Over a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon will no longer have to pay a $200 renewal fee required to maintain residency in the country, General Security announced Friday. “Syrian refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees before 2015 can now obtain a six-month residency permit for free,” General Security said in a statement.
The new policy, once fully implemented, will waive the payment normally required for visas, meaning that Syrian refugees will be able to stay legally and without threat of arrest for visa violations. Aid agencies say the move will improve access to many services including schools, health care, and birth and death registration.
However, the decision is limited to those who registered with UNHCR before Jan. 1, 2015, or who obtained residency through a UNHCR certificate at least once in 2015 or 2016. A UNHCR certificate is separate from official refugee registration.
“Humanitarian organizations have been calling for a change to the legal residency status situation and the fee waiver for more than a year now,” Bassam Khawaja, a researcher at Human Rights Watch in Lebanon, told The Daily Star Wednesday.
According to Khawaja, General Security’s new directive was a necessary change to a flawed system. “The [previous] policy itself has been a disaster. Rather than encouraging refugees to return to Syria, it just made life miserable for them,” he said.
Prior to this policy shift, many refugees who were registered with UNHCR were unable to maintain their legal status in the country due to financial restrictions, cutting them off from essential services. Many others were forced to seek sponsorship through Lebanese nationals, some of whom charged up to $1,000, according to Human Rights Watch.
Mouin Merehbi, the minister of state for refugee affairs, was equally positive about the recent move, though cautious about its implementation. “This will help refugees and displaced people be able to go to hospitals, schools and some universities,” he said. “Their life will be much easier.”
He noted though that the government and General Security were progressing slowly and carefully with the policy’s implementation. “[It] needs to be done step by step,” he told The Daily Star. “This is just a first step and things will be moving slowly. There will be problems at first, but we will work to solve them.”
Khawaja, however, expressed concern over the potential for a slow and piecemeal application of the new rule. “In the past, there have been issues with the implementation of decisions put out by General Security,” he said. “Specifically, individual security officers have not always applied these orders consistently.”
He also noted that the decision restricts a large number of Syrians currently in Lebanon. The government estimates that more than 500,000 refugees are not registered with UNHCR. And according to a statement from HRW, General Security confirmed the policy would not apply to refugees who renewed their residency through a Lebanese sponsor.
“We’re especially concerned that [the decision] cements a marginalized class of refugees without residency or registration,” Khawaja said. “We’re unsure about what this means for their future.”
He also said that the language of the decision does not make clear whether refugees who crossed into Lebanon via unofficial border crossings would also be included. “Even if they registered, but came through an irregular crossing, this may still be a problem,” Khawaja said.
Merehbi, however, saw General Security’s decision as just a first step in a longer process. “There is a plan to discuss the issue of unregistered refugees in the Cabinet,” he said. “We need a bit of time so we can really implement the issue and find the most efficient and beneficial plan for the future.”
The February 2016 London conference for supporting Syria and the region raised more than $12 billion in assistance for the crisis. While the international community made pledges for additional support, the Lebanese government committed to easing visa restrictions for Syrian refugees. The recent move by General Security come close to the anniversary of the pledges.
Reactions to the news from refugees and those who work closely with them were generally upbeat. “This move is very positive for Syrian refugees,” Sheikh Abdo Abdel-Rahim told The Daily Star. According to him, in the small camp he manages in the outskirts of the Akkar village of Halba, most refugees do not move out of the camp due to concerns of being arrested. “The amount of money [necessary for registration] is too much to ask from them,” Abdel-Rahim said. “Those who cannot afford it end up being afraid to go to the hospital or go register their children in school.”
Yusra – a Syrian refugee who asked not to give her second name – said she entered Lebanon legally five years ago. Due to the hefty fees, her husband and her three children were unable to renew the residency.
“Once, my husband was arrested while on his way to Beirut,” Yusra told The Daily Star. She waited for days for him to come back to the refugee camp where they live, in the outskirts of Deir Zannoun near Zahle in the Bekaa Valley, until she received a call informing her of her husband’s arrest.
“If we are allowed to renew the residency without fees we will have peace of mind,” Yusra said. “For the time being, whenever my husband leaves the camp I fear [for his safety].”
Others, however, were more uncertain about the effects of the recent announcement. A Syrian refugee at the Ouzai complex in Sidon told The Daily Star that confusion remains over the new measures.
“The coordination between the General Security and UNHCR should be on how to facilitate things for Syrian refugees,” the refugee, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Daily Star.
The man said he has been registered with UNHCR since 2013 renewed his residency just a few weeks ago, paying the $200 fee, as he has done so for the past several years.
However, the man said that when his wife went to General Security to renew her residency Wednesday, she was denied the fee-less renewal. “When she went, they told her that the decision doesn’t apply to her.” He was unsure exactly why his wife was denied, but called for more clarification over exactly how the new measures work and who they apply to. “Until now, we don’t know what the decision is; we are still waiting for the decision to be issued in a proper form,” he added.
On Jan. 20, the Army raided the complex where the man lives with his family and arrested 50 Syrian refugees over residency violations.
Lebanese authorities have not published the number of refugees arrested for failing to maintain paperwork or formal statistics on the number of Syrian refugees without legal status. However, the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan, published in January 2017, estimated that 60 percent of those age 15 and above lacked legal residency – a 13 percentage point increase over a year earlier. – Additional reporting by Ghinwa Obeid