BEIRUT — Earlier this year Lebanon enacted strict new visa requirements to dissuade Syrians from staying in the country despite the fact that most have nowhere to go, with their own homeland in chaos and ruins.
Although not a member of the United Nations 1951 refugee convention, Lebanon is a party to the protocol against torture. The latter, in tandem with customary international law, bounds authorities to the principal of non-refoulement, a principle that forbids the return of people to a country where they could be killed or experience a severe violation of their human rights.
Lebanon's policy of deterrence is a breach of this custom, and must be understood in light of the global community's failure to assist with the crisis. So far this year, countries outside of the Middle East have provided resettlement to just 4,500 Syrians, a mere .04% of the total number of refugees in Lebanon.
In April 2015, the criteria for entering Lebanon as a "displaced person" were finally made public: Only unaccompanied minors and people with disabilities could be granted asylum. Those escaping armed conflict or sexual violence had no legal safe haven, pushing thousands to cross the border irregularly. If caught, Syrians are instructed to leave within five days and are slapped with a $633 fine, an amount that few can afford.
Just three months after new restrictions were enforced, the United Nations reported an 80% decrease in refugee registration. To make matter worse still, in May the United Nations refugee agency was then ordered to temporarily suspend all refugee processing.
According to a report released by the Norwegian Refugee Council, an organization that offers legal assistance to the displaced, municipalities in Mount Lebanon have become more suspicious of Syrians living without legal status. That's because of a growing misconception that refugees who escaped to Lebanon through an unofficial border are affiliated with dubious armed gangs in Syria.
Many municipalities have consequently imposed strict curfews on Syrian refugees to restrict their movement. Scared of repercussions, refugees have avoided interacting with Lebanese nationals for fear that they could be threatened, exploited or reported at any time.
In August and September 2014, Lebanese nationals carried out at least 11 separate attacks against Syrian refugees. In four cases, witnesses told Human Rights Watch that local police practically sanctioned the attack by refusing to intervene.
Syrian refugees in Beirut — Photo: Taher/Xinhua/ZUMA
Fearing that their attackers would retaliate or that they themselves would be arrested for their lack of legal status, most victims didn't report the attacks. Local authorities took no action in cases where victims did report them.
At the start of the war, NGOs also did their part to foster tensions. Though aid agencies were quick to respond to the needs of refugees, few offered assistance to the impoverished communities hosting them. This lack of response nurtured resentment toward Syrians living in these communities. While aid agencies soon adopted a new approach, the government in Lebanon remains reluctant to modify its own.
The government should develop a comprehensive asylum strategy situated around refugee rights. It should start with not turning away anyone at the border. Only a clear legal framework, advised by refugee advocacy groups, can uphold the principle of non-refoulement and ensure security concerns are addressed.
Dissuaded from staying
Renewing residency is also extremely difficult for Syrian refugees. Anyone older than 15 years must pay $200, show a valid I.D. and sign a "housing pledge" confirming where they live.
The $200 fee for every individual is insurmountable for most families. For perspective, those receiving UN food assistance are given just $19 a month.
Showing official documentation is equally challenging. When people fleeing war are forced to leave abruptly, many have little time to grab official documents. If they do, passports are frequently confiscated at checkpoints en route to Lebanon. With no other option, many have resorted to paying hundreds of dollars for counterfeit papers.
If the government in Lebanon truly wants to enhance security and limit organized crime, it would do well to waive the renewal fee and accept other forms of identification: UN refugee agency registration papers would be an appropriate substitute.
To do so, the government would first have to allow the UN to register Syrians freely, without interference.
Instead, on top of preliminary requirements, Syrians renewing their residency are divided into two categories. Those registered with the UN must sign a pledge "not to work" in Lebanon, while those who aren't must find a Lebanese sponsor.
The not-to-work pledge leaves refugees entirely reliant on aid assistance. Severely underfunded and sometimes corrupt, these services can't meet even basic needs. Requiring a sponsor isn't any better because it leaves Syrians open to exploitation and abuse.
For those able to fulfill all requirements, many still have their applications arbitrarily rejected. Out of options, most refugees live in fear of authorities and are sometimes subjected to sweeping arrests.
While denying legal status to Syrians has empowered organized crime and added to existing xenophobia, Lebanon won't modify its approach until it receives much greater support.
If the international community is truly committed to the principal of non-refoulement, then it should help Lebanon honor it. Without adopting a substantial resettlement strategy, the fundamental right for Syrians to seek asylum will remain neglected.