Passport

Turns Out Getting to Lebanon Doesn’t Mean Syrian Refugees Are Safe  

Lebanon's residency rules are paving the way for the abuse and exploitation of those fleeing Syria's civil war.

ZAHLE, LEBANON - DECEMBER 09: Inhabitants of an informal tented settlement of Syrian refugees on December 09, 2014 in Zahle, Lebanon. The ongoing civil war in Syria continues to force masses of Syrians into neighboring Lebanon. (Photo by )
ZAHLE, LEBANON - DECEMBER 09: Inhabitants of an informal tented settlement of Syrian refugees on December 09, 2014 in Zahle, Lebanon. The ongoing civil war in Syria continues to force masses of Syrians into neighboring Lebanon. (Photo by )

When Abdullah fled the Syrian civil war for Lebanon, he registered with a United Nations refugee office and hoped that would pave the way for him to stay there until the carnage at home ended.

Those hopes evaporated last spring when Lebanese soldiers raided his tent village near the town of Halba. When Abdullah asked how he could renew his paperwork, the response was blunt. “Go pay a sponsor some money or return to your country,” one soldier told him. “We are the state; you obey our laws. The U.N. means nothing.”  

Then, Abdullah says, they locked him in a cell for two days without food or safe drinking water.

His story and others like it are detailed in a new Human Rights Watch report that argues tightened residency laws in Lebanon have “set the stage for a potentially explosive situation” and exposed those fleeing Syria’s brutal civil war to abuse and exploitation.

There are currently two ways for refugees to legally stay in Lebanon: They can either register with the U.N. refugee agency, an option that, like in Abdullah’s case, authorities often arbitrarily veto. Or they can find a Lebanese citizen who will give them a work visa — a process characterized by one refugee interviewed by HRW as “a form of slavery.” Without one or the other, Syrian refugees risk being sent back home.

The report, which is based on more than 60 interviews HRW staff conducted with refugees and aid workers, describes in detail how these rules have prevented the vast majority of displaced Syrians living in Lebanon from renewing their legal status as refugees, which they’re required to do each year. Only two out of the 40 refugees interviewed for the report had successfully re-registered with the UNHCR, and 23 of them said they were denied re-registration even after they brought the necessary paperwork and money.

According to those interviewed, earning sponsorship can be just as difficult. Sponsors sell their services to the highest bidder, which naturally excludes refugees with little means. “They sell sponsorships for up to $1,000 a person,” said one unnamed refugee living outside Beirut. “Potential sponsors wait on the Syrian border or at the airport to sell sponsorships to new arrivals.”

Considering that 70 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live below the poverty line, paying $1,000 for sponsorship is not a reasonable option. HRW recommends canceling the sponsorship program entirely.

According to the rights group, denying legal status to increasing numbers of Syrian men also places burdens on children, who, in at least two cases documented in Tuesday’s report, were the sole source of income for their families.

After months of failing to find a job, Mahmoud, the head of one of the families interviewed, was forced to put his 12-year-old son to work. The son now spends 11 hours a day fixing cars for $15 a week. “If he doesn’t work, my family will sleep in the streets,” Mahmoud said.

In addition to canceling the sponsorship program, the report recommends waiving the annual $200 fee for registering as a refugee or sponsored worker, ending the requirement that refugees sign a pledge to not work, and lifting the ban against registering refugees who arrived after January 2015. It also demanded that the Lebanese military stop detaining refugees whose documents have expired and hold accountable the officers who mistreat or illegally detain refugees.

Photo credit: THOMAS KOEHLER/Photothek via Getty Images

Henry Johnson is a fellow at Foreign Policy. He graduated from Claremont McKenna College with a degree in history and previously wrote for LobeLog. @HenryJohnsoon

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