Syrians’ sponsorship is now a business
Several NGOs insist on differentiating between a refugee and a migrant
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land, and the sponsorship was purely a financial arrangement, Ali told The Daily Star, but asked that his family name not be published.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.”