Beirut - Lebanon has issued new measures that could overhaul its previous open-door refugee strategy, leaving aid organisations and Syrian refugees uncertain about the new policy's impact on the ground.

The changes were announced last week, after a statement issued by Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk warned Syrians registered with the UN High Commission for Refugees to refrain from returning to Syria or risk losing their refugee status in Lebanon.

Last Monday, the Cabinet's ministerial committee tasked to manage the refugee file, chaired by Prime Minister Tammam Salam, agreed to not only revoke refugee status upon re-entry into Lebanon, but to only permit entry to those coming from Syrian areas near the Lebanese borders that witness persistent armed conflict.

"This doesn't mean that the problem is no longer a humanitarian one," explained Lebanon's Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas. "The problem needs to be solved politically in Syria, so that its consequences [the refugee influx in Lebanon] can be resolved."

"We took the decision that Lebanon can no longer absorb such a high number of refugees. The only refugees that Lebanon is willing to accept are those coming from areas close to the fighting, in line with the Geneva [refugee] convention of 1951," Derbas added.

We took the decision that Lebanon can no longer absorb such a high number of refugees. The only refugees that Lebanon is willing to accept are those coming from areas close to the fighting.

- Rashid Derbas, Lebanon Social Affairs Minister

Lebanon hosts more than one million registered refugees, representing roughly 20 percent of the country's total population.

General Security, which operates border checkpoints in Lebanon, estimates that between 5,000-8,000 Syrians return to their native soil each day, and that roughly an equivalent number arrive in Lebanon. Since the Lebanese security body lacks identification mechanisms, the number of registered refugees crossing the border remains unknown.

With the details still unclear, Jad Akhawi, the Interior Ministry's spokesperson, said implementation of the new procedures would be refined with time. The UN refugee agency's (UNHCR) spokesperson, Dana Sleiman, said they were in talks with the government about how exactly to put the plan into effect. 

For now, General Security will take individual note of Syrians with refugee status re-entering Lebanon, said Akhawi. "They will be received as Syrian nationals," he added, implying they would no longer benefit from UNHCR services.

The government previously practiced an open-door policy, recognising the refugees' reason for entry as linked to armed conflict in Syria. Accordingly, Syrian refugees were offered legal stay in Lebanon for up to a year free of charge. After one year, refugees must pay $200 to renew their residency, prompting many to cross into Syria and re-enter Lebanon to receive another year's stay for free.

The new policy will likely curb this practice, affecting thousands of Syrians who cannot afford to pay the fee, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.

"We know that many people have good and legitimate reasons for why they need to cross the border," said NRC's Regional Protection and Advocacy Advisor, Olivia Kalis, explaining that many refugees cross into Syria to give birth because they can't afford hospital fees in Lebanon.

The NRC has already warned refugees not to cross the border in light of the policy. But it remains unclear how the new measures will be implemented on the ground.

Source: Al Jazeera