Beirut, Lebanon – Facing a sustained influx of refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war, the Lebanese government imposed visa restrictions on Syrians this January.
Now, in order for their residence in Lebanon to remain legal, Syrians must fit within one of six narrowly defined residency categories, or obtain sponsorship from an employer. Many of them have been told by Lebanon’s Directorate of General Security that the usual six-month renewal of their residency in Lebanon is no longer an option.
Amid the fear and uncertainty surrounding the new regulations, young Syrian men without passports are caught in a troubling bureaucratic tangle: They have no safe way out of Lebanon – they face conscription upon their return – but they also have no legal way to stay in Lebanon.
Abdallah, 21, a Syrian refugee from Idlib who fled two years ago to avoid compulsory military service, recently learned from the Directorate of General Security that his days of legally living in Lebanon were numbered. Like the other Syrians interviewed for this article, Abdallah requested that his last name not be used, to avoid being identified by employers and government authorities.
“They told me I need to find a sponsor or leave,” he explained. “But where can I go?” He has been working in restaurants in Beirut since arriving in Lebanon, but his current employer does not sponsor his residence. With no passport to leave the country – he left Syria with just his Syrian ID card and $35 in his pocket – Abdallah has been begging his employer for sponsorship ever since he learned of the new regulations.
Shaken by an incident last year in which a group of young men physically threatened him, asked to see his ID and stole his money, Abdallah begged the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to help him leave Lebanon and travel to Europe. He said the UNHCR registered him as a refugee, but without financial support.
Abdallah’s refugee status is not sufficient to allow him to legally remain in Lebanon. According to the Lebanese government’s new regulations, those registered as refugees with the UNHCR may stay only upon proving their registration and place of residence, paying a $200 fee, and pledging not to work.
“I’d have to hide the form if the police came to my work. I’m not supposed to be working [while registered],” he said, adding that he has yet to receive word from the UNHCR on his travel request. If the request is approved, Abdallah will be granted a one-time travel document allowing him to go to the country of resettlement.
When asked whether young, single refugees have more difficulty registering with the UNHCR, the agency’s spokesperson, Dana Sleiman, told Al Jazeera that all who enquire are given an appointment, but that “vulnerable persons, such as large families, persons with health problems, and the elderly may be fast-tracked based on need”.
Unlike other nationalities, Syrians have historically not needed a passport to enter Lebanon, thanks to the Agreement for Economic and Social Cooperation and Coordination, signed by the two countries in 1991.
Lebanon’s new restrictions are a response to the huge number of Syrian refugees who continue to flow into tiny Lebanon, and who have overwhelmed the country’s already shaky social welfare infrastructure.
According to the latest estimates from the UNHCR, there are nearly 1.1 million registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon, whose total population is about 4.5 million. The Lebanese government estimates there are an additional 300,000 unregistered refugees. The high number of refugees has sparked resentment among many Lebanese, who complain that employers prefer to hire Syrians at lower wages.
Johnny, a 21-year-old Syrian from Ifrin, is also living in Lebanon with no passport. Like Abdallah, he fled Syria to avoid military service, and is now asking his employer to sponsor him. He said that he would leave Lebanon if he had the passport needed to travel.
“I don’t want to stay in Lebanon. My life is passing me by and nothing is happening… I’m not progressing,” he said. Like many young, single men, Johnny is not registered as a refugee with the UNHCR, and makes just enough money each month at his retail job to pay for rent and food. He said his friends recently told him of a man who makes forged passports for $2,000. “If I had the money, I’d ask him for one,” Johnny said.
Not far from Johnny’s workplace, Mahmoud, a 23-year-old Syrian refugee from Deir al-Zour, works at a shisha café and said he was “very nervous” about the new restrictions.
All three Syrian men who spoke to Al Jazeera expressed fear of applying for a passport at the Syrian embassy in Beirut, having heard from friends that their documents may be confiscated, or that they would be forcibly returned to Syria. The Syrian embassy refused to comment on its procedures for issuing passports.
The UNHCR’s Sleiman said that many Syrians in Lebanon have been “apprehensive regarding approaching the Syrian embassy in Beirut due to fears regarding their profile, extensive questioning, or otherwise being further known to the Syrian authorities”. Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher Lama Fakih added that many are also afraid that “they may be detained, or kidnapped and taken back to Syria”, though she added that HRW has not documented cases where this has actually happened.
In this context, where violence in Syria is as pervasive as it is, no government should be deporting Syrians.
The men have good cause to fear forced conscription into the army if they were to return. As the Washington Post reported last December, a rise in casualties, desertions and avoidance of military service has made the Assad government resort to desperate means of recruitment, among them “sweeping arrest campaigns”.
Lebanese lawyer Ghida Frangieh, who has extensively researched Syrian refugee rights, said that many Syrians in Lebanon “have resorted to getting passports through family members or contacts back in Syria … so many documents are forged”. She explained that those looking for a solution often go through a broker to facilitate the paperwork.
Directorate of General Security spokesman Nabil Hannoun said that, for Syrians in Lebanon, “residency is renewed simply by specifying their place of residence and work”, provided that they have a sponsor.
However, both Fakih and Frangieh expressed concern that the sponsorship system – in which workers are bound to a single employer, and face difficulties changing jobs – increases the vulnerability of already desperate refugees. The sponsorship system has a troubled history in Lebanon, where human rights advocates claim that it has led to the violation of domestic workers’ rights.
“There is no doubt on the rise of exploitation we will find due to the new restrictions,” Frangieh said, adding that many Syrians have resorted to paying sponsors in order to extend their legal residence, and that employers can legally withdraw their sponsorship of a given employee at any point in time.
Concerning the risk of deportation from the Lebanese government, Fakih said that Lebanon has a “relatively good record of not deporting those who have fallen out of legal status”. While Lebanon has not signed the 1951 Convention Related to the Status of Refugees, it is still bound by the principle of refoulement, which forbids a state from sending people back to a place where they fear persecution.
“In this context, where violence in Syria is as pervasive as it is, no government should be deporting Syrians,” said Fakih.
She argued that the new restrictions will lead to a rising number of Syrians without legal residence status, making it more difficult for the Lebanese government to track and monitor their presence in the country.
For her part, Frangieh claimed that the Lebanese government has been unclear about the new regulations for Syrians, and that its restrictions on Syrians’ residence has been implemented in “an arbitrary way” – allowing authorities greater control over who is permitted to stay in the country.
“These are people who have no choice but to remain in Lebanon,” she said, referring to Syrians without passports and others facing difficulty maintaining legal residence status.
“[The state is] forcing them to commit a crime and forcing them to become invisible, outside the law and the protection of the law.”