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Lebanon is home to the most refugees per capita. Now it wants to send some of them back

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Lebanon has the most refugees per capita in the world according to U.N. officials. Most of them are Syrians who fled war in their country a decade ago. Beirut now says those refugees are hurting the country's economy and security, and they've been increasingly deporting Syrians back despite U.N. warnings. NPR's Jane Arraf and Jawad Rizkallah went to Arsal near the Lebanese-Syrian border. Just a warning - there is sound of self-harm in this report.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: The camp in the Beqaa Valley is in sight of snowcapped mountains, but down in the camp, it's dry and bare. It's always windy here, so I'm looking at one of the makeshift tents where they put old tires on the roof to keep the plastic from blowing away. A lot of the tents are made of pieces of wood covered in plastic, old blankets and sheets of metal.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in non-English language).

ARRAF: Refugees aren't allowed to build permanent structures here. Even for tents, they pay rent to the land owner. Cash-strapped aid agencies have decreased even the amount of water they provide.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: On a dirt road nearby, though, a group of boys are happily playing a game with stones and a ball, the only ball they have in the entire neighborhood, they tell us.

(SOUNDBITE OF RATTLE SHAKING)

ARRAF: An older boy holds his baby sister. He's made her a rattle from an old lightbulb with seeds inside. We are not using the children's full names for their safety.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Non-English language spoken).

SAAD: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: When we ask them how they are, some of the boys tell us about getting hit with sticks the day before by a Lebanese man and two teenagers after they went into their field to retrieve the ball.

SAAD: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: "They thought we were stealing vegetables," says Saad.

SAAD: (Non-English language spoken).

MAHMOUD: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: "They hit us every time they see us," says Mahmoud. The boys say they just want to play soccer and go to school.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: I love the school.

ARRAF: You love school? What do you learn?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: English, math, science, Arabic.

ARRAF: These kids go four times a week in the mornings, but most children don't. Their parents can't afford bus fare. In some places, there are no teachers. A lot of Lebanese children are in the same situation.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: (Screaming).

ARRAF: But here, Abdul Hafiz al-Houlani, a teacher and poet, says this is a lost generation.

ABDUL HALIZ AL-HOULANI: (Through interpreter) You don't allow me to work. You don't allow me to travel. Fine. But you don't allow me to learn? Why?

ARRAF: The U.N.'s refugee agency says Lebanon sent back 10,000 Syrian refugees last year. While some volunteered to go, many others did not. The U.N. says returning refugees to a conflict zone violates international law. But Lebanon never signed the Refugee Convention and considers most of the Syrians who fled displaced or economic migrants. That leaves them with no protection and, for the many who were openly opposed to the Syrian regime, in danger of arrest and torture if they're sent back.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PRISONERS: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: This video on social media earlier this year shows four prisoners trying to hang themselves in Lebanon's Roumieh prison after being told they would be deported to Syria. We reached a Syrian inmate in the prison, who said he'd witnessed the scene. He spoke on condition of his name and voice being withheld. He said prison guards had revived the men after cutting them down and sent them across the border.

In another tent, newly rebuilt after a recent fire, Mahmoud Satoof says they're trapped, unable to survive in Syria or live securely in Lebanon.

MAHMOUD SATOOF: It's difficult to live in a place where you are not welcomed, you know, where you feel like you are causing problems and you are damaging the place where you are staying at, and at the same time, you keep, like, living there.

ARRAF: He says he feels bad that refugees are contributing to Lebanon's economic pressure. Satoof was 17 when his family fled the city of Homs. He learned English while studying online.

SATOOF: I developed it through, like, American scholarship by a university called Southern New Hampshire University. I did it in business management, and I graduated last year.

ARRAF: A lot of young Syrians are trying to smuggle themselves to Europe, but he has a family and no money. Despite everything, he still has hope.

SATOOF: My situation as someone who was dreaming of being a famous person and ended up with being a refugee - it's completely a catastrophe for me. But I'm still, like - I'm still working on myself.

ARRAF: He's writing a novel on his phone.

SATOOF: The good thing about being, like - working as an author is that the dream is not over until you are dead.

ARRAF: Here in this neglected corner of Lebanon, just a few hundred feet from Syria, are thousands of people who can't move forward struggling not to be pushed back. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Arsal refugee camp, Lebanon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.