By Heba Kanso
BEIRUT, April 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Lebanon's army has ordered evictions that could threaten the homes of 10,000 Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley, the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, said on Monday.
The U.N. agency said the Lebanese armed forces informed refugees living in informal settlements close to Rayak Air Base - a military airport in the Bekaa Valley - around the end of March that they would have to relocate due to security reasons.
"Many of the families have invested in their tents in the area. For some they have been living there for years now," Dana Sleiman, spokeswoman for UNHCR in Lebanon, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
Refugees who fled the six-year-long conflict in neighbouring Syria make up a quarter of Lebanon's population, and most live in severe poverty in makeshift camps across the country as the government opposes the creation of formal ones.
The fertile Bekaa Valley is home to more than 300,000 refugees living in flimsy tents often covered with plastic and canvas.
Sleiman said a number of families have already moved to nearby plots of land within the Bekaa after being given verbal notice to leave. The eviction would affect children's schooling and refugees' ability to access other services, she said.
So far there is no designated place where the refugees will be able relocate to, and organizations like Human Rights Watch (HRW) have been critical of the order by the Lebanese army.
"As Lebanese leaders in Brussels tout Lebanon's humanitarian achievements and call for more aid, refugees here are living in fear of losing their homes," Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
Fakih was referring to Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri's attendance at a conference on Syria in Brussels last week.
Before heading to Brussels, Hariri said Lebanon was close to "breaking point" due to the strains of hosting 1.5 million Syrian refugees, and he feared unrest could spiral from tensions between them and Lebanese communities.
The U.N. refugee agency said so far there had been no violence or forced evictions in the Bekaa Valley. But HRW said it was concerned about the estimated 60 to 70 percent of Syrian refugees who don't have Lebanese residency.
"When these evictions take place we are concerned that the army will detain those without legal status," Bassam Khawaja, Lebanon researcher at HRW told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Aid agency the Norwegian Refugee Council said it was not clear where the refugees would go.
"We really want to be sure that the evictions are not used as a backdoor to forced returns to Syria," Mike Bruce, a spokesman for the Norwegian Refugee Council, said by phone.
The Lebanese Armed Forces could not be reached for comment and has made no statement on the evictions.
(Reporting by Heba Kanso @hebakanso, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)