Lebanon relaxes refugee-residency rules, but many Syrians remain excluded

Lebanon relaxes refugee-residency rules, but many Syrians remain excluded
Hundreds of thousands of refugees will be marginalised and left vulnerable to radicalisation, potentially threatening Lebanon's stability and security, experts have warned.
5 min read
28 February, 2017
Syria's refugee crisis disproportionately affects children [AFP]

Back in January, Osman Haco was a man consumed with worry, his dark eyebrows frozen in a permanent arch.

When he wasn't working as a blacksmith, he spent all his time in his tiny one-room apartment, the walls stained by grubby finger-marks. Turning his dark blue Syrian passport over in his hands, he explained how he was afraid to go outside - worried he would be asked to show his papers at the red and white military checkpoints that scatter Beirut.

His papers had expired. He was in Lebanon illegally because he couldn't afford to pay the $200 annual fee to renew his residency.

He wasn't alone. The Lebanon Crisis Response Plan, published in January 2017, estimated that 60 percent of displaced Syrians do not have valid residency permits.

Haco couldn't shake the thought of deportation. He was anxious that if his family was sent back to Syria, his eldest son - soon to be 14 - would be dragged into the fighting.

"We came here to have a more comfortable life, but we're not getting that because of legal documents," he told The New Arab. "I want to emigrate, I want to feel like I'm living."

But two weeks ago, relief for families like Haco's came in the form of an announcement made by Lebanon’s security agency. A new policy means residency fees will be waived for refugees registered with the UN's refugee agency before January 1 2015. Rights groups have been calling for residency fees to be waived since their introduction.

This is a major development that will have real consequences for the ability of many refugees to move freely

While a residency permit does not entitle refugees to work - although many take informal jobs - Syrians like Haco, will now be able to move around freely, without fear of arrest.

"This is a major development that will have real consequences for the ability of many refugees to move freely," says Bassam Khawaja, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch.

"At the same time, this fee waiver excludes large numbers of refugees - including the estimated 500,000 people here who have not registered with UNHCR."  

Syrians might not be registered with UNHCR for a variety of reasons. A 2016 assessment of single Syrian men in Lebanon by the International Rescue Committee found that 30 percent did not believe they were eligible, while 20 percent could not access registration centres.

Syrians who arrived in the country after May 6, 2015, were not able to register with UNHCR - the agency suspended registration following orders from the Lebanese government.

Unregistered refugees have limited choices. They must pay the $200 annual fee and provide a "pledge of responsibility" - signed either by a Lebanese national or by "a registered entity", such as a company. 

But seeking out sponsorship comes with its own problems - and costs. Lisa Abou Khaled, a Beirut-based spokesperson for UNHCR said: "UNHCR has received reports that Syrians have been requested to pay a fee to their sponsor to obtain a sponsorship, ranging from $200-1,000. Such a fee is not provided for in the law but is an arbitrary decision by sponsors. The illegal situation of the majority of refugees exposes them to exploitation."

Living illegally in Lebanon pushes refugees underground. Daily life becomes harder; they struggle to access healthcare or education. Limited freedom of movement has a negative impact on children too, says a report by Human Rights Watch.

Children are less likely to be stopped at checkpoints - so when adults can't move around freely, some send their children to work. Refugees also become vulnerable to abuse by employers or landlords; too afraid to go to the authorities for fear of deportation.

This stigmatisation and discriminatory treatment have fuelled resentment and a feeling of injustice among refugees

Experts say pushing refugees into such difficult and desperate positions threatens the country's stability. International Crisis Group has warned against the way Lebanon focuses on refugees as a security threat, responding with arrests and raids on refugee settlements.

"This stigmatisation and discriminatory treatment have fuelled resentment and a feeling of injustice among refugees," says Crisis Group's Lebanon analyst, Sahar Atrache.

"Pushing Syrians into the corner, infringing on their dignity, exacerbating their feelings of exclusion and not respecting their rights play in the hands of extremists. Extremism feeds best on feelings of anger, abandonment and injustice, sentiments that are now widespread among refugees."

Atrache says Lebanon should learn "the dangerous consequence of marginalising specific groups" from the history of Lebanese-Palestinian relations. She points to a 2009 report by Crisis Group that links social exclusion to militancy within Palestinian refugee camps, saying that the country's marginalised Palestinian population played a "central role" in Lebanon's civil war in the 1970s.

Richard Cincotta, director of the Global Political Demography Program at Washington-based think-tank The Stimson Center, agrees with Atrache's warning.

"In the long-term, if young Syrians grow up in such separate conditions, their identity will be one that is much more like the Palestinian refugees," he says. "There will be an abundance of refugee young adults in the years to come - a youth bulge, as some call it - and unless they are integrated and employed, they may be more easily radicalised."

While Haco, and other registered refugees, will find relief in the relaxation of residency rules, many others continue to be shut out from state support, living in Lebanon's shadows - where resentment is growing.

Names of refugees have been changed to protect identities

Morgan Meaker is a journalist specialising in human rights. Follow her on Twitter: @MorganMeaker