(Beirut) – A decision to lift a hefty fee that has prevented many Syrians from maintaining legal status in Lebanon is a positive step, Human Rights Watch said today. Yet the decision appears to exclude a number of the most vulnerable refugees.

A General Security officer stands by as a Syrian bus driver carries the passports and departure cards of Syrians arriving in Lebanon. 

© 2015 Reuters

The new policy, announced last week by General Security, would waive the annual $200 residency fee for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, provided that they registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) before January 1, 2015, or obtained residency through their UNHCR certificate at least once in 2015 or 2016.

“If it’s carried out, the decision to waive residency fees for some refugees will have a real and positive impact for many Syrian families living in Lebanon,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Yet excluding large parts of the refugee population only serves to further marginalize already vulnerable people.”

The policy excludes Syrians not registered with UNHCR, almost 500,000 people by government estimates. On May 6, 2015, UNHCR suspended registration of Syrian refugees in Lebanon at the request of the Lebanese government. General Security also confirmed to Human Rights Watch by phone, on February 13, that the policy excludes registered refugees who renewed their residency through sponsorship by a Lebanese national. General Security also said that the waiver does not apply to Palestinian refugees from Syria.

Human Rights Watch and aid organizations have long called for waiver of residency renewal fees for all Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

Lebanon introduced new residency regulations in January 2015 that most refugees have been unable to comply with. Without residency, refugees can be arrested, restricting their movement. This makes it difficult for them to work, send their children to school, or get health care. It has also hindered their ability to register marriages and births, leaving tens of thousands of Syrian children born in Lebanon at risk of statelessness. An inability to work has exacerbated poverty among refugees, leading to increased child labor and early marriages. The lack of legal status has also left refugees vulnerable to a range of abuses, including labor exploitation and sexual abuse, unable to turn to the authorities for protection for fear that police may arrest them for expired residency.

In 2016, Human Rights Watch found that half of the nearly 500,000 Syrian school-age children registered with UNHCR in Lebanon were not getting a formal education, and that lack of residency was a key barrier.

Lebanese authorities have not published any statistics on the number of Syrian refugees without legal status, but the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan, published in January 2017, estimates that 60 percent of those over age 15 lack legal residency, compared with 47 percent in January 2016. At a February 2016 donors conference in London, Lebanon committed to a review of existing regulatory frameworks related to residency conditions and work authorizations for Syrians.

The residency regulations introduced in January 2015 required all Syrians 15 and over to pay an annual $200 renewal fee per person, present valid identification and an entry slip obtained at the border, submit a housing pledge confirming their place of residence, and provide two photographs stamped by a Lebanese local official.

To maintain residency, Syrians not registered with UNHCR have to provide a “pledge of responsibility” signed by a Lebanese national or registered entity to sponsor an individual or family. Human Rights Watch found that some Lebanese nationals charge refugees up to $1,000 for sponsorship and that in many cases, General Security required sponsorship even for refugees registered with UNHCR.

More than 1 million Syrian refugees are registered with UNHCR in Lebanon, although the government estimates that there are 1.5 million Syrians in the country. General Security and aid groups operating in Lebanon should publicize the new policy broadly so that eligible Syrian refugees can benefit from the fee waiver, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch found that General Security offices have applied residency policies inconsistently, including by requiring refugees registered with UNHCR to obtain a sponsor and by requiring Syrians to sign a pledge not to work, even after this requirement was dropped in 2016. Lebanese authorities should ensure that the new fee waiver policy is applied consistently by all General Security offices in Lebanon, Human Rights Watch said.

The residency renewal announcement comes amid troubling public statements about the possible return of refugees, including reports of negotiations between Hezbollah and Syrian opposition forces to return refugees from Lebanon to Syria. This policy risks cementing a category of refugees without residency who would be highly vulnerable to any forced returns. Conditions in Syria do not permit the creation of safe zones and any forcible or coerced return of refugees would be illegal under international law, whether or not the Syrians have residency status or are registered with UNHCR. Refugees are entitled to protection and should not be forced to return to countries where they face persecution.

“Lebanon shouldn’t leave out Syrians who were unable to register with UNHCR or resorted to a Lebanese sponsor to maintain legal status,” Fakih said. “It is in Lebanon’s own interest to ensure that all refugees are able to live legally here without fear of arrest, until such time as conditions in Syria permit their safe return.”