(Beirut) – Lebanese authorities are imposing regulations that effectively bar many Syrian refugees from renewing their residency permits, heightening risks of exploitation and abuse among people who fled persecution and war, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
“These residency regulations are making life impossible for refugees in Lebanon and are pushing them underground,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director. “The last thing Lebanon needs is a large, undocumented community living at the margins of society, at heightened risk of abuse.”
Lebanese authorities have not published statistics on Syrian refugees who lack legal status under Lebanon’s domestic law, but local and international aid workers told Human Rights Watch that most Syrians they are assisting have lost their legal status. The lack of legal standing has left refugees vulnerable to a range of abuses, including labor and sexual abuse, without the ability to turn to authorities for protection. Under international law, refugees are entitled to protection and should not be forced to return to countries where they face persecution.
Under the January 2015 residency regulations, refugees applying to renew their residency permits are sorted into two categories: those registered with UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, and those who are not and must find a Lebanese sponsor to remain in the country legally. Human Rights Watch found that prohibitive paperwork requirements and fees, combined with arbitrary application of the regulations, effectively bar Syrians in both categories from renewal.
Almost all refugees interviewed said they could not pay the $200 annual renewal fee for any Syrian age 15 or over – a prohibitively large sum for most, given that UNHCR reports that 70 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon fall below the poverty line and rely on aid to survive. Most refugees told Human Rights Watch that the renewal process is itself abusive and arbitrary. Many refugees registered with UNHCR reported that officials still asked them to provide a sponsor, even though the regulations do not require it. Refugees and aid workers also said that some government employees use the renewal process to interrogate Syrians about security issues.
The need to find a sponsor increases Syrians’ exposure to harassment and facilitates corruption. A refugee living outside Beirut said that “sponsors are making a business out of it. They sell sponsorships for up to $1,000 a person. Potential sponsors wait on the Syrian border or at the airport to sell sponsorships to new arrivals.”
Amr, an older Syrian refugee living outside the southern city of Saida, told Human Rights Watch that the fact that his sponsor is his employer has locked him into an endless cycle of abuse and exploitation: “My boss makes me work more than 12 hours a day at his shop. Sometimes I complain but then he threatens to cancel my sponsorship. What can I do? I have to do whatever he says. I feel like his slave.”
The lack of residency has serious consequences for the refugees. Many reported restricting their movement for fear of arrest. Those who are working said employers often underpaid them, exploiting their inability to complain to authorities. Five Syrian women told Human Rights Watch that sponsors and employers attempted to sexually exploit them and they did not dare approach the authorities to complain.
The inability to renew residency has also negatively affected children. Since many adults can no longer move around freely and children are less likely to be stopped at checkpoints, more children are having to work to sustain their families. Some described working in dangerous conditions, such as using flame torches to fix cars, and others had dropped out of school to work. Refugees also said that some school directors refused to enroll children without valid residency, even though residency is not required for school registration. Newborn children are at risk of becoming stateless because their parents cannot obtain official birth certificates in Lebanon without legal status.
The new restrictions on renewal were adopted as part of the Lebanese authorities’ hardening stance toward Syrian refugees. In October 2014, the Lebanese Cabinet voted to adopt a policy paper which called for halting the influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon and reducing the number of refugees already in country.
However, all refugees who spoke to Human Rights Watch said they feared for their lives if they returned to Syria, lacked money and other means to leave Lebanon, and have little chance of being resettled in a third country. Nearly 90 percent are trapped in a vicious cycle of debt, according to a recent UN assessment. UNHCR noted during an interagency meeting for aid providers on October 2, 2015, that the majority of Syrian onward movement from Lebanon to Europe is people coming directly from Syria, not people already living in Lebanon.
Lebanon is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol. Consequently, Lebanon does not assign refugee status to individuals who would otherwise qualify for it under international law, and all procedures for entering and remaining in the country are based on local law and regulations. However, Lebanon is still bound by the customary international law principle of nonrefoulement, which prohibits returning people to places where they risk being persecuted, tortured, or exposed to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
“Lebanon’s shortsighted policies are setting the stage for a potentially explosive situation,” Houry said. “With international help, Lebanon should adopt policies that allow Syrian refugees to keep their legal status in the country and live in dignity. This is not only the minimum standard for treating refugees, it will also promote stability in the country by regularizing their presence.”