Refugees: No rest for the weary

Syr­ian refugees are sub­jected to in­creas­ingly tight con­trols in Le­banon

Executive Magazine - - Contents - By Maya Ge­beily

Af­ter decades of a rel­a­tively open bor­der pol­icy with its eastern neigh­bor, the be­gin­ning of 2015 saw Le­banon take un­prece­dented steps to mon­i­tor the en­try and res­i­dency of Syr­ian na­tion­als. Spear­headed by the min­istries of in­te­rior and so­cial af­fairs, the poli­cies are an at­tempt to reg­u­late the nearly 1.2 mil­lion Syr­i­ans al­ready in Le­banon — as well as oth­ers seek­ing en­try in the fu­ture.

The first of th­ese mea­sures came in the form of new visa re­quire­ments for Syr­i­ans and went into ef­fect on Jan­uary 5, 2015. De­spite po­lit­i­cal push­back and con­cerns by hu­man rights groups, Le­banese au­thor­i­ties in­sist this new pol­icy is only the be­gin­ning.


Prior to the con­flict, en­try for Syr­i­ans into Le­banon was eas­ier than for any other for­eign na­tion­al­ity. Ac­cord­ing to the Treaty of Brotherhood and Co­op­er­a­tion, signed in 1991, Le­banon and Syria share “dis­tinc­tive fra­ter­nal ties” and did not re­quire travel visas from each oth­ers’ cit­i­zens. The lax re­quire­ments meant that bor­ders re­mained rel­a­tively open, al­low­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of Syr­ian la­bor­ers to en­ter Le­banon sea­son­ally for work.

Syr­i­ans could en­ter Le­banon at any bor­der check­point us­ing a valid gov­ern­ment ID and would be is­sued a one­time-re­new­able six month res­i­dency for free. At the end of their year in Le­banon, Syr­i­ans would have to re­turn to Syria. Pales­tinian refugees from Syria had to have pre-ap­proval from Le­banon’s gov­ern­ment to en­ter.

With the on­set of the Syr­ian up­ris­ing in 2011, the pol­icy changed. In­stead of re­turn­ing to Syria at the end of their one year stay in Le­banon, Syr­i­ans could re­new their res­i­dency for an­other six months through Gen­eral Se­cu­rity, pay­ing $200 per fam­ily mem­ber over 15 years old. For Pales­tini­ans from Syria, the pre-au­tho­riza­tion was lifted, and the tran­sit visa they re­ceived at the bor­der could be ex­changed for a three month res­i­dency, also re­new­able for free un­til the $200 yearly fee.

Now, Le­banon’s pol­icy has changed once more. On De­cem­ber 31, Gen­eral Se­cu­rity an­nounced that Syr­i­ans en­ter­ing Le­banon would be is­sued en­try doc­u­ments based on the proven pur­pose of their visit. Their stays now fall un­der eight cat­e­gories: tourism, study, work, med­i­cal treat­ment, tran­sit to an­other coun­try, check­ing on prop­erty, vis­it­ing an em­bassy, or be­ing “spon­sored” by a Le­banese cit­i­zen. In­stead of the one-size-fits-all, six month res­i­dency they had pre­vi­ously re­ceived, the length of stay for each of th­ese cat­e­gories now varies, and strict doc­u­men­ta­tion is re­quired.

The change was pegged as part of a new, three point pol­icy state­ment that the Coun­cil of Min­is­ters ap­proved in Oc­to­ber. To man­age the

refugee in­flux, the Oc­to­ber state­ment said, the gov­ern­ment would seek to de­crease the num­ber of Syr­i­ans reg­is­tered with UNHCR (the refugee agency in Le­banon co­or­di­nat­ing re­lief ef­forts for Syr­i­ans), tighten up se­cu­rity within Le­banese ter­ri­to­ries and lift the so­cioe­co­nomic bur­den on Le­banon.

Gen­eral Se­cu­rity’s new res­i­dency re­quire­ments are the first step of this state­ment’s im­ple­men­ta­tion. “We’re try­ing to find out who is try­ing to come in and why — and this is some­thing we have the right to know,” ex­plains Gen­eral Se­cu­rity press of­fi­cer Gen­eral Joseph Obeid.

But the de­ci­sion has al­ready sparked con­tro­versy — some of it based on se­man­tics. Syr­ian Am­bas­sador to Le­banon Ali Ab­dul Karim Ali said re­quir­ing visas from Syr­i­ans vi­o­lated the bi­lat­eral agree­ments that had kept bor­ders be­tween the two coun­tries open for decades. Speaker of Par­lia­ment Nabih Berri and a num­ber of min­is­ters from Hezbol­lah and the Amal Move­ment sim­i­larly crit­i­cized the move.

Gen­eral Se­cu­rity, how­ever, in­sists that the doc­u­ments it is is­su­ing to Syr­i­ans upon en­try are not “visas” and there­fore do not vi­o­late th­ese treaties. “It’s en­try doc­u­men­ta­tion — it’s not a visa. It’s not like an Egyptian com­ing into Le­banon,” Obeid in­sists. Although pro­ce­dures for Syr­i­ans en­ter­ing Le­banon do re­main dis­tinct from those for other for­eign­ers, the strict cat­e­gories, re­quired doc­u­men­ta­tion and limited stay are ex­actly what con­sti­tute visas in other coun­tries.

And de­spite claims in the Le­banese daily Al-Akhbar that the visa pol­icy will soon be re­tracted, Obeid says the mea­sure will con­tinue to steam­roll for­ward. “There will be no change in this pol­icy. We’re mov­ing ahead with it as planned,” he as­sures.

Be­yond this dis­agree­ment, Syr­i­ans and hu­man rights or­ga­ni­za­tions are wor­ried about what Gen­eral Se­cu­rity’s new bor­der pol­icy might mean for those try­ing to flee Le­banon’s war torn neigh­bor. No­tice­ably ab­sent from the eight cat­e­gory state­ment is a pro­vi­sion for refugees — Syr­i­ans try­ing to en­ter Le­banon af­ter be­ing dis­placed by vi­o­lence. Ac­cord­ing to Gen­eral Se­cu­rity and to Khalil Ge­bara, ad­vi­sor to Min­is­ter of In­te­rior Nouhad Mach­nouk, th­ese “hu­man­i­tar­ian en­tries” will be granted on a case by case ba­sis.

Both Amnesty In­ter­na­tional and Hu­man Rights Watch ex­pressed con­cern that the mea­sures would limit ac­cess to safety for thou­sands of Syr­i­ans flee­ing con­flict at home. At the time of writ­ing, UNHCR had yet to is­sue a state­ment. “We’re still study­ing it. We’ll let you know more when we get it,” says spokesper­son Ron Red­mond.


Even prior to Gen­eral Se­cu­rity’s new mea­sures, the refugee in­flux into Le­banon had slowed dramatically. The num­ber of refugees reg­is­ter­ing with UNHCR saw a dras­tic drop in the last months of 2014 — in Oc­to­ber and Novem­ber com­bined, only 29,477 Syr­i­ans reg­is­tered with the agency, com­pared with 31,158 in Septem­ber alone. Even that month pro­duced rel­a­tively low num­bers com­pared to the rest of the year — un­til Au­gust, at least 42,000 refugees were reg­is­ter­ing ev­ery month.

Part of this drop is likely due to the fact that the ac­tive bat­tle­fronts in Syria’s war have shifted to the coun­try’s north and east. In­deed, months of clashes in Syria’s west­ern Qalam­oun re­gion in early 2014 saw the most con­cen­trated refugee flows into Le­banon to date. As bat­tles shift away from Syria’s west and south into the north, refugee flows into Turkey con­tinue to in­crease, while those into Le­banon and Jor­dan have markedly dropped.

But even many of those Syr­i­ans who made it to the Syr­ian–Le­banese bor­der at the end of 2014 were hav­ing


dif­fi­culty en­ter­ing the coun­try. Aid or­ga­ni­za­tions in­clud­ing Hu­man Rights Watch and the Nor­we­gian Refugee Coun­cil say that tough­en­ing bor­der con­trols saw “most” Syr­i­ans be­ing de­nied en­try. For Pales­tinian refugees from Syria, en­try was nearly im­pos­si­ble — very few ex­cep­tional cases were al­lowed ac­cess.

Although the new pol­icy spec­i­fies en­try re­quire­ments for non-refugee Syr­i­ans, the cri­te­ria for those en­ter­ing Le­banon as refugees are still be­ing de­vel­oped. “How do we know who’s re­ally a refugee? They could be ly­ing to us,” says Gen­eral Se­cu­rity’s Obeid. He adds that UNHCR would de­ter­mine refugee sta­tus on a case by case ba­sis, but dodges ques­tions on the spe­cific cri­te­ria that would be used to make such a de­ter­mi­na­tion.

Ge­bara has worked closely on the gov­ern­ment’s new pol­icy. He says

the Min­istry of So­cial Af­fairs might have an ac­tive pres­ence at Le­banon’s bor­der cross­ings and would be giv­ing ap­proval for ex­treme hu­man­i­tar­ian cases in line with the Coun­cil of Min­is­ters’ Oc­to­ber de­ci­sion. When asked what kind of cri­te­ria this would en­tail, Ge­bara hinted at two po­ten­tial stan­dards: place of res­i­dence in Syria and num­ber of peo­ple. “If one man comes from the cen­ter of Da­m­as­cus and says he’s a refugee, it won’t work,” he tells Ex­ec­u­tive. “When there’s fight­ing in an area, the whole vil­lage shows up. The last thing that would hap­pen would be that there would be a mass in­flux along the bor­der that would get de­nied en­try.”

Un­for­tu­nately, hu­man rights agen­cies say Gen­eral Se­cu­rity doesn’t have a great record of iden­ti­fy­ing vul­ner­a­ble cases. “Even af­ter the [Coun­cil of Min­is­ters’] Oc­to­ber de­ci­sion, Gen­eral Se­cu­rity of­fi­cers were not in­quir­ing about hu­man­i­tar­ian need,” in­sists Lama Fakih, re­searcher at Hu­man Rights Watch’s Beirut of­fice. “The process of en­try was ar­bi­trary and dis­crim­i­na­tory.”

Ac­cord­ing to Hu­man Rights Watch and Le­banese rights NGO LIFE, in­stead of tak­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian fac­tors into con­sid­er­a­tion, Gen­eral Se­cu­rity was al­low­ing en­try based on per­ceived af­flu­ence, reli­gion, and ori­gin in Syria. Na­bil Hal­abi, direc­tor of LIFE, says that “so­cial dis­crim­i­na­tion” saw those who ap­peared to be from a higher so­cial class — trav­el­ing in pri­vate cars, well dressed, of­ten from the cap­i­tal — waved through Le­banon’s check­points. Nadim Houry, deputy direc­tor of HRW’s Mid­dle East and North Africa di­vi­sion, says Syr­i­ans with tra­di­tion­ally Chris­tian names re­ceived the same treat­ment. Mean­while, those com­ing from Raqqa or Deir Ez­zor — eastern prov­inces in Syria which are now Is­lamic State strongholds — were fac­ing sig­nif­i­cant dif­fi­culty.

Houry adds that this prac­tice is con­trary to Le­banon’s in­ter­na­tional obli­ga­tion to­wards those seek­ing safety. “If a Syr­ian busi­ness­man from Da­m­as­cus wants to come spend a week­end in Beirut, and the Le­banese gov­ern­ment says no, then we’re not


go­ing to com­plain,” says Houry. “They’ve ac­tu­ally done the op­po­site — they’re happy with those with money to come spend the week­end, but they don’t want the oth­ers to come in.”

Gen­eral Se­cu­rity’s Obeid em­phat­i­cally re­jected th­ese claims. “Noth­ing about this is true. Ev­ery­one is on the same level with us,” he tells Ex­ec­u­tive. “If the gov­ern­ment says let peo­ple in, we do.”


Hold­ing legal sta­tus in Le­banon isn’t just a mat­ter of con­ve­nience; it’s cen­tral to al­most all as­pects of refugee life. Un­for­tu­nately, rapidly chang­ing poli­cies, in­con­sis­tent im­ple­men­ta­tion, and in­ad­e­quate dis­sem­i­na­tion of in­for­ma­tion mean that many refugees in Le­banon are living here il­le­gally. In Septem­ber, Le­banon’s gov­ern­ment gave refugees who had limited legal sta­tus as of Au­gust 21, 2014 the op­por­tu­nity to reg­u­lar­ize their stay with Gen­eral Se­cu­rity for free. Thou­sands who had ei­ther en­tered il­le­gally or whose legal stay had ex­pired were able to be­come legal res­i­dents with­out pay­ing the LBP 950,000 ($630) reg­u­lar­iza­tion fee.

Still, hun­dreds of thou­sands of Syr­ian refugees are not living in Le­banon legally. UNHCR de­clined to pro­vide Ex­ec­u­tive with num­bers on how many of the 1.2 mil­lion reg­is­tered refugees in Le­banon fall within this cat­e­gory. How­ever, the agency’s plan­ning fig­ures in early 2014 an­tic­i­pated that over 800,000 Syr­ian refugees — two thirds of those reg­is­tered with UNHCR — would be living with limited legal sta­tus by the end of that year. With the gov­ern­ment’s stricter poli­cies on en­try and res­i­dency, this num­ber may now be even higher.

Lack of legal stay se­verely re­stricts refugees’ abil­ity to move around Le­banon. In a de­tailed March re­port on the topic, the Nor­we­gian Refugee Coun­cil in­ter­viewed 1,256 Syr­i­ans, over half of whom were in Le­banon il­le­gally. NRC noted that over 73 per­cent of re­spon­dents re­ported cur­tailed free­dom of move­ment as the big­gest con­se­quence of their il­le­gal stay in Le­banon. Fear of ha­rass­ment by se­cu­rity forces at check­points, lo­cal mu­nic­i­pal­ity po­lice, and even regular Le­banese cit­i­zens has kept many Syr­i­ans seden­tary. Refugees with limited legal sta­tus who are ar­rested by se­cu­rity forces are usu­ally given an or­der for de­par­ture back to Syria, but are rarely forcibly de­ported.

Nonethe­less, this lack of mo­bil­ity has a ma­jor ef­fect on refugees’ ac­cess to re­sources. For some, their limited legal sta­tus has pre­vented them from reg­is­ter­ing with UNHCR. Sev­eral refugees who had crossed over il­le­gally from Syria’s Qalam­oun re­gion told Ex­ec­u­tive they felt “trapped.” Too afraid to cross Le­banese Army check­points, they could not reg­is­ter at the UNHCR cen­ter in Zahle.

Ac­cord­ing to the NRC re­port, il­le­gal stay has also pushed fam­i­lies to­wards in­creased child la­bor. Male heads of house­holds with­out legal stay are of­ten too afraid to leave their homes to seek work for fear of ar­rest. Since chil­dren are less likely to be stopped by se­cu­rity forces and asked for pa­per­work, fa­thers of­ten send their chil­dren to work or beg for money in­stead of go­ing to school. NRC says this prac­tice ex­poses chil­dren to po­ten­tial abuse and ex­ploita­tion. Fur­ther­more, Syr­i­ans with­out legal stay can­not ac­cess Le­banon’s health­care sys­tem, and cru­cially can­not reg­is­ter the birth of their chil­dren with the Le­banese au­thor­i­ties.

“It cre­ates anx­i­ety, un­cer­tainty. It pre­vents them from or­ga­niz­ing their lives … It’s im­pact­ing ev­ery­thing else,” says HRW’s Houry.



At the time of writ­ing, the Le­banese gov­ern­ment and rel­e­vant se­cu­rity agen­cies had yet to is­sue de­ci­sions on the re­newal process for the new visas that Syr­i­ans will hold. In their re­ac­tion to the de­ci­sion, Amnesty In­ter­na­tional an­nounced that refugees who had legal sta­tus prior to Jan­uary 5, 2015, would con­tinue pay­ing the $200 per adult re­newal fee as usual, but this has not been con­firmed by the Min­istry of In­te­rior or Gen­eral Se­cu­rity.

For many refugees, the re­newal process pre­sented a sig­nif­i­cant fi­nan­cial bur­den. NRC’s re­port notes that refugee fam­i­lies typ­i­cally pay $100 per month to rent out a small bed­room in an un­fin­ished build­ing. Se­cur­ing food costs more than $200 per month, and fuel comes at a cost of $100 per month. Given that the av­er­age Syr­ian refugee fam­ily earns $250 per month, ac­cord­ing to NRC, the re­newal fee is one of the first ex­penses that fam­i­lies forego when money gets tight.

In­deed, the NRC’s March re­port notes that al­most one third of those in­ter­viewed stated they could not re­new their stay, with 85 per­cent of th­ese cases say­ing the cost had pre­vented them from be­ing able to do so. Oth­ers re­ported that poor treat­ment and a fear of Gen­eral Se­cu­rity of­fices had caused them to skip re­newals.

De­spite the per­va­sive neg­a­tive ef­fect that limited legal sta­tus has had on Le­banon’s refugees, in­ter­na­tional aid groups have de­clined to cover the cost of visa re­newal. In 2012, when refugees were near­ing their first one year stay in Le­banon and would have to pay the $200 for the first time, aid agen­cies agreed that they would not cover the yearly fee as part of their sup­port. Now, only one or two NGOs pro­vide the $200 for very ex­treme cases. “It would be a huge fee. It would po­ten­tially con­tra­dict our ad­vo­cacy to­wards waiv­ing that fee,” says Dalia Aranki, ad­vi­sor to the NRC’s In­for­ma­tion, Coun­sel­ing, and Legal As­sis­tance Pro­gram. A mere 100,000 re­newals — less than 20 per­cent of the refugee pop­u­la­tion over 15 — would cost $20 mil­lion.


Refugee and aid agen­cies alike have said it is dif­fi­cult to keep up with the gov­ern­ment’s chang­ing poli­cies. Some or­ga­ni­za­tions, like NRC, have two tiers of in­for­ma­tion-gath­er­ing: the of­fi­cial gov­ern­ment state­ments about its poli­cies, and the ob­served and re­ported prac­tices of se­cu­rity forces. They aren’t al­ways con­sis­tent.

“If you go to Gen­eral Se­cu­rity of­fices, they’ll tell you your kids don’t need to be reg­is­tered. But then you take them to the bor­der and they tell you you’re vi­o­lat­ing Le­banese law,” com­plains Leila, a Syr­ian refugee living in the Burj al-Bara­jneh camp in south­west Beirut.

NRC’s Aranki says she’s seen the same in­con­sis­tency. “You can see how com­pli­cated this is. There have been so many changes, and how this is im­ple­mented is not writ­ten down some­where in one place,” she ex­plains. Prac­tices dif­fer in ar­eas with dif­fer­ent lo­cal ad­min­is­tra­tions, and NRC has even had to step in to re­train lo­cal au­thor­i­ties who were in­cor­rectly reg­is­ter­ing Syr­ian refugee births.

Mak­ing sure refugees are aware of the legal pro­ce­dures is no easy task, ei­ther. In coun­tries like Jor­dan or Turkey, where large num­bers of the refugee pop­u­la­tion are con­cen­trated in gov­ern­ment con­trolled camps, dis­sem­i­na­tion of in­for­ma­tion can be done much more eas­ily. In Le­banon, refugees live in in­for­mal tented set­tle­ments, rented apart­ments, and un­fin­ished build­ings — and they don’t al­ways want to be ac­counted for. “Over the last year, where there has been more ten­sion be­tween the Le­banese and refugees, peo­ple have not wanted to make them­selves known very much,” Aranki added.


Week by week, more de­tails are com­ing to light about the Min­istries of In­te­rior and So­cial Af­fairs’ re­vamped refugee pol­icy. So­cial Af­fairs Min­is­ter Rachid Der­bas has ex­plained that refugees al­ready in Le­banon and reg­is­tered with UNHCR would not be forced to reg­u­lar­ize their stay as part of the new eight cat­e­gory visa. “How­ever, if the refugee de­cides to go back to Syria and then re­turn to Le­banon, they will have to com­ply with the new mea­sures and jus­tify the rea­son be­hind their re­turn,” Der­bas told Le­banon’s As-Safir.

Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, how­ever, Le­banon’s gov­ern­ment has been work­ing with UNHCR to dereg­is­ter Syr­i­ans from the refugee list. From June 2014 un­til Oc­to­ber, 68,000 Syr­i­ans were re­moved from UNHCR’s list for cross­ing back into Syria fre­quently or fail­ing to pick up aid packages. The Min­istry of In­te­rior’s Ge­bara says that th­ese dereg­is­tra­tions go hand in hand with tighter bor­der con­trol.

“Un­til we can au­dit ev­ery sin­gle refugee that’s in Le­banon, let the num­ber of new, reg­is­ter­ing refugees be lower than the num­ber of those be­ing dereg­is­tered,” he tells Ex­ec­u­tive. “So neg­a­tive growth.”

Both Ge­bara and Gen­eral Se­cu­rity’s Obeid promised ad­di­tional mea­sures in the com­ing weeks. But sev­eral chal­lenges re­main, not least the grow­ing po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion to the new reg­u­la­tions and the lack of clear cri­te­ria for “ex­treme hu­man­i­tar­ian” en­try cases.

For refugees and the aid or­ga­ni­za­tions fac­ing the re­newed test of un­der­stand­ing and ac­cu­rately re­lay­ing this pol­icy, the pe­riod of tu­mult isn’t over. “Ex­pect the pol­icy to keep chang­ing based on the se­cu­rity and po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in Syria,” Ge­bara says.


Birth rates among Syr­ian refugees are sig­nif­i­cantly higher than neigh­bor­ing Le­banese pop­u­la­tions

Chil­dren in refugee com­mu­ni­ties are par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble to the harsh win­ter weather

Most Syr­i­ans live in dwellings ill equipped to deal with Le­banon’s harsh win­ter

Un­like other re­gional states, Le­banon has no of­fi­cial camps for Syr­ian refugees

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