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Lebanon’s Refugee Burden

In the tiny Lebanese village of Bar Elias, about two dozen Syrian women with solemn, worry-lined faces, some with infants in their laps, sat on floor mats in a dimly lit tent set up by the UNHCR. They had gathered for the “Women’s Group” meeting – an opportunity to share concerns and get advice on how to care for their families and cope with the overwhelming challenges of life as refugees.

But on this day, the conversation was not about the usual family issues. Every last woman who spoke expressed alarm at the Lebanese government’s new residency regulations for refugees. Complex and costly, these rules threaten the fragile security that these they and their families had managed to find since escaping their homeland’s horrific civil war that has killed more than 220,000 people.

The new regulations, which came into force January 5, require Syrians who arrived in Lebanon before that date to renew their residency visas. It’s a simple enough request, except that they must pay $200 for each family member over the age of 15, produce a “housing verification” from their landlord and a notarized pledge that they will not work. Both documents are notoriously difficult and expensive to obtain. Few Syrian families arrived with much cash, and those who did already have gone run through most of their savings.

The new regulations have also been enforced in an imprecise and inconsistent manner throughout the country. Every woman I met had a horror story to tell – waiting in long lines only to be turned away at the last minute, having papers rejected for minor omissions, paying onerous fees to landlords and notaries for the required documents.

These new visa renewal regulations are likely to have potentially dire consequences.

  • Those who cannot afford the fees will simply refuse to re-register, jeopardizing their legal status and access to services.

  • Those who have managed to find a job may continue working clandestinely, or lose their only means of earning income for their families. Their choice is between access to international assistance and protection as a legally registered refugee, and access to opportunities for self-reliance. Breaking the “no work” rule carries the risk of criminal sanctions and deportation.

  • The “housing pledge” creates legal dependence on landlords and gives unscrupulous ones increased opportunities to exploit and abuse refugees.

  • Many refugees may be forced to decide between staying illegally in Lebanon with its increasing hardships, returning to the war-torn wasteland of Syria, or embarking on risky migration routes to Europe and elsewhere.

The situation has created enormous stress and fear among the estimated 1.2 million Syrians who have taken refuge in Lebanon. And the new visa requirements suggest that the government is clamping down on the refugees by curtailing their ability to work, to move around the country, and even to stay in Lebanon. If this is the intention, it is a dramatic shift for the Lebanese government.

For the first three and a half years after the Syrian conflict began in 2011, the world was full of praise for Lebanon. It kept its borders open to refugee flows, prohibited the building of massive dehumanizing camps, allowed refugee access to health services and ran second shifts at public schools to educate Syrian children. Although Lebanon had not signed the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, it behaved much better than many of the convention’s signatory countries.

By the end of 2014, the influx of Syrian refugees was equivalent to a quarter of Lebanon’s 4.4 million people. It would be as if 85 million refugees had arrived in the United States.

Lebanon starkly illustrates how the prolonged Syrian conflict has brought disastrous consequences to the region, forcing some four million refugees to flood into neighboring countries that also include Jordan and Turkey. The New York Times recently called the situation the worst global refugee crisis in decades. Although the United States has been generous in refugee assistance, giving $3.7 billion since 2011, it has been less charitable in accepting Syrian refugees, taking in only 700 so far with a mere 2,000 spots allocated for 2015.

Seen in this light, Lebanon’s new visa renewal rules likely signal that its burden is becoming untenable. They are, it would seem, a cry for help.

Lebanon is struggling to cope. Its political system is weak and dysfunctional. It has had a prime minister but no president for ten months. Its cabinet is paralyzed, unable to make decisions. Public services are struggling to meet the increased demand, with health, education, electricity, and water and sanitation particularly taxed.

It also has been hit with economic shock waves from the Syrian conflict because of a decline in trade, tourism and investment. The World Bank estimates that lost economic activity in 2013 cost Lebanon US$2.5 billion and that the 2014 tally will likely be as much, if not more. And no improvement is expected this year, as the Syrian civil war drags on with no end in sight.

Despite all this, international assistance to help Lebanon handle its huge refugee population has been far below what it needs. In 2014 the UN Appeal for Lebanon was only 64% funded. And the pledging conference for the 2015 UN Appeal, held in February, fell well below expectations. Donor pledges amounted to only 45% of what the UN needs to serve the Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

There are understandable reasons why Lebanon is making life harder for Syrian refugees. In the late 1940s, 100,000 Palestinian refugees fled to Lebanon. Today, 65 years later, they are still there living in squalid camps housing 442,000 people. It is a tale that Lebanon does not want to see told again.

But it will need the world’s help if history is not to be repeated.

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