(Beirut) – A new regulation allowing some Syrian teenagers to get temporary legal status in Lebanon more easily is a positive and long-awaited step, Human Rights Watch said today. Lebanese authorities should ensure that all children can maintain legal status, a key factor in fulfilling their right to an education.
Lebanon’s General Security agency, in charge of foreigners’ entry and residency in Lebanon, issued the regulation effective March 31, 2018. It allows Syrian children who turned ages 15 to 18 after entering Lebanon and who do not have a Syrian passport or national identity card to obtain temporary residency by presenting their Syrian individual status record, so long as it is not over two years old. General Security told Human Rights Watch that the regulation excludes refugees who have already turned 19. Authorities should ensure that refugees who turned 15 to 18 after entering Lebanon but are now over 18 can benefit from this change. They should also accept additional forms of documentation such as United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) registration or family booklets in cases in which these refugees do not have other identification.
“This is a positive and much needed step to ensure that Syrian children in Lebanon can attend school safely and without risking arrest for lack of legal status,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Children should not be forced into legal limbo simply because they didn’t have certain documents when fleeing to Lebanon.”
Most Syrian refugees have not been able to meet the requirements of harsh residency regulations that Lebanon imposed in January 2015. An estimated 74 percent of the nearly 1 million registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon now lack legal status, with consequences for nearly every aspect of their lives. In a 2018 survey of 129 Syrians ages 15 to 18, the Norwegian Refugee Council found that 90 percent did not have legal residency.
Lack of residency limits refugees’ freedom of movement; leaves them vulnerable to arrest, abuse, and exploitation; hinders access to education and health care; and exacerbates child labor and early marriage. It can mean that any interaction with authorities is a risk.
Previously, children under 15 were covered by their parents’ residency status, but upon turning 15, they had to apply for their own residency using either a Syrian national ID or passport. However, many children fled to Lebanon before obtaining those documents. According to a Norwegian Refugee Council briefing document, 78 percent of children surveyed had a Syrian civil extract, also known as an individual status record, as compared with 6 percent with a passport. However, many of the individual status records will have been issued more than two years ago. General Security should amend the new regulation to accept these older personal status records.
Legal status is key to ensuring that children can continue their education, Human Rights Watch said. According to the UN Refugee Agency, only 3,902 “non-Lebanese children” are enrolled in formal secondary education, just 5 percent of the nearly 80,000 registered Syrian refugees ages 15 to 18. More than 200,000 registered Syrian children are still out of school in Lebanon seven years into the refugee crisis.
A 2016 survey by the University of Saint Joseph found that refugee children ages 15 to 17 without residency were more likely to be out of school than children in that age group with valid residency.
Older Syrian children face increasing restrictions on their freedom of movement precisely when they may need to travel longer distances and cross more checkpoints to attend secondary school. And although young children can usually cross checkpoints without incident, older children are more likely to be stopped.
Human Rights Watch previously found that General Security offices have applied residency policies inconsistently, including requiring refugees registered with UNHCR to obtain a Lebanese sponsor and requiring Syrians to sign a pledge not to work, even after this requirement was dropped in 2016. When General Security waived the annual US$200 residency fee for some refugees in 2017, it also imposed a daily quota of applications that limited the effect of the waiver, humanitarian organizations told Human Rights Watch. Lebanese authorities should ensure that the latest decision is applied consistently by all General Security offices in Lebanon, Human Rights Watch said.
The State Consultative Council found in February that the 2015 residency and entry regulations were invalid because it was the role of the government, not security agencies, to set these regulations. However, the regulations remain in force.
The Friends of Syria Group meeting in Brussels on April 24 and 25 should adopt policies and provide sufficient funding to address key obstacles to education, including harsh residency policies that restrict access to schools and contribute to poverty and child labor, Human Rights Watch said. Ensuring access to secondary education should be a core part of the education response.
Human Rights Watch has also urged candidates for Lebanon’s parliamentary elections on May 6 to support easing restrictions on temporary legal status for Syrians in Lebanon, until it is safe for them to return to Syria.
“The new decision is a step in the right direction, but should be expanded to ensure that people aren’t falling through the cracks,” Fakih said. “Children who turned 15 in Lebanon and lost legal status should not be excluded from this decision simply because they have already turned 18.”