This is the first part of a series on the legal and economic conditions dictating the long-term futures of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon – published in collaboration with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. The following was excerpted from The Legal Status of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon. A longer version of this report will appear in the background section of Refugees Deeply.
BEIRUT – Lebanon, a country with an already fragile governance system and sub-standard infrastructure, has had an ambiguous approach to Syrians seeking protection in the country.
The country is currently experiencing deep political deadlock, having been without a president since May 2014 and due to the two-time postponement of parliamentary elections scheduled for 2013.
Thirty years of Syrian military presence has moreover influenced government policies towards refugees from Syria, as has the country’s long-term Palestinian refugee presence.
The country is not a party to the 1951 U.N. Convention on the Status of Refugees, and it lacks any meaningful national legislation dealing with refugees. Syrian refugees have thus no status other than that afforded to Syrian nationals in general. They are furthermore not referred to by government authorities as “refugees” but as “displaced,” a less historically and legally loaded term.
In October 2014, Lebanon’s Council of Ministers adopted a comprehensive policy on Syrian displacement, one explicit goal of which is to decrease the number of Syrians in Lebanon by reducing access to territory and encouraging return to Syria.
This ambition is currently being implemented through the General Security Office’s (GSO) December 2014 set of entry requirements for Syrians and new rules for Syrian nationals already in Lebanon applying for and renewing their residency permits.
Lebanon’s recent regulatory changes leave many refugees in a deeply precarious legal position. The strict entry requirements mean that many people attempting to flee the conflict in Syria cannot find safety in Lebanon, and the new criteria concerning the renewal or regularization of legal stay are so onerous and expensive that most people are unable to renew their permits.
As such, an overwhelming majority of Syrian refugees are present in Lebanon without legal status. In essence, this paper therefore argues that Syrians in Lebanon are left with two options: they either leave the country, or stay and accept exploitation.
From Open Borders to Deterrence
In the early stages of Syrian displacement, Lebanon won significant praise from human rights groups and the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) for its open borders and non-encampment policy. But closer scrutiny suggests that these policies were not the result of any particular, intentional government approach to Syrian refugees, but are rather symptomatic of the current political stalemate.
This impasse within constitutional institutions has paralyzed public policy on Syrian displacement, and in fact led to the government having no strategy at all to respond to the influx of refugees in the early stages of Syrian displacement. This, in turn, initiated varying and sometimes contradictory responses within government agencies and municipalities alike.
Due to the political stalemate in Lebanon and lack of national policy for the management of the Syrian refugee influx at central government level, Lebanese municipalities, who have long become the de facto authority in responding to emerging problems, were left with managing the increasing flow.
One of the clearest examples of this municipality autonomy are the curfews imposed on Syrian refugees, restricting freedom of movement. From August 2014, at least 45 municipalities across Lebanon have put in place such curfews, which are enforced by municipality police but also allegedly by local vigilante groups.
Lebanon and International Refugee Law
The protracted Palestinian issue is often cited as a reason for a continued refusal of many states in the Middle East to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Many countries in the region are anxious to ensure that Palestinian refugees retain their special status and not be subjected to the prevailing norm of resettlement. Lebanon is no exception in this regard, and the country is not a party to the U.N. Refugee Convention.
By way of customary international law, however, Lebanon is inter alia bound by leading principles of refugee protection, not the least the principle of non-refoulement. This principle is generally considered to be the cornerstone of international refugee law in that it prohibits refugees from being returned or expelled to places where their lives or freedoms could be threatened.
UNHCR has signed a 2003 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Lebanon permitting it to register asylum seekers and conduct refugee status determination.This MoU affirms that “Lebanon does not consider itself an asylum country,” and specifies that an “asylum seeker” means a “person seeking asylum in a country other than Lebanon.”
Admission to Lebanon for Syrians is today restricted to those who can produce valid identity documents and proof that their stay in Lebanon fits into one of the approved entry categories. A list of categories for which admission would be granted includes the following: category one for tourism, shopping, business, landlords and tenants; category two for studying; category three for transiting to a third country; category four for those displaced; category five for medical treatment; category six for an embassy appointment; and category seven for those entering with a pledge of responsibility (a Lebanese sponsor).
There are no categories for those fleeing armed conflict, violence or persecution and seeking safety in Lebanon; the category for “displaced” persons in fact requires compliance with one of the other categories, or with the government’s “humanitarian exceptions criteria.”
As such, the category for the “displaced” does not include most of those fleeing the Syrian conflict, in contravention of Lebanon’s obligations under the customary law principle of non-refoulement.
Onerous Permits to Stay
On top of preliminary entry requirements, Syrian refugees are confronted with serious obstacles to maintaining their legal status in Lebanon.
According to Amnesty International, the process of obtaining a housing pledge is a tedious one, not only entailing the signature of a landlord or a tenant (subletting to the Syrian refugee in question) confirming that he or she is hosting a Syrian household and committing to notify the local GSO when the occupancy ends, but also the demonstration by the landlord or tenant of his/her rights to the property by either presenting a certified copy of the property deed, or a lease agreement. For Syrian nationals living in informal tented settlements, there is a requirement to provide a residency statement from the local municipality stating this.
Syrians who are registered with UNHCR must additionally provide: a pledge not to work, signed in the presence of a notary, which states that they will not work in Lebanon; UNHCR registration certificate; and proof of their financial means such as bank statements, documents showing money transfers or proof of charitable or U.N. support, such as World Food Programme (WFP) prepaid cards.
Agencies working with refugees estimate that most refugees will be unable to meet these requirements. For those able to provide all the necessary documents and pay the required fees, their request to renew their residency permits can be denied by the GSO, for reasons that are often unclear.
The views expressed in this article belong to its authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.