Syr­i­ans’ spon­sor­ship is now a busi­ness

Sev­eral NGOs in­sist on dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing be­tween a refugee and a mi­grant

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - LEBANON - By Abby Sewell

BEIRUT: Like many young Syr­ian men dur­ing the war, when Ali was called up for manda­tory mil­i­tary ser­vice in 2016, he be­gan look­ing for ways to get out of the coun­try.

The path he even­tu­ally found was via a deal with a Le­banese spon­sor. The man had a plot of land, for which he had told Le­banese au­thor­i­ties he needed 10 Syr­ian farm work­ers. In fact, the Syr­i­ans he spon­sored did not work on the land, and the spon­sor­ship was purely a fi­nan­cial ar­range­ment, Ali told The Daily Star, but asked that his fam­ily name not be pub­lished.

He said in the first year he paid the spon­sor $850, of which $250 went to cover the ac­tual costs of the fees and pa­per­work and the rest went into the spon­sor’s pocket. The fol­low­ing year, when it came time to re­new the spon­sor­ship, the spon­sor hiked the price to $1,200. Find­ing a new spon­sor was not a vi­able op­tion for him and the other spon­sored Syr­i­ans, he said, since un­der the law, to do so they would have had to leave Le­banon and come back.

“If we wanted to go to Syria, we couldn’t be­cause they would take us to the army,” he said. “To go to Su­dan [one of the few coun­tries that al­lows Syr­i­ans to en­ter with­out a visa], you’ll have to take an air­plane and it also costs a lot, so we agreed to pay the amount that he asked.”

As the le­gal paths avail­able for Syr­i­ans to en­ter and stay in Le­banon have be­come in­creas­ingly con­stricted, a black mar­ket in res­i­dency sponsorshi­ps has flour­ished and be­come in­creas­ingly costly and ripe for abuse.

“It’s more ex­pen­sive be­cause it’s like a busi­ness now,” said Hany Shokair, an­other Syr­ian who said he paid $900 a year to a restau­rant owner for spon­sor­ship dur­ing the two years he spent in Le­banon. He has since been granted asy­lum in Canada. “When you have a mar­ket and a lot of peo­ple need it, it will be like a busi­ness, so [the price] is go­ing up.”

Un­til 2015, Syr­i­ans were able to en­ter Le­banon with­out a visa and stay for six months. Be­fore the war, many Syr­i­ans reg­u­larly went back and forth, seek­ing sea­sonal work in Le­banon and then re­turn­ing to Syria.

Be­gin­ning in 2015, in an at­tempt to slow the flow of refugees into the coun­try, Le­banon put in place new en­try re­stric­tions on Syr­i­ans, while a mod­i­fied ver­sion of the kafala, or spon­sor­ship, sys­tem – pre­vi­ously set up for other for­eign work­ers – was ap­plied to Syr­i­ans. Un­der the new frame­work, a Le­banese cit­i­zen can sign a per­sonal or em­ploy­men­tre­lated “pledge of re­spon­si­bil­ity” al­low­ing a Syr­ian to ap­ply for oneyear res­i­dency.

Also in 2015, at the re­quest of the Le­banese gov­ern­ment, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR stopped reg­is­ter­ing Syr­i­ans in Le­banon, leav­ing spon­sor­ship as the only vi­able op­tion for many to get le­gal res­i­dency – al­though that route is also ac­ces­si­ble only to a mi­nor­ity.

Ac­cord­ing to a 2018 U.N. vul­ner­a­bil­ity as­sess­ment, 73 per­cent of Syr­ian refugees liv­ing in Le­banon did not have any form of le­gal res­i­dency, largely be­cause of the cost of get­ting and main­tain­ing it. Al­though a waiver of the $200 an­nual fee was in­stated in 2017 for Syr­i­ans reg­is­tered with the UNHCR, mon­i­tor­ing groups say the waiver has been un­evenly ap­plied. Like­wise, Syr­i­ans reg­is­tered with the UNHCR are not legally re­quired to have a Le­banese spon­sor, but the U.N. as­sess­ment noted that in many cases, au­thor­i­ties have con­tin­ued to tell them they need one.

UNHCR spokes­woman Joy Yazbeck says that un­der cur­rent reg­u­la­tions, refugees reg­is­tered with the agency who have pre­vi­ously ob­tained res­i­dency via a spon­sor are not al­lowed to re­new their res­i­dency based on their UNHCR cer­tifi­cate and are not el­i­gi­ble for the fee waiver. The agency is push­ing for a change in that pol­icy and for the fee waiver to be ap­plied “in an even and con­sis­tent way” at all Gen­eral Se­cu­rity of­fices, she told The Daily Star.

As for the prac­tice of Le­banese spon­sors sell­ing their spon­sor­ship at in­flated rates or in some cases tak­ing the money with­out giv­ing spon­sor­ship, Yazbeck said the UNHCR “is aware of such prac­tices, and we are in dis­cus­sions with the rel­e­vant au­thor­i­ties.”

Ge­orge Ghali, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the NGO ALEF – Act for hu­man rights, said the ap­pli­ca­tion of the spon­sor­ship sys­tem to Syr­i­ans “has opened the door for some kind of abuse and some kind of im­bal­anced re­la­tion­ship be­tween a lot of the Le­banese and a lot of the Syr­i­ans.”

Ghali said his or­ga­ni­za­tion re­jected the idea of spon­sor­ship for refugees on prin­ci­ple, say­ing it blurs the dis­tinc­tion be­tween refugees and mi­grants. “We al­ways call for proper iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of refugees so that they can re­ceive pro­tec­tion in Le­banon with­out un­der­min­ing their rights,” he said.

The re­la­tion­ship be­tween Syr­i­ans and their spon­sors is not al­ways abu­sive. Some busi­ness own­ers pay the ap­pli­ca­tion fees for their Syr­ian em­ploy­ees them­selves, re­gard­ing it as a busi­ness ex­pense. In other cases, the Syr­ian pays only the ac­tual costs of the ap­pli­ca­tion.

One Syr­ian work­ing as a “na­tour” or concierge in a build­ing in Beirut, who asked that his name not be used, noted that $250 was still a sub­stan­tial amount, given that his salary was less than $500 a month, but said it was worth it to have le­gal res­i­dency.

“It’s bet­ter for me to have ev­ery­thing in or­der, so wher­ever I come or go no one can make prob­lems for me,” he said.

He added that he ap­pre­ci­ated that his spon­sor was also tak­ing on a risk.

“Gen­eral Se­cu­rity says if you spon­sored some­one you are re­spon­si­ble for them in ev­ery­thing,” he said. “If a car hit me, he’s re­spon­si­ble for me. If I went to the hos­pi­tal and didn’t pay, they’ll file a case against him and he will pay. If I made a prob­lem with some­one, they’ll call the spon­sor.”

But in some cases, the sys­tem ties Syr­i­ans to abu­sive em­ploy­ers or land­lords. A 2016 Hu­man Rights Watch re­port on the is­sue cited cases in which Syr­i­ans were sex­u­ally ha­rassed by their spon­sors or re­quired to work more than 12 hours a day and threat­ened with hav­ing their spon­sor­ship can­celed when they com­plained.

Ali said that many Syr­i­ans pre­ferred not to work for the per­son who was spon­sor­ing them be­cause of the po­ten­tial for abuse. But the buy­ing and sell­ing of sponsorshi­ps also leaves many vul­ner­a­ble.

Shokair re­calls that he lost $500 on his first at­tempt to find a spon­sor. He paid the money up front to a woman who agreed to give him a per­sonal – not em­ploy­ment-based – spon­sor­ship. But au­thor­i­ties de­nied the ap­pli­ca­tion be­cause the two of them were not re­lated. His wouldbe spon­sor re­fused to re­turn any of the money, cit­ing the trou­ble she had al­ready gone to.

Ali said his spon­sor even­tu­ally be­gan run­ning an out­right scam. Al­though he had hit the limit of Syr­ian work­ers he was legally al­lowed to spon­sor, he con­tin­ued agree­ing to spon­sor more. The Syr­i­ans would send him half the money up front only to dis­cover that their res­i­dency ap­pli­ca­tions had been de­nied.

Ali said he dis­cov­ered the scheme af­ter two friends he had re­ferred to the spon­sor were scammed.

“But ba­si­cally I couldn’t do any­thing to him be­cause he was spon­sor­ing me and some of my rel­a­tives, and if I com­plained about him, I would harm my­self be­fore I harmed him,” he said. In the end, he adds, Gen­eral Se­cu­rity caught onto the fact that the landowner was not, in fact, em­ploy­ing the Syr­i­ans he had spon­sored and be­gan re­fus­ing to re­new their res­i­den­cies.

Hav­ing by then got­ten a tem­po­rary de­fer­ral of mil­i­tary ser­vice thanks to hav­ing res­i­dency in Le­banon, Ali said he re­turned to Syria just be­fore his res­i­dency ex­pired and came back to Le­banon two months later with a new spon­sor – this time, his ac­tual em­ployer in the build­ing where he works as a na­tour. He now pays only the ac­tual cost of the fees and pa­per­work.

He says he some­times thinks he would have been bet­ter off en­ter­ing Le­banon with a smug­gler and stay­ing with­out any le­gal pa­pers.

“We as Syr­i­ans wish that the Le­banese gov­ern­ment would deal di­rectly with Syr­ian cit­i­zens and is­sue a visa, not to have a spon­sor­ship sys­tem or pledge of re­spon­si­bil­ity,” he said. “I wouldn’t have a prob­lem – I would pay $1,000 to the Le­banese gov­ern­ment or $1,500, be­cause I would know that my agree­ment is with the Le­banese state, not with some­one who might black­mail me or scam me or some­thing else.”

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