A Syrian refugee camp in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, close to the Syrian border, December 2016. (Jane Barlow, PA Images)
Six years into the Syrian civil war, there appears to be a glimmer of hope for the 1.5 million refugees residing in neighboring Lebanon, who account for roughly 25% of the population.
Lebanon’s General Security quietly announced in February the waiving of a hefty biannual registration fee of $200 for refugees registered under the UNHCR. In practice, this fee meant that a refugee family of four would have to pay $1600 annually just for registration. But before anyone calls for a collective sigh of relief, we need to read between the lines.
The least vulnerable won’t benefit
When it comes to the 500,000 refugees that are not registered under the UNHCR, they don’t enjoy the easing of this financial burden. That’s about a third of the potential beneficiaries. This leaves us with approximately 1,000,000 registered refugees - 1,011,366 to be exact.
Some local media here in Lebanon have decided to leave it at that - if the policy eased the burden of over a million refugees, then it would be a positive and motivating step forward. However, that’s only half the story.
Refugees who have earned residencies in Lebanon through a Lebanese sponsor don’t benefit from the new policy. Human Rights Watch Lebanon Researcher Bassam Khawaja says that while the numbers of exactly how many fit that category are unclear, “Humanitarian agencies estimate that this a large number, because contrary to General Security policy, for the last several years many refugees have been pushed to get sponsors, even registered ones”.
And according to Human Rights Watch Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa Lama Fakih, “It is common that Syrians pay their own fees, and there are cases of them paying fees to their sponsor”. This includes an annual $200 fee to work sponsors imposed by Lebanese law.
In addition to that, there are some cases where they have to pay municipal fees to be able to work there; for example, in the northern town of Ehden, Syrian workers have to pay an annual $100 fee to maintain their right to work.
There are also 31,000 Palestinian refugees fleeing from Syria. Those double-displaced refugees are explicitly excluded from the General Security reform.
Even registered Syrian refugees have gone through hell
The barriers to residency are numerous, especially after Lebanon adopted new residency regulations in January 2015 and ordered the UNHCR to stop registering refugees in May that same year.
These regulations require a $200 annual fee per person. Some Syrians who struggle to find a sponsor have ended up paying $1000. A refugee who spoke to Human Rights Watch in Lebanon has described it as a “business.”
The lack of freedom of mobility and fear of arrest and deportation has increased the reliance of refugee children of being the family’s breadwinners, often working exploitative labor jobs, or begging and selling flowers on the streets of Beirut.
Being registered has a positive connotation; there is an assumption that those registered under UNHCR or UNRWA have acquired their basic needs, or receive services in sufficient amount. This couldn’t be further from the truth. there is a consensus among Lebanon’s political elite about the swift return of Syrian refugees, against their will and regardless of their safety
A notable example is Palestinian-Syrian refugee Abdelhalim Al-Attar, who made headlines worldwide after an Icelandic journalist Gissur Simonarson shared a picture of him selling pens while holding his daughter on his shoulders. This led to a huge crowd-funding campaign; he now owns several bakeries and has employed many Syrian refugees.
He was a registered refugee under an unspecified UN agency. In an interview with Sky News Arabia, Al-Attar said that the UN agency pays them $13 per person per month. So when it comes to him and his two children, he receives a paltry $39 per month. As a result, his only alternative was to sell pens on the streets.
But fortune is not in everyone’s favor, and while Al-Attar said he wishes that the public would crowdfund for all Syrian refugees and their families, we know this is highly unlikely.
Lebanon and imaginary safe-zones
This policy reform is not making headlines, unlike Lebanon’s interest in forcefully returning refugees, despite it violating the non-refoulement principle of international law, which prohibits sending people back to where they can be persecuted or harmed.
When President Michel Aoun was elected in October 2016, one of the first topics he addressed during his premiere speech was sending refugees back, citing the camps as security threats. Previously, ex-Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi also called for the swift and systematic return of Syrian refugees through an elaborate plan he presented to the now ex-cabinet in 2016. There are more recent and substantial developments that indicate that this superficial reform is indeed in vein.
Meanwhile, there have been negotiations between Hezbollah with the Free Syria Army’s Saraya Ahl Al-Sham brigade to return Syrian refugees through Lebanon’s northeastern town of Arsal.
Moreover, a harrowing visit from French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen revealed that the swift return of Syrian refugees against their will, and regardless of their safety, has reached a consensus among Lebanon’s political elite.
While the easing of any and all burden on refugees and vulnerable people are always welcomed, it is clear that this development has not been done in the interest of human rights. Rather, it tries to camouflage a dark stain on the exploitation and poor treatment of refugees.
This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.