“I Just Wanted to be Treated Like a Person” How Lebanon’s Residency Rules Facilitate Abuse of Syrian Refugees

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In January 2015, Lebanon ended its previously open-door policy for Syrians, which had allowed them to generally enter the country without a visa and to renew their residencies virtually free of charge.

The new border entry regulations that came into force on January 5, 2015, denied entry to many Syrians fleeing armed conflict and persecution. The same day, General Security, the agency that oversees the entry and exit of foreigners into the country, implemented restrictive and costly residency renewal regulations.

These new regulations sort Syrians seeking to renew residency permits into two categories: those registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations refugee agency; and those who are not, who must find a Lebanese sponsor to remain legally in the country. All must pay a $200 annual fee for renewals, and provide identification papers and documentation about their lodging. Children under 15 can renew for free but their application is tied to the legal status of the head of household.

This report finds that the new regulations impose onerous burdens on both groups of Syrians that bar most from renewing required residency permits. According to UNHCR, there are nearly 1.2 million Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR in Lebanon. Lebanese authorities have not published statistics on the number of Syrian refugees without legal status.

But international and local aid workers assisting refugees told Human Rights Watch that the new rules have resulted in most losing their legal standing in the last year; only two out of forty refugees living in Lebanon whom Human Rights Watch interviewed between February and November 2015 had been able to renew their residencies with their UNHCR certificates. Two others successfully renewed their residencies through their sponsors after being denied renewal with their UNHCR certificates.

This loss of legal status puts refugees at risk of arrest, and, if detained, of ill-treatment in detention. Security raids on refugee settlements and arrests of refugees without legal status at checkpoints have occurred frequently since August 2014 clashes between the Lebanese Army and the extremist groups Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra.

Human Rights Watch research has found that it also makes them vulnerable to labor and sexual exploitation by employers, without the ability to turn to authorities for protection. Even those who do find sponsors do not benefit from protection under Lebanon’s labor laws and are vulnerable to those to whom they owe their legal status. Five Syrian women told Human Rights Watch that sponsors or employers sexually harassed or tried to sexually exploit them but that they could not confront them for fear of losing residency. Four international aid workers said they have received dozens of reports of abuse by sponsors. One refugee called the sponsorship system “a form of slavery.”

All those who had lost their status reported restricting their movement due to fear of arrest, and almost all said they could not pay the $200 annual fee—a prohibitively large sum for most given that UNHCR reports that 70 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon fall below the poverty line and rely on aid to survive. Nearly 90 percent are trapped in a vicious cycle of debt, according to a recent United Nations assessment.

This dire economic situation is fueled by the inability of most Syrian refugees to access the formal labor market: those registered with UNHCR are prohibited from working in Lebanon and must sign a no-work agreement when they renew their residency, violation of which puts them at risk of arrest and deportation. Children and women are especially vulnerable to workplace abuse, refugee and humanitarian workers told Human Rights Watch.

Lack of legal status for many Syrians over 15 and the corresponding reduction in their ability to move around and work has led to a rise in child labor. Many Syrian refugee children—favored by employers because they are cheap labor—end up working to support families. “If he doesn’t work, my family will sleep in the streets,” Mahmoud said of his 12-year-old son, Ali, who for the past two years has worked 11 hour days fixing damaged vehicles for $15 a week. An International Labor Organization (ILO) report in 2015 claimed that many Syrian refugee children are engaged in the worst forms of child labor, such as bonded labor in agriculture or street-based work in urban centers, to support their families.

New residency restrictions also increase the risk of Syrian children recently born in Lebanon becoming stateless due to the fact that their parents cannot register their births in the country if they do not have legal status. Already in 2014, before the current restrictions, a UNHCR survey found that 72 percent of children born to Syrian refugees in Lebanon did not have an official birth certificate due to the registration system requiring documents that their parents could not provide.

Lack of legal status may prevent children from accessing education. While the Ministry of Education issued a memorandum to schools in 2012 to enroll Syrian students regardless of their legal status, which later reaffirmed by the Ministry of Education before the start of the 2015-2016 school year, Human Rights Watch research found that some school directors continue to deny children without legal status enrollment in public schools. Long distances to schools also prevented some parents who do not have legal status from sending children across checkpoints that they themselves cannot cross, especially when there is no transportation.

The renewal process is itself abusive and arbitrary. For instance, many who are registered with UNHCR said that General Security asked them to provide a work sponsor, even though regulations do not require it. Refugees and aid workers also said that some General Security employees and local officials use the renewal process to interrogate Syrians about security issues, and to even elicit sexual or financial favors.

Cuts in food aid last July to $13.50 a month per person compound the stress that refugees face, and may increase their vulnerability to extremist groups. Executive Director of the World Food Program Ertharin Cousin warned that a drop in food assistance is making young men “prime targets for Islamist extremist groups who are paying money for service.”

At the end of October 2015, food vouchers for extremely vulnerable Syrian refugees increased to $21 a month although continued funding shortages means the program’s future remains unclear. One international humanitarian worker in Akkar and a local humanitarian worker in the Bekaa separately confirmed to Human Rights Watch that they had received at least one report of armed groups exploiting the economic vulnerability of Syrian refugees to recruit followers.

The 2015 restrictions on border access and renewals were imposed by decree from the Ministry of the Interior following a decision by Lebanon’s Council of Ministers in October 2014 to reduce the number of Syrians in the country. However, all refugees who spoke to Human Rights Watch reported they could not go back to Syria out of fear of persecution and generally lack money and other means to leave Lebanon and have little chance of being resettled in a third country. UNHCR noted during an interagency meeting for aid providers on October 2 that the majority of Syrian onward movement from Lebanon to Europe is transit directly from Syria.

A recent International Crisis Group report on Lebanon described the situation as a “pressure cooker” and that the interest of the political class in using Syrian refugees “as a scapegoat virtually guarantees they will become a growing problem.” On the one-year anniversary of the adoption of the restrictive renewal regulations, Human Rights Watch calls on Lebanese authorities to do all it can to ensure this is not the case.

Authorities should reform these regulations by cancelling the sponsorship system, waiving renewal fees, ensuring that all Syrian births in Lebanon are registered, and ending the practice of detaining refugees on the basis that their residency documents have expired. Such changes will not only protect refugees’ rights but will promote greater stability in Lebanon by ensuring that Syrian refugees are not driven to destitution.

At the same time, the international community needs to urgently step up its support. Lebanon has the highest per capita number of refugees in the world. Yet as of November, the 2015 Lebanon Crisis Response Plan (LCRP) was only 45 percent funded. According to UNHCR, as of the beginning of December 2015, only 5,032 Syrian refugees departed from Lebanon under resettlement and humanitarian programs. The international community also needs to continue to expand and expedite the resettlement process to lessen the systematic delays that exacerbate the vulnerability of refugees to many types of abuses.

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40 pages

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Promoting the involvement of women, refugees, asylum seekers in migrant/diaspora organizations for development

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JMDI publication