Dereg­is­tra­tion: A refugee on pa­per

Run­ning from war, bu­reau­cracy could be Syr­i­ans’ great­est ob­sta­cle

Executive Magazine - - Contents - By Maya Ge­beily

The un­prece­dented rate at which the num­ber of Syr­ian refugees in the re­gion has grown has caught the world’s at­ten­tion. Af­ter nearly four years of un­rest, roughly 1.17 mil­lion Syr­i­ans are cur­rently reg­is­tered as refugees in Le­banon — and the num­ber con­tin­ues to creep up. But an of­ten un­der­re­ported and mis­un­der­stood fig­ure is the num­ber of those who have had their refugee sta­tus de­ac­ti­vated. Dur­ing 2013 and 2014, at least 137,000 Syr­i­ans lost ac­tive refugee sta­tus with UNHCR, the agency man­ag­ing the in­ter­na­tional re­sponse to the refugee cri­sis. Vague and non­com­mit­tal state­ments to the press by UNHCR, cou­pled with sud­den and at times brash gov­ern­ment an­nounce­ments on the topic, have added to the con­fu­sion. With grow­ing gov­ern­ment in­volve­ment in reg­is­tra­tion and de­ac­ti­va­tion, hu­man rights agen­cies have ex­pressed con­cern that Syr­ian refugees will not con­tinue re­ceiv­ing ap­pro­pri­ate pro­tec­tion in Le­banon.

DE­AC­TI­VA­TION IN LE­BANON

De­ac­ti­va­tion of refugee sta­tus hap­pens when some­one reg­is­tered as a refugee is re­moved from UNHCR’s ac­tive reg­is­tra­tion lists. As a re­sult, that in­di­vid­ual can no longer re­ceive sup­port from the refugee agency or its part­ner or­ga­ni­za­tions in Le­banon. The process is part of nor­mal UNHCR pro­ce­dures around the world: as the sit­u­a­tions of refugees change — as they head back to their coun­try of ori­gins, are re­set­tled or are no longer in need of in­ter­na­tional pro­tec­tion — UNHCR re­moves them from their reg­is­tra­tion lists.

UNHCR be­gan reg­is­ter­ing Syr­i­ans as refugees at the end of 2011 in Le­banon, Jor­dan and Turkey, and de­ac­ti­va­tion pro­ce­dures be­gan in 2012. The year 2013 saw a sig­nif­i­cant rise in refugee num­bers in Le­banon. In that year alone, 690,399 Syr­i­ans were reg­is­tered as refugees in Le­banon — and 36,000 files were de­ac­ti­vated. Le­banon ended the year with 805,835 reg­is­tered Syr­ian refugees.

In 2014, refugee num­bers con­tin­ued to rise, al­beit more slowly. Roughly 441,684 new refugees were reg­is­tered but 107,250 had their files de­ac­ti­vated. The dif­fer­ence is no­table: although many fewer refugees were reg­is­tered in 2014, those that were de­ac­ti­vated tripled. Th­ese de­ac­ti­va­tions have led, ac­cord­ing to UNHCR’s on­line public por­tal, to a net de­crease in refugees reg­is­tered in Le­banon.

Ac­cord­ing to the UN agency, refugee files can be de­ac­ti­vated for a num­ber of rea­sons, in­clud­ing death, leav­ing Le­banon and fail­ing to keep in con­tact with UNHCR of­fices as re­quired. Agency spokesper­son Dana Sleiman tells Ex­ec­u­tive that this pol­icy is com­mu­ni­cated to refugees through coun­sel­ing ses­sions dur­ing the reg­is­tra­tion process. To re­ac­ti­vate their sta­tus, Syr­i­ans can ap­proach UNHCR to re­quest an in­ter­view — but re­ac­ti­va­tion isn’t an au­to­matic process, she says.

The first trig­ger for de­ac­ti­va­tion — death — is self ev­i­dent, but the rest are slightly more com­plex. Fail­ing to keep in con­tact with UNHCR of­fices in­cludes reg­u­larly ne­glect­ing to ap­pear at dis­tri­bu­tion ap­point­ments and fail­ing to re­new UNHCR reg­is­tra­tion doc­u­ments within two months af­ter their ex­piry. UNHCR’s staff de­clined to spec­ify how many dis­tri­bu­tion meet­ings had to be missed be­fore refugees would have their files de­ac­ti­vated.

Leav­ing Le­banon also meant risk­ing po­ten­tial de­ac­ti­va­tion. If reg­is­tered

refugees are found to be go­ing back and forth into Syria, UNHCR brings them in for an in­ter­view to de­ter­mine the na­ture of their vis­its. The agency de­clined to spec­ify whether it uti­lized a nu­mer­i­cal thresh­old for how many vis­its back and forth to Syria would war­rant an in­ter­view with UNHCR, but de­ac­ti­va­tion oc­curs “based on the rea­sons for re­turn and du­ra­tion of their stay in Syria,” spokesper­son Sleiman says. Rea­sons for vis­it­ing Syria con­sid­ered ac­cept­able by UNHCR are, for ex­am­ple, vis­it­ing a sick rel­a­tive, check­ing on prop­erty and “go-and-see vis­its” — trips to Syria to check if it’s safe enough to re­turn per­ma­nently.

As UNHCR con­ducts th­ese in­ter­views with refugees, Sleiman says the rule of thumb is whether or not th­ese refugees were afraid to travel to Syria. “It boils down to the fear of re­turn. If there’s no fear of re­turn, then a Syr­ian na­tional should not be reg­is­tered with UNHCR,” she clar­i­fies. “There is no math­e­mat­i­cal equa­tion to fig­ure this out.” Ac­cord­ing to Bill Fre­lick, refugee pro­gram direc­tor at Hu­man Rights Watch, UNHCR Le­banon’s “fear” clause is in line with def­i­ni­tions on refugee sta­tus.

“We think that peo­ple flee­ing con­flict ought to be pro­tected on a com­pli­men­tary level, but the refugee def­i­ni­tion it­self is a well founded fear of be­ing per­se­cuted,” Fre­lick tells Ex­ec­u­tive. As such, UNHCR has to con­stantly make “judg­ment calls” on who should be de­ac­ti­vated, he adds.

Be­cause of the prox­im­ity and rel­a­tively open bor­ders — at least, un­til the be­gin­ning of this year — Syr­i­ans could cross back and forth into Le­banon fairly eas­ily. Many, whether reg­is­tered refugees or not, would go back into Syria pe­ri­od­i­cally for the “le­git­i­mate” rea­sons listed above. One Syr­ian–Kur­dish refugee told Ex­ec­u­tive in Septem­ber 2014 that de­spite the fraught sit­u­a­tion in his home­town in Aleppo, he would make the danger­ous jour­ney there ev­ery year to check on his old fam­ily home. Ad­di­tion­ally, Syr­i­ans with res­i­dency in Le­banon who could not pay the $200 yearly res­i­dency re­newal fee would travel back to Syria, so that they could get a re­newal for free upon their en­try into Le­banon.

But a gov­ern­ment an­nounce­ment in June of 2014 changed that. As Min­istry of In­te­rior rep­re­sen­ta­tive Khalil Ge­bara told Ex­ec­u­tive in De­cem­ber, the gov­ern­ment’s ul­ti­mate aim is “neg­a­tive growth” — more de­ac­ti­va­tions and fewer refugees com­ing in be­cause of tighter bor­der con­trols, so that the num­ber of ac­tive refugees is con­stantly de­creas­ing. To that end, Min­is­ter of In­te­rior Nouhad Mach­nouk de­clared last June that any refugees who went back to Syria would have their refugee sta­tus re­voked. In re­al­ity, the process for de­ac­ti­va­tion was more nu­anced than that.

Dur­ing June and July 2014, Le­banon’s Gen­eral Se­cu­rity Of­fice pro­vided UNHCR with the names of all Syr­i­ans who had trav­eled into and out of Le­banon. UNHCR then cross ref­er­enced th­ese names with its reg­is­tra­tion lists. Reg­is­tered refugees who had trav­eled into or out of Le­banon were in­ter­viewed by UNHCR to de­ter­mine whether or not they feared re­turn­ing to Syria.

By the end of June 2014, ac­cord­ing to a source close to the sub­ject, 12,345 Syr­i­ans had lost their refugee sta­tus specif­i­cally be­cause of their com­mutes into Syria. UNHCR de­clined to pro­vide Ex­ec­u­tive with data on how many refugees had their sta­tus de­ac­ti­vated this way, but said that it was a mi­nor­ity of the to­tal num­ber of de­ac­ti­va­tions. An emailed state­ment by UNHCR noted that the co­op­er­a­tion mech­a­nism with Gen­eral Se­cu­rity on this mat­ter was no longer ac­tive at the time of writ­ing.

UNHCR REG­IS­TRA­TION: GROW­ING IM­POR­TANCE

How a refugee’s sta­tus changes has a lot to do with how that refugee was reg­is­tered. Syr­ian refugees in Le­banon are reg­is­tered un­der a tem­po­rary pro­tec­tion regime, based on cri­te­ria that UNHCR has agreed upon with the gov­ern­ment. Le­banon is not party to the 1951 UN Refugee Con­ven­tion, which de­fines refugee rights and state re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to­wards them. Con­se­quently, when refugees in Le­banon are reg­is­tered, their sta­tus is rec­og­nized by UNHCR and its part­ner or­ga­ni­za­tions, but not of­fi­cially by the Le­banese gov­ern­ment.

Nev­er­the­less, Le­banon — in prac­tice, if not in law — has af­forded value to reg­is­tra­tion with UNHCR. Ac­cord­ing to Min­istry of In­te­rior rep­re­sen­ta­tive Ge­bara, Syr­ian refugees who are seek­ing to re­new their res­i­dency in Le­banon are now re­quired to present their UNHCR pa­per­work to a Gen­eral Se­cu­rity of­fice. This new re­quire­ment comes as a con­se­quence of Le­banon’s new reg­u­la­tions on the en­try and res­i­dency of Syr­i­ans into Le­banon, which came into ef­fect on Jan­uary 5. The re­sult, from Le­banon’s per­spec­tive, is a semi recog­ni­tion of refugee sta­tus; although the coun­try does not legally as­sign it, it re­quires UNHCR doc­u­men­ta­tion to pro­vide legal res­i­dency for Syr­ian refugees. From a Syr­ian refugee’s per­spec­tive, it makes reg­is­tra­tion with UNHCR all that more im­por­tant — as it is now in­creas­ingly de­manded by the gov­ern­ment in or­der to live in Le­banon legally.

Whether reg­is­tered or not, refugees are en­ti­tled to a level of pro­tec­tion in Le­banon. The Le­banese state “has an obli­ga­tion un­der cus­tom­ary law not to forcibly re­turn refugees who have a real or per­ceived risk of per­se­cu­tion,” says Khairunissa Dhala, re­searcher and ad­viser on refugees at Amnesty In­ter­na­tional. “Do­ing so would amount to a vi­o­la­tion of the prin­ci­ple of non-re­foule­ment, which is bind­ing on all states.”

“IF THERE’S NO FEAR OF RE­TURN, THEN A SYR­IAN NA­TIONAL SHOULD NOT BE REG­IS­TERED WITH UNHCR”

Aside from the limited benefits af­forded by the Le­banese state, refugees re­ceive sig­nif­i­cant sup­port from UN agen­cies if they are reg­is­tered. This aid in­cludes ev­ery­thing from food and health­care to ed­u­ca­tion and psy­choso­cial care. Reg­is­tered refugees are also el­i­gi­ble to ac­cess UNHCR’s re­set­tle­ment pro­gram to be re­set­tled in a num­ber of West­ern coun­tries.

The grow­ing im­por­tance of hold­ing UNHCR refugee sta­tus makes de­ac­ti­va­tion all the more sig­nif­i­cant. But with the gov­ern­ment re­quir­ing proof of reg­is­tra­tion in or­der to re­new res­i­den­cies, de­ac­ti­va­tion also has legal con­se­quences for Syr­i­ans seek­ing to stay in Le­banon legally.

IN THE GOV­ERN­MENT’S HANDS?

The process of reg­is­tra­tion and de­ac­ti­va­tion will see more in­volve­ment by the Le­banese gov­ern­ment in the com­ing months. Le­banon has re­cently been seek­ing greater con­trol over the pres­ence of Syr­ian refugees on its ter­ri­tory, as ex­hib­ited by its de­ci­sion at the end of 2014 to re­quire that Syr­i­ans en­ter­ing Le­banon ob­tain visas, which Ex­ec­u­tive re­ported on in its Fe­bru­ary is­sue. The next step, ac­cord­ing to Min­istry of So­cial Af­fairs rep­re­sen­ta­tive Hala El Helou, in­volves UNHCR shar­ing its in­for­ma­tion on reg­is­tered refugees with the Le­banese gov­ern­ment.

“Trans­fer of data is for the gov­ern­ment to be able to have the data of the peo­ple who are present on its ter­ri­tory,” Helou ex­plains. “We’re work­ing very closely as the gov­ern­ment with the UN. The data has to do with map­ping and just hav­ing the num­bers and fig­ures of who is present, and to build on that.”

Helou adds that the ef­fort stems from a need to make as­sis­tance to refugees more ef­fi­cient by iden­ti­fy­ing those who are most in need. “Be­cause the as­sis­tance is be­com­ing less and less, we need to work on ra­tio­nal­iz­ing it … we need bet­ter tar­get­ing,” she says.

UNHCR and the Le­banese gov­ern­ment are still in talks to de­ter­mine the ex­act na­ture of their fu­ture pre­rog­a­tives, but Helou says the gov­ern­ment will be more in­volved in reg­is­ter­ing new cases. Amnesty In­ter­na­tional’s Dhala says it’s un­clear how the gov­ern­ment will use the in­for­ma­tion shared with it by UNHCR and what cri­te­ria it will use to de­ter­mine refugee sta­tus. What­ever Le­banon de­cides, Dhala says, it should con­tinue to pro­vide Syr­i­ans with “in­ter­na­tional pro­tec­tion in ac­cor­dance with in­ter­na­tional law, as they have a well founded fear of per­se­cu­tion in Syria due to the na­ture of the con­flict.”

The gov­ern­ment has al­ready asked UNHCR to stop reg­is­ter­ing new refugees with­out the Min­istry of So­cial Af­fairs’ ap­proval, Helou tells Ex­ec­u­tive. She adds that Le­banon will also have a hand in the “pos­si­ble eval­u­a­tion of the reg­is­tered cases.” The mech­a­nisms have yet to be es­tab­lished, but gov­ern­ment in­flu­ence on them may be cause for con­cern for hu­man rights NGOs.

“The Le­banese gov­ern­ment has a pol­icy re­gard­ing Syr­ian refugees and asy­lum seek­ers which we do have a lot of con­cerns about,” com­ments Lama Fakih, Hu­man Rights Watch’s Syria and Le­banon re­searcher. Based on gov­ern­ment state­ments, in­clud­ing In­te­rior Min­is­ter Mach­nouk’s state­ment men­tioned above, Le­banon sees refugees vis­it­ing Syria for any rea­son as de facto for­fei­ture of their refugee sta­tus.

When asked whether the gov­ern­ment had pres­sured them into tougher mea­sures on reg­is­tra­tion or de­ac­ti­va­tion, UNHCR rep­re­sen­ta­tives told Ex­ec­u­tive in an emailed state­ment that “the gov­ern­ment of Le­banon has al­ways and con­sis­tently re­spected UNHCR’s role and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties,” and de­clined to com­ment fur­ther.

Nev­er­the­less, the gov­ern­ment’s ob­jec­tive re­mains the same: de­creas­ing the num­ber of reg­is­tered refugees in Le­banon. “At the end of the year, the cal­cu­la­tions should show more de­ac­ti­va­tions than new refugees,” says Ge­bara, the Min­istry of In­te­rior rep­re­sen­ta­tive. With stricter reg­u­la­tions on Syr­i­ans en­ter­ing Le­banon, more de­ac­ti­vated cases year af­ter year and grow­ing gov­ern­ment in­volve­ment in reg­is­tra­tion and de­ac­ti­va­tion, the gov­ern­ment’s goal of “neg­a­tive growth” doesn’t seem so far away.

“AT THE END OF THE YEAR, THE CAL­CU­LA­TIONS SHOULD SHOW MORE DE­AC­TI­VA­TIONS THAN NEW REFUGEES”

Lining up the pa­per­work could make all the dif­fer­ence

How to mea­sure fear?

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