civil war.
“We had hundreds of Geneva conferences before the war ended, and years later, things are still not good,” he said.
In the camp, the new Geneva round inspired little hope. The refugees said neither the regime nor the opposition negotiators represented them.
New York Times