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Dispatches: Lebanon’s Chance to Hit ‘Reset’ on Refugees

With today’s major donor conference to assist Syrians and countries hosting them, Lebanon’s leaders have some tough questions to answer.  Do they want to continue with their existing Syrian refugee policy, which has led to hundreds of thousands of Syrians living at the margins of society? Or can they use the donor conference as an opportunity to adopt policies that improve their situation while also helping disadvantaged Lebanese who have suffered from perennial governmental inaction?

Syrian women hang clothing on their balconies inside a compound for Syrian Refugees in Sidon, south Lebanon April 17, 2015. © REUTERS/ Ali Hashisho

 Lebanese regulations, imposed in January 2015, have effectively barred most Syrian refugees from renewing their legal status, leaving them vulnerable to a range of abuses, including labor and sexual abuse, without the ability to turn to authorities for protection.

If the aim of the new regulations was to reduce the number of Syrians living in Lebanon,  they have failed. Most refugees won’t return to Syria as long as it is ravaged by war.

The regulations also harm  Lebanese. Repeated arrests and ill-treatment by security forces for lack of legal status or fraudulent manipulation of the sponsorship system is bad for the whole community. Policies should instead ensure that Syrian refugees are not driven to destitution or become targets of extremism.

The residency regulations exist because of a political decision and it simply takes another political decision to reform them. Policies that protect refugees don’t require the permanent settlement of refugees in Lebanon; however policies that don’t set the stage for a potentially explosive situation. 

Some organizations working with refugees  such as the Norwegian Refugee Council and the International Refugee Council have publicly called for their reform, including the call to end the sponsorship system. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has called for the waiver of renewal fees and cancelation of the pledge not to work. Ending the sponsorship system, waiving residency renewal fees, and canceling the pledge not to work- are important first steps toward reform of the residency renewal system.

Today donors will meet in London to discuss supporting Syria and its neighbors affected by the crisis. Donors should call on host countries to reform bad policies that most refugees find nearly impossible to meet.

But in return donors should show good faith and generosity, which isn’t limited to financial pledges. Countries should also increase resettlement slots for Syrians and better assist those fleeing to Europe. And some European politicians need to acknowledge that  urging the containment of the Syrian refugee crisis in the region is a slap in the face to the generosity shown by Lebanese hosting the highest per capita number of refugees in the world. The Syrian refugee crisis is a global crisis and each country should do its part.


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