Syrian refugees in Lebanon are being forced underground

A woman hangs clothing at a makeshift settlement for Syrian refugees in Bar Elias, in the Bekaa valley, June 20, 2015. June 20 is World Refugee Day, an occasion that draws attention to those who have been displaced around the globe. 
Jamal Saidi

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Abdullah was at home in an informal tented settlement for Syrian refugees when 300 soldiers raided the camp near Halba, in northern Lebanon. He was slapped, kicked and handcuffed, he said, and then later interrogated about armed groups in his village.  

When he tried to produce a certificate from the United Nations that showed his refugee status, he said one of the soldiers replied: “Go pay a sponsor some money or return to your country. We are the state, you obey our laws. The UN means nothing.”

Abdullah said he was detained for two days without food or water. His testimony, along with that of dozens of other refugees in the country, are contained in a report released today by Human Right Watch. 

Stories like Abdullah’s are becoming increasingly familiar in Lebanon, where harsh laws restricting the movement of Syrians are having a chilling effect on the lives of refugees living here. But the same is true in other countries hosting refugees in the region, as new rules are putting the squeeze on those fleeing war.  

The refugee crisis caused by the Syrian civil war has affected Lebanon more severely than any of its neighbors. There are approximately 1.2 million Syrian refugees in the country — a remarkable figure considering Lebanon’s population was only four million before the war. The number of unregistered refugees is unknown.

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In January 2015, as it struggled to deal with the weight of the crisis, Lebanon imposed tough new controls on its border with Syria that made it harder for those fleeing war and persecution to cross into the country. At the same time, the Lebanese government made it more difficult for Syrians who are already residents of Lebanon to renew their visas.

Nadim Houri, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said this has made life “impossible” for many refugees in Lebanon, pushing them into the shadows and underground. “The last thing Lebanon needs is a large, undocumented community living at the margins of society, at heightened risk of abuse,” he said.

Houry said that Lebanon’s “shortsighted policies are setting the stage for a potentially explosive situation.”

But restrictions elsewhere are also having a knock on effect in Lebanon. The report comes less than a week after the Lebanese government forcibly deported more than 400 Syrian refugees back to Syria. The Syrians had flown from Damascus to Beirut on Jan. 7 with the intention of flying on to Turkey, but their flights were canceled ahead of new visa restrictions in Turkey, which were due to come into effect on Jan. 8.

Amnesty International said the deportation has put hundreds of lives in danger.

“[T]he Lebanese government has stooped to a shocking new low and is putting these people in mortal danger,” said Sherif Elsayed-Ali, head of Refugee and Migrants’ Rights at Amnesty International, after the plane was sent back. Since then, more groups have been deported.

“This is an outrageous breach of Lebanon’s international obligations to protect all refugees fleeing bloodshed and persecution in Syria.”

The Syrians had intended to only transit through Beirut and so hadn’t registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). As a result they weren’t considered refugees by the Lebanese authorities. Three flights were sent from Syria to collect the hundreds of passengers, according to Amnesty International.

The danger, according to Khairunissa Dhala, who works on Amnesty International's Refugee and Migrants’ Rights team, is that many of those trying to escape Syria are in danger of being detained by the Syrian government.

“Presumably at least some of them would be questioned by Syrian authorities. That is of great concern for us. Especially single men who would be due for military service are likely to be held by authorities, as well as activists who have been prosecuted in the past,” Dhala said.

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But as the Human Rights Watch report shows, Syrians don’t have to be sent back to Syria to face persecution at the hands of authorities.

The visa rules introduced in January last year in Lebanon make it extremely difficult for any Syrian to renew their residency in the country — whether they are registered with the UN as a refugee or not.

Those registered as a refugee with UNHCR have to renew their status, and those who are not must find a Lebanese sponsor to remain legally in the country. Either way, all must pay a $200 annual fee for renewal, and provide identification papers.

The new rules mean that large numbers of Syrians living in Lebanon have lost their legal status to stay in the country.  “Only two out of 40 refugees living in Lebanon whom Human Rights Watch interviewed between February and November 2015 had been able to renew their residencies with their UNHCR certificates,” the report says.

It adds that the loss of legal status puts refugees at risk of arrest and ill treatment in detention, in addition to being vulnerable to labor and sexual exploitation by employers.

“[T]he sponsorship system increases Syrians’ exposure to harassment, exploitation and abuse, and facilitates corruption. One refugee living in Zahle called it ‘a form of slavery.’”

Human Rights Watch interviewed three women who said they were exploited by their Lebanese employers — one of whom was sexually assaulted. But due to their legal status could not seek recourse with the authorities. All left their jobs due to abuse.

“If you don’t accept your boss’s advances you will get fired,” Sima, a Syrian refugee living in Tripoli, a city in northern Lebanon, told Human Rights Watch. “For me, I prefer to stay at home to avoid sexual exploitation, even if my family barely has enough food."

Yusra, a Syrian refugee from northern Lebanon, told Human Rights Watch: "I just want to live here in peace and contribute to Lebanese society until I can return to Syria. I just wanted to be treated like a person."