The devastation in war-torn Syria has been felt beyond its borders. Some 4.7 million Syrians have fled the country, most seeking refuge in neighbouring states.
Lebanon has been one of the worst affected, with the mass flow of refugees putting enormous strain on a country already struggling economically and with a fragile security situation.
As of October 2016, authorities estimated that Lebanon was playing host to 1.5 million Syrians.
To reduce the flow, strict visa requirements were introduced at the beginning of 2015 which are now beginning to prove counterproductive and even dangerous.
Before this, Syrian access to Lebanon had been largely unrestricted. Bilateral agreements with Syria allowed freedom of work, residence and economic activity for nationals of both countries, with an entry stamp in a passport granting residency for six months, which could be renewed free of charge.
Continuation of the open border policy had largely been the result of political deadlock, which had seen parliament fail to elect a new president leading to governmental paralysis.
Growing tensions as Syrians began to compete for resources, together with fears that the influx of mainly Sunni refugees would alter Lebanon’s delicate sectarian balance, made it easier to reach agreement on restrictions. Lebanon’s decision-makers began treating the refugees as a security threat and an economic burden.
Under the restrictions, Syrians seeking to enter Lebanon have to produce valid identity documents and proof that their visit fitted into an approved category, such as business, study or medical treatment, and that they had a Lebanese sponsor. Most categories only offered short-term entry permits of between 24 hours and a month.
There is no special consideration for Syrians seeking protection in Lebanon, contrary to principles of customary law. The displaced category is limited to unaccompanied children with a parent already registered in Lebanon, or those in need of medical treatment.
All Syrians already in Lebanon have to renew their residency permits, which requires an annual $200 renewal fee per person, a valid ID, an entry slip obtained at the border, proof of housing and two photographs stamped by a Lebanese official, known as the mukhtar.
Syrians registered with the UN Refugee Agency, the UNHCR, have to present their refugee registration certificate and a notarized pledge not to work, which adds to the cost. According to field research by the Lebanese Centre for Human Rights, 86 per cent of Syrian refugees interviewed in Lebanon do not have legal residency permits, and are therefore staying there illegally.
Even when able to present the necessary documentation and pay the fees, many Syrians still fail. ‘I have tried everything to renew my residency and stay legally in Lebanon. I submitted all the required documents and even hired a lawyer to follow up on my application but I still got refused more than once. Many of my friends also got rejected for no reason,’ said Wael Mohammed, who spoke to the author via WhatsApp.
The vast majority of Syrians who flee to Lebanon for protection will either be sent back or will have to find illegal ways to enter Lebanon.
Although Lebanon is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it is still bound by international human rights law to protect refugees. The essential principle of non-refoulement prohibits returning refugees to places where their lives or freedoms could be threatened.
The impact of the two-year-old refugee policy in Lebanon increases Syrians’ exposure to harassment, exploitation and abuse.
Before, most refugees were reporting to immigration offices at least once every six months, allowing Lebanese authorities to keep track of them. Now the authorities can no longer trace their whereabouts. It has also made it difficult to recieve international funding, due to lack of accurate data on the situation and whereabouts of Syrian refugees.
There are other implications. Increased restrictions have boosted smuggling and organized crime across the border. The residence renewal system has given sponsors power over refugees, with some turning it into a business charging $1,000 a person.
Refugees who fail to obtain legal residency are even more exposed. They face temporary arrest at checkpoints and are left with no protection from employers. Families are forced to send children to work.
Women are particularly vulnerable. Human Rights Watch has documented cases of sexual assault, harassment, or attempted sexual exploitation by employers, although most victims do not report incidents due to their fear of arrest for not having residency.
These restrictions and the difficult living conditions Syrians face in Lebanon helped create a new flow of Syrian refugees illegally fleeing Lebanon to Europe. The UNHCR estimated that between 6,000 and 7,000 Syrian refugees were departing from Tripoli’s port to Turkey each week in 2015.
Lebanese authorities should reform these regulations and regulate the situation of Syrian refugees, not only to protect refugees’ rights but also to promote greater stability in Lebanon. The international community also needs to urgently step up its support to Lebanon and expand the resettlement process to share its part of the burden.