Syrian Stories about Lebanese Residency: Impossible Conditions, Blackmail, and Fear of Arrest
According to a recent study by the High Commissioner for Refugees, the percentage of Syrians aged 15 and above with legal residency in Lebanon stands at 16% of the total population. This low percentage has not changed significantly over the past years, particularly after 2015 when the General Security issued a memorandum imposing impossible conditions on Syrians entering through the border and obtaining legal residency.
Due to the absence of legal papers, refugees’ most basic human rights are being withheld from them. They are subject to extortion and economic exploitation, and deprived of basic services such as the right to work legally—the percentage of Syrians who obtained work permits is estimated at 0.5%—with extra difficulty in obtaining education and medical services. The United Nations estimates that 30% of the total number of Syrian children in Lebanon (between 6-17 years) have never attended school at all.
This is mainly due to the fact that the Ministry of Education requires refugees to obtain identification papers or legal residencies in order to register at schools or even to take the intermediate (brevet) or secondary certificate (baccalaureate) exams. As for medicine, the COVID-19 vaccination platform indicates that the percentage of Syrians registered for the vaccine stands at only 3% of the total population, which can partially be explained by the fear of registering their personal information on government websites.
The Lebanese General Security has attempted to clear itself of its obligations towards refugees by issuing several decisions in an attempt to settle the issue of legal violators and exempt those who have accumulated fines or expired residencies. However, these decisions remain ineffective as long as only “a small percentage of Syrians in Lebanon are trying to obtain legal residency,” according to the assertion of Lieutenant-Colonel Talal Youssef, head of the human rights department in the General Directorate of General Security.
The problem does not lie with refugees’ unwillingness to settle their legal status but in “the regulating legal framework that imposes incapacitating restrictions on Syrians, without taking into account the economic context in which they live or the real situation of asylum in general,” according to lawyer Ghida Franjieh of the Legal Agenda. This confirms the illegality of the General Security conditions: “In February 2018, a State Consultative Decision was issued confirming that it is not the duties of the General Directorate of General Security to amend the conditions for Syrians’ entry and residence in Lebanon, as long as the law limits this authority to the Council of Ministers.”
The decision came in the context of a lawsuit filed by a Syrian refugee in 2015 alongside the Legal Agenda and the Rights Pioneers association. The decision “aimed to hold political and judicial institutions responsible for the asylum policy that cannot be monopolized by a security apparatus. The Council of Ministers is the only authority authorized to amend the conditions for entry and residence of foreigners, as it is subject to political and constitutional accountability mechanisms. As for the role of General Security, it is limited to applying these conditions without the right to amend them or impose new fees.”
Fear of Arrest and Racial Discrimination
While preparing for this investigation, Refugees=Partners conducted a series of interviews with Syrians living in Lebanon to find out the difficulties they face in trying to settle their legal status.
The interviewees either did not try to obtain residency or had tried and failed, with the exception of a few who own real estate or investments in Lebanon or have the ability to pay for expensive housing contracts—all of which are factors that facilitate obtaining residency. Another category of legal residents were workers who obtained ‘work permits’ on the basis of the presence of a Lebanese sponsor, where their lives in Lebanon are under the protection of an employer who controls the legality of their presence in Lebanon, allowing for further exploitation of their circumstances.
People living without legal residency provide various justifications for their reluctance in attempting to acquire it, such as their unwillingness to go to General Security for fear of arrest or having their identification papers confiscated or the lack of sufficient public infrastructure. According to Marielle Hayek, Director of Programs at the Access Center for Human Rights, these fears seem to be justified: “There are many cases of people who went to the General Security to renew their residencies after decisions were issued to exempt them from the amounts due, but it turned out that this exemption was not applied and instead their identification papers were withheld to force them to return. Many of these people did not go again because they were afraid of being arrested or because they were unable to pay the fines imposed on them.”
As for the interviewees that tried to obtain residency and failed, they encounter difficult conditions: “For example, if you try to obtain residency on the basis of a housing contract, you encounter the fact that the majority of houses designated for rent in Beirut are not registered with the municipality, and the registered ones have very high rents and the rent must be paid for six months or for a year in advance,” according to Maher, 40, a young Syrian who works for a non-governmental organization.
Once a homeowner agrees to pay the municipality fees, you will be surprised by new obstacles. For example, last year I found an apartment in Ain El-Remmaneh. My only condition was that the rental contract must be legal and certified by the municipality so that I could apply for residency, but when the owner of the house went to finish the procedures in the municipality, the employees refused to approve the request “because the contract is registered in a Syrian name and we do not welcome Syrians in our area,” in a clear racial discrimination, which has no legal justification. In the end, I had to enroll in a private university to be able to get a study permit, ” according to Maher.
The situation of university students is not ideal either. The situation of private university students is better than that of Lebanese University students who were previously able to obtain study residency after their registration. Today, the Lebanese University administration refuses to register students without valid residency, and in order for the students to obtain a study residency, they must obtain a registration receipt from the university. This problem did not exist before, but it appeared about four years ago, according to a Syrian activist who refused to give her name. This also highlights the fact that the restrictions disproportionally affect poor Syrians who cannot enroll in private universities.
Work Difficulties: Legal Complications and Extortion
Mohammed, 35, has been working in cinema and television ever since he moved to Lebanon in order to escape military service in the Syrian army. He has been trying to obtain legal residency for four years, to no avail: “Since 2018, I have been experiencing difficulties obtaining residency. I have tried all possible ways and I am still trying. At first, I submitted an application by way of a housing affidavit and paid a year’s rent in advance until the homeowner agreed to ratify the contract. But when I went to the General Security, I was surprised that my request was rejected because I entered Lebanon through the Artists Syndicate card, and that I must obtain residency on the basis of an “artist’s work permit”, and when I told them that I do not work in Lebanon, they did not believe me. In the end, the employee told me that if I left Lebanon and came back again, I could then submit a request on the basis of a housing contract, so I traveled to Sudan and came back after a while, only to find out that they, again, refused the request because of the syndicate’s stamp on the passport.”
“At that time, I agreed with a Lebanese person to establish a production company, where I would pay all the costs of its registration, and he would only be responsible for completing the administrative transactions. I registered the company in his name so that he would be able to sponsor me. I paid him the amount plus his fees, but he did nothing, and then after a while he stopped answering my calls. I got very angry and of course I could not file a complaint, later I tried to confront him, but I backed down after I received a call from his lawyer threatening me that he would put my name on the wanted list of General Security. I know he probably could not do that, but I just couldn’t take that risk.”
Most of our interviewees agree that it is difficult to obtain work residency. First, very few institutions agree to go through the procedures required for the employment of a foreigner. Moreover, the employees have to deal with the sponsorship system, in addition to the complex procedure of obtaining a work permit, especially with the permanent alterations to the list of permissible professions Syrian can practice according to the Ministry of Labor.
Rania works as a receptionist in a hotel and has been trying to obtain legal residency in Lebanon for years. At first the hotel helped her get a work permit on the grounds that she was a cleaning lady, since her profession (receptionist) was reserved only for Lebanese nationals. Her problems began when General Security agents entered the hotel to check if she was working in a different profession than the one she registered under, and since that day she has been living in Lebanon illegally and unable to obtain residency. She had been trying for four years with the employees of the Ministry of Labor, until a high-ranking employee intervened and helped her obtain a “technical worker” license, a profession that Syrians are allowed to practice.
It is noteworthy that there are cases of self-employed people who work with institutions in Lebanon and abroad, but not employed with any of them. Among them is Sami (30 years old), who works as a translator with local and international newspapers. When he wanted to obtain residency, he only had to apply for it on the basis of a housing contract, but he was surprised that General Security refused his request because the survey elements did not believe that he had been living unemployed in Lebanon since 2014. Of course, he could not tell them the truth for fear of being forced to obtain a work permit, which is impossible because he is not a permanent employee with any institution.
Thus, even if a refugee is seriously willing to obtain a legal residency that meets all the legal requirements, this does not mean that they will automatically obtain it. According to Ghaida Franjieh, “General Security has discretionary authority to accept or reject residency applications. Many of these decisions are made as a result of investigations about the person trying to obtain residency, which General Security relies on to assess the credibility of the residency applicant. This assessment is often based on preconceived ideas and stereotypes of social behavior that the residence applicant cannot even discuss. For example, if you obtained a residence permit on the basis that you are an agricultural worker, and later you try to obtain a university student residence permit, your application is often rejected on the presumption that an agricultural worker cannot become a student.”
Surprisingly, despite all this, General Security claims to comply with human rights and to deal impartially with all residents in Lebanon: “The adopted approach to deal with Syrian refugees in Lebanon is based on international agreements on human rights and Lebanese laws that preserve the interests of the refugee and displaced person. The person who applies for a service from the General Security is a right holder,” according to Lieutenant-Colonel Talal Youssef, Head of the Human Rights Department at General Security. (An intervention within the third workshop of the “Refugees are Partners” project entitled Enhancing Syrian refugees’ access to legal status in Lebanon, November 30, 2021).
* The names of all refugees participating in this investigation have been withheld.
1. VASYR 2021 – Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon
2. In 2017, the percentage of residency holders was 19% of the total Syrian residents.
3. The first workshop entitled “The Impact of Restricted Legal Status on Refugee Access to Livelihoods in Lebanon”
4. The issue of Syrian refugees in Lebanon: Characterization and implications
5. VASYR 2021 – Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon
6. Syrian Refugee Children Blocked from School
7. Vaccinating Refugees: Lessons from the Inclusive Lebanon Vaccine Roll-Out Experience
8. Settlement of the situation of Syrians in violation until 30/09/2021
9. The third workshop entitled Enhancing Syrian refugees’ access to legal status.
10. The General Directorate of General Security – Regulating the entry and residence of Syrians
11. The State Council invalidates the General Security decision to amend the conditions for Syrians to enter and reside in Lebanon
12. The list of professions to be restricted to Lebanese citizens only.
13. The third workshop entitled Enhancing Syrian refugees’ access to legal status.