Gen­eral Se­cu­rity waives res­i­dency fee for over mil­lion reg­is­tered Syr­ian refugees

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - LEBANON - By Rhys Du­bin and Fed­er­ica Marsi

BEIRUT: Over a mil­lion Syr­ian refugees in Le­banon will no longer have to pay a $200 re­newal fee re­quired to main­tain res­i­dency in the coun­try, Gen­eral Se­cu­rity an­nounced Fri­day.

“Syr­ian refugees reg­is­tered with the United Na­tions High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees be­fore 2015 can now ob­tain a six-month res­i­dency per­mit for free,” Gen­eral Se­cu­rity said in a state­ment.

The new pol­icy, once fully im­ple­mented, will waive the pay­ment nor­mally re­quired for visas, mean­ing that Syr­ian refugees will be able to stay legally and with­out threat of ar­rest for visa vi­o­la­tions. Aid agen­cies say the move will im­prove ac­cess to many ser­vices in­clud­ing schools, health care, and birth and death reg­is­tra­tion.

How­ever, the de­ci­sion is limited to those who reg­is­tered with UNHCR be­fore Jan. 1, 2015, or who ob­tained res­i­dency through a UNHCR cer­tifi­cate at least once in 2015 or 2016. A UNHCR cer­tifi­cate is sep­a­rate from of­fi­cial refugee reg­is­tra­tion.

“Hu­man­i­tar­ian or­ga­ni­za­tions have been calling for a change to the le­gal res­i­dency sta­tus sit­u­a­tion and the fee waiver for more than a year now,” Bas­sam Khawaja, a re­searcher at Hu­man Rights Watch in Le­banon, told The Daily Star Wed­nes­day.

Ac­cord­ing to Khawaja, Gen­eral Se­cu­rity’s new di­rec­tive was a nec­es­sary change to a flawed sys­tem. “The [pre­vi­ous] pol­icy it­self has been a disaster. Rather than en­cour­ag­ing refugees to re­turn to Syria, it just made life mis­er­able for them,” he said.

Prior to this pol­icy shift, many refugees who were reg­is­tered with UNHCR were un­able to main­tain their le­gal sta­tus in the coun­try due to fi­nan­cial re­stric­tions, cut­ting them off from es­sen­tial ser­vices. Many oth­ers were forced to seek spon­sor­ship through Le­banese na­tion­als, some of whom charged up to $1,000, ac­cord­ing to Hu­man Rights Watch.

Mouin Mere­hbi, the min­is­ter of state for refugee af­fairs, was equally pos­i­tive about the re­cent move, though cau­tious about its im­ple­men­ta­tion. “This will help refugees and dis­placed peo­ple be able to go to hos­pi­tals, schools and some uni­ver­si­ties,” he said. “Their life will be much eas­ier.”

He noted though that the gov­ern­ment and Gen­eral Se­cu­rity were pro­gress­ing slowly and care­fully with the pol­icy’s im­ple­men­ta­tion. “[It] needs to be done step by step,” he told The Daily Star. “This is just a first step and things will be mov­ing slowly. There will be prob­lems at first, but we will work to solve them.”

Khawaja, how­ever, ex­pressed con­cern over the po­ten­tial for a slow and piece­meal ap­pli­ca­tion of the new rule. “In the past, there have been is­sues with the im­ple­men­ta­tion of de­ci­sions put out by Gen­eral Se­cu­rity,” he said. “Specif­i­cally, in­di­vid­ual se­cu­rity of­fi­cers have not al­ways ap­plied these or­ders con­sis­tently.”

He also noted that the de­ci­sion re­stricts a large num­ber of Syr­i­ans cur­rently in Le­banon. The gov­ern­ment es­ti­mates that more than 500,000 refugees are not reg­is­tered with UNHCR. And ac­cord­ing to a state­ment from HRW, Gen­eral Se­cu­rity con­firmed the pol­icy would not ap­ply to refugees who re­newed their res­i­dency through a Le­banese spon­sor.

“We’re es­pe­cially con­cerned that [the de­ci­sion] cements a marginal­ized class of refugees with­out res­i­dency or reg­is­tra­tion,” Khawaja said. “We’re un­sure about what this means for their fu­ture.”

He also said that the lan­guage of the de­ci­sion does not make clear whether refugees who crossed into Le­banon via un­of­fi­cial bor­der cross­ings would also be in­cluded. “Even if they reg­is­tered, but came through an ir­reg­u­lar cross­ing, this may still be a prob­lem,” Khawaja said.

Mere­hbi, how­ever, saw Gen­eral Se­cu­rity’s de­ci­sion as just a first step in a longer process. “There is a plan to dis­cuss the is­sue of un­reg­is­tered refugees in the Cabi­net,” he said. “We need a bit of time so we can re­ally im­ple­ment the is­sue and find the most ef­fi­cient and ben­e­fi­cial plan for the fu­ture.”

The Fe­bru­ary 2016 London con­fer­ence for sup­port­ing Syria and the re­gion raised more than $12 bil­lion in as­sis­tance for the cri­sis. While the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity made pledges for ad­di­tional sup­port, the Le­banese gov­ern­ment com­mit­ted to eas­ing visa re­stric­tions for Syr­ian refugees. The re­cent move by Gen­eral Se­cu­rity come close to the an­niver­sary of the pledges.

Re­ac­tions to the news from refugees and those who work closely with them were gen­er­ally up­beat. “This move is very pos­i­tive for Syr­ian refugees,” Sheikh Abdo Ab­del-Rahim told The Daily Star. Ac­cord­ing to him, in the small camp he man­ages in the out­skirts of the Akkar vil­lage of Halba, most refugees do not move out of the camp due to con­cerns of be­ing ar­rested. “The amount of money [nec­es­sary for reg­is­tra­tion] is too much to ask from them,” Ab­del-Rahim said. “Those who can­not af­ford it end up be­ing afraid to go to the hos­pi­tal or go reg­is­ter their chil­dren in school.”

Yusra – a Syr­ian refugee who asked not to give her sec­ond name – said she en­tered Le­banon legally five years ago. Due to the hefty fees, her hus­band and her three chil­dren were un­able to re­new the res­i­dency.

“Once, my hus­band was ar­rested while on his way to Beirut,” Yusra told The Daily Star. She waited for days for him to come back to the refugee camp where they live, in the out­skirts of Deir Zan­noun near Zahle in the Bekaa Val­ley, un­til she re­ceived a call in­form­ing her of her hus­band’s ar­rest.

“If we are al­lowed to re­new the res­i­dency with­out fees we will have peace of mind,” Yusra said. “For the time be­ing, when­ever my hus­band leaves the camp I fear [for his safety].”

Oth­ers, how­ever, were more un­cer­tain about the ef­fects of the re­cent an­nounce­ment. A Syr­ian refugee at the Ouzai com­plex in Si­don told The Daily Star that con­fu­sion re­mains over the new mea­sures.

“The co­or­di­na­tion be­tween the Gen­eral Se­cu­rity and UNHCR should be on how to fa­cil­i­tate things for Syr­ian refugees,” the refugee, who wished to re­main anony­mous, told The Daily Star.

The man said he has been reg­is­tered with UNHCR since 2013 re­newed his res­i­dency just a few weeks ago, pay­ing the $200 fee, as he has done so for the past sev­eral years.

How­ever, the man said that when his wife went to Gen­eral Se­cu­rity to re­new her res­i­dency Wed­nes­day, she was de­nied the fee-less re­newal. “When she went, they told her that the de­ci­sion doesn’t ap­ply to her.” He was un­sure ex­actly why his wife was de­nied, but called for more clar­i­fi­ca­tion over ex­actly how the new mea­sures work and who they ap­ply to. “Un­til now, we don’t know what the de­ci­sion is; we are still wait­ing for the de­ci­sion to be is­sued in a proper form,” he added.

On Jan. 20, the Army raided the com­plex where the man lives with his fam­ily and ar­rested 50 Syr­ian refugees over res­i­dency vi­o­la­tions.

Le­banese au­thor­i­ties have not pub­lished the num­ber of refugees ar­rested for fail­ing to main­tain pa­per­work or for­mal sta­tis­tics on the num­ber of Syr­ian refugees with­out le­gal sta­tus. How­ever, the Le­banon Cri­sis Re­sponse Plan, pub­lished in Jan­uary 2017, es­ti­mated that 60 per­cent of those age 15 and above lacked le­gal res­i­dency – a 13 per­cent­age point in­crease over a year ear­lier.

– Ad­di­tional re­port­ing by Ghinwa Obeid

‘When she went, they told her that the de­ci­sion doesn’t ap­ply to her’

Syr­ian refugee chil­dren stand at the wa­ter-cov­ered en­trance of their tent at an un­of­fi­cial refugee camp in the vil­lage of Deir Zan­noun in the Bekaa Val­ley.

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