A new residency policy announced last month waiving hefty residency fees for some Syrian refugees in Lebanon is a step forward for many people desperate for a secure legal status here. But it leaves many others out in the cold.

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

© 2015 Reuters

Lebanon tightened its residency policy two years ago, requiring Syrians to pay a hefty $200 annual fee to maintain legal status in the country. Since then, more than 60 percent of refugees are estimated to have lost their legal status, restricting their ability to move freely for fear of arrest. This has made it much harder for them to work, get health care and education, and register births and marriages. The lack of legal status contributes to widespread poverty, a risk of statelessness for the refugees’ newborn children, early marriage, and barriers that keep 250,000 Syrian children out of school.

For many Syrians here, the new fee waiver will be life changing. But it excludes a large part of the refugee population, raising troubling questions as to Lebanon’s continued efforts to delegitimize Syrians’ claims to refugee status. The order excludes an estimated 500,000 Syrians not registered with UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, even though the government directed UNHCR to stop registering Syrians as refugees in May 2015. It also excludes anyone who has used a Lebanese sponsor to maintain legal residency, even though General Security officers have required many Syrians to secure sponsors—in contravention of Lebanese policies.

Lebanese General Security offices also have a history of applying new directives inconsistently. Human Rights Watch called several General Security offices and received contradictory information about how the directive would be carried out. One office still requires refugees to sign a pledge not to work, though that requirement was dropped last summer. Meanwhile, Lebanese security services have continued mass raids on refugee communities, arresting people those without legal residency.

Lebanese authorities have long pursued a policy of undermining Syrians’ claims to refugee status and limiting the number of refugees registered with UNHCR. Lebanon refers to people who fled here from Syria after March 2011 as “temporarily displaced individuals” as opposed to “refugees.” In January 2015 General Security began enforcing new border entry regulations that effectively sealed the border to many Syrians fleeing armed conflict and persecution.

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. Lebanon’s president recently called for the return of refugees to “safe” zones inside Syria. And in February Lebanon’s foreign minister called for adopting “a policy to encourage the Syrians to return to their country.”

The situation inside Syria simply does not permit the creation of truly safe zones. As the UN high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, said last month, "Let's not waste time planning safe zones that will not be set up because they will not be safe enough for people to go back." Areas that appear safe today could come under attack tomorrow. And refugees I have spoken with in recent months certainly don’t feel that conditions are safe enough for them to return.

International law on this is clear: any forced or coerced return of refugees from Lebanon would be unlawful, whether or not they are registered with UNHCR or have legal status in Lebanon. Yet this new policy risks cementing a second class of refugees living without residency, who could be among the first to go should coerced returns ever take place.

Although Lebanon has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, it is bound by the customary international law principle of nonrefoulement, and under human rights law, not to return anyone to a place where they would face a real risk of persecution, torture or other ill-treatment, or a threat to life. Refoulement occurs not only when a refugee is directly rejected or expelled, but also when indirect pressure is so intense that it leads refugees to believe that they have no practical option but to return to a country where they face these risks. Under international refugee practice, repatriation is only considered voluntary if refugees have a genuinely free choice about whether to return and are fully informed about conditions in their home country.

Lebanese authorities should expand the new fee waiver to cover all Syrian refugees in Lebanon and ensure that they are able to live in safety until conditions permit their safe and voluntary return to Syria. Lebanese officials should also reaffirm their commitment not to forcibly return anyone to Syria.

Lebanon has put richer and more powerful countries to shame by taking in as many as 1.5 million refugees—25 percent of its population—at a time when others have closed their doors. It deserves far greater international respect and support for that. But Syrians excluded from the new policy are still stuck in legal limbo, with disastrous consequences. Lebanon should extend legal status to all Syrian refugees in the country, and not exclude those who are among the most vulnerable.