Syrian refugees in Lebanon – from war to legal void
Lebanon has accepted more people in need per capita than all other states neighbouring Syria but never having acceded to the UN convention does not recognise them as refugees.
Relations between Syria and Lebanon have always been close. Border traffic used to be brisk. Syrians only needed their identity card to enter Lebanon and, long before 2011, hundreds of thousands of Syrians could be found working in Lebanon as construction or seasonal labourers. Lebanon continued to keep its border to Syria open even after every other neighbouring state had long closed theirs. In January of last year, however, Lebanon’s patience ran out. Since then, Syrians have been required to obtain a visa that is tied to a number of conditions: their stay must be kept short and visitors must prove that they have at least $1,000 and a hotel reservation. As a result, “tourism” and “shopping” are seen as valid reasons for entering the country, unlike the need to flee from war and violence. Not even those holding all the necessary documents are guaranteed entry. Ultimately, border patrol guards determine randomly whom they let into the country.
Syrian migrant worker dilemma
Syrians already in Lebanon are not able to have family members still living in Syria to join them. Abu Ahmad, who had worked out a living for himself as a newspaper vendor and tried to scrape together enough money to afford his own room, gave up last year and returned to his home country – to Raqqa, of all places, considered to be the ISIS’ capital city: “My wife is there. Daesh won’t let her leave and Lebanon won’t let her in. But I don’t want to live without her.” Karim, a Kobane-born Kurd who has been living in Lebanon for twelve years now and is in the rare possession of a work permit, sees himself in a similar predicament: “I’ve commuted all my life, earned money here and sent it back home. Now, our house has been razed to the ground and my wife and our two little ones are barely surviving in Turkey where I can’t visit them.”
Women and children suffer more
The plight is even worse for women and children who are often left to their own devices in Lebanon: their husbands and fathers left behind in the war, in prisons or on perilous crossings over the Mediterranean Sea. Women are forced to look after their children and earn a living at the same time, a socially challenging task. They have to shoulder more and are taken less seriously, especially when dealing with government agencies. As it is virtually impossible to obtain a work permit, employers and landlords often abuse their plight. This gives rise to child labour, prostitution and underage marriage. Only a very small handful can afford to attend school and, although Lebanon’s education sector receives considerable external aid, the country is still far from being able to provide every child with a place at school.
Every step towards legality or further exile costs money. A Lebanese work permit comes with a $200 price tag; $2,000 will open the door to being smuggled into Europe. When families take the agonising decision on which member should use the little money that they can scrape together, the men are frequently chosen. Since men are subjected to significantly tighter scrutiny at checkpoints than women, they are often the only family members capable of obtaining a legal residence permit. When fleeing to Europe, men are trusted more than women to make it to their destination and then have the family follow. An asylum policy that restricts family reunifications therefore amplifies the plight and hopelessness among women and children.
Palestine refugee issue casts a shadow
By last year, the United Nations had registered over 1.1 million Syrian refugees. The Lebanese Republic, however, prohibited further registrations as of 1 January 2015. On paper at least, the government is looking to create the impression that it is preventing more refugees from entering the country.
Four million nationals live in Lebanon, plus around half a million Palestinian refugees who have been settled here since 1948. Lebanon uses them to justify why it does not want to erect any official refugee camps and only allows international organisations limited means to take care of the refugees. The country does not want them to settle nor run the risk of having a further sizeable group of foreigners residing in the country, especially one that could destabilise Lebanon’s delicately balanced religious structure.
Winners and losers in the crisis
Social tensions are quick to flare up as the crisis has widened the social divide in Lebanon. The 25 per cent of the population already living below the poverty line before 2011 has been pushed into even greater poverty as a result of the rise in rents and the cost of living. Property and landowners on the other hand have reaped the benefits. Lebanese employers circumvent the law by illegally recruiting Syrian workers, thus avoiding paying the minimum wage. Some municipal authorities cite security concerns in order to impose curfews on Syrians that, at times, extend to 23 hours per day. For years, Lebanese human rights organisations have been calling on the Lebanese government to pass regulations governing Syrians: “Until the government issues transparent statements as to what Syrians may or may not do, it will be difficult.
"Refugees cannot rely on anything and continue to be subject to the arbitrariness of municipal authorities or local decision-makers," says Wadih al-Asmar of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH): “Europe should help by all means, but it should press for human rights standards in the process. Financial aid is all well and good, but it should be tied to conditions.” Despite the divide within the governing elite, which has resulted in the country failing to have a president for the past two years, the parties do agree on one thing: they do not want to embrace the unpopular refugee issue or put forward constructive proposals. Instead, they prefer to pursue populist policies whilst continuing to hope that the problem will “somehow” resolve itself.
So long as the war continues in Syria, many Syrians have no prospect of returning home. At the same time, the legal uncertainty surrounding refugees in Lebanon is causing them to view entering Europe via the Mediterranean Sea as their only chance of survival. “We won’t die of hunger here,” says one Syrian activist, “but even the simplest of things are hard to come by. We’re in a precarious situation and the government could arrest or deport us whenever it saw fit.”
This article is part of our dossier "Crossing borders – refugee and asylum policy in Europe".