Beirut – On his release from prison in January 2012 after being arrested for his activism, Ahmad al-Homsi left Syria.
There is now a death sentence with his name on it, so he cannot return home. He has taken shelter in Lebanon, but has no money to go anywhere else.
Although a refugee from Syria’s war, Homsi is in Lebanon illegally because of a law introduced last year requiring all Syrian refugees to pay $200 for a six-month or annual residence permit, and provide proof of sponsorship by an individual or company.
Homsi did not obtain the required permit and has been arrested once by Lebanese authorities. He fears that if it happens again, they will deport him.
“I’m worried every minute that I will be arrested again,” Homsi told Al Jazeera. “I am expecting to be forced to leave the country at any moment, but the only place I could go is Syria, and the second I cross the border I would be arrested or shot.”
Those registered with the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, are not required to find a sponsor – but they are prohibited from working and face other obstacles. As of May 2015, the Lebanese government instructed the UNHCR to stop registering new arrivals. More than one million Syrians are officially registered as refugees in Lebanon, but the real number is higher, aid agencies say.
In a report released earlier this month, Human Rights Watch urged the Lebanese government to scrap its sponsorship scheme and the $200 fee, which is cripplingly expensive for many refugees, 70 percent of whom live in extreme poverty, according to UN data.
Homsi says life was much easier before the legislation was handed down last January.
Before, while refugees still had to battle with Lebanon’s bureaucracy, they did not have to pay the fee or find a sponsor – a system that leaves refugees open to abuse, as sponsors can renege on the deal, at any time rendering the refugee immediately “illegal”. Refugees are often forced to work long hours for low pay.
“Refugees and aid workers said that employers can get away with paying lower wages, harassing employees in the workplace, or forcing employees to work in unsafe conditions because they lack legal redress,” the HRW report stated.
Homsi, 33, has a wife and three children to support, but is unable to travel far for fear of hitting the army checkpoints that dot the roads around Lebanon. Now, in an apparent effort to track down as many “illegal” Syrians as possible, Lebanese authorities are conducting raids into refugee settlements, he said.
“Things are changing, and now the army is going in and arresting people in their homes, not waiting for them to come to checkpoints,” he said. Homsi was recently arrested in a camp raid and held for four days. On his release, he was given a temporary paper that he must renew in the capital every two weeks as authorities continue to investigate his case.
“When they came to take everyone, they took 27 people. They took every male above the age of 14 for four days. And they took all our documents and gave us one week to sort out our residency,” he said.
Completing that lengthy, expensive and complex process requires refugees to have all their Syrian papers in order, which for many means a trip back home.
My only hope is to get out of Lebanon, to get somewhere where I can educate my children.
“It would have required going back to Syria,” Homsi said. “So none of us could do anything, [and] now we’re all illegal in the country… My only hope is to get out of Lebanon, to get somewhere where I can educate my children.”
Homsi is not alone. Manar, 29, who hails from the Syrian city of Homs and did not provide her last name, has been illegal in Lebanon since last May, when her previous papers – obtained before the new law came into effect – expired.
Manar, whose husband vanished in the early days of the Syrian uprising, was a qualified elementary school teacher in her hometown, but cannot find work in Lebanon, as she does not possess the requisite French and English skills. To help support her five-year-old son, she makes a bit of money babysitting.
The lack of residency status affects her life in every way, Manar told Al Jazeera.
“Some armed men came to the camp where we live and took my brothers and beat them up. My son was so scared. And I can’t even complain to the police because I do not have residency,” she said.
“They were attacking them and insulting them, just because they are Syrian.”
Manar says she is permanently afraid of the authorities.
“When I escaped from Syria, I thought I would come here to my second home, but I don’t feel safe here. Every time someone knocks on the door I am scared. There’s no state, there’s no security,” she said.
“I don’t want to dream because every time I dream, something destroys it,” Manar added, noting that her main hope now is to one day feel safe again “and be treated like a normal human being – the least anyone would expect, anywhere in the world.”
While Homsi hopes to escape from Lebanon to Europe, Manar says her only hope is to return to a peaceful Syria one day.
“We escaped death in Syria; we cannot go back to that,” she said. “I just want to go anywhere where I can go to bed and feel safe, and not in the fear that someone’s going to attack me and my family or shoot at us.”
Manar also lamented the impact of the family’s circumstances on her younger brother.
“My brother is a young man and he’s scared to open his door, as he’s afraid of what will be on the other side. This is shameful,” she said. “At his age he should be able to go out and work and grow.”