Lebanon’s Refugee Crisis, Part II: The Consequences of Lebanon’s Refugee Policies

Following the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, Lebanon began receiving an influx of Syrian refugees.[1] The influx began slowly but grew exponentially over the years. At the peak of migration, “the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was registering on average over 48,000 refugees per month.”[2] Lebanon implemented new border regulations on January 5, 2015, which stymied the influx, but by then Lebanon’s refugee crisis had already begun.[3] Today, over one million Syrian refugees are legally recognized and registered in Lebanon, although the Lebanese government estimates the true number of Syrian refugees in the country is closer to 1.5 million.[4]

At the beginning of its refugee crisis, Lebanon had no “specific framework or dedicated and comprehensive administrative system for the management of refugee affairs.” [5] However, on January 5, 2015, the same day Lebanon’s new border regulations were adopted, the Lebanese government began implementing several restrictive residency policies. These policies have left refugees in Lebanon vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, and, in many cases, without the ability to maintain legal recognition as refugees in Lebanon.[6] Despite Lebanon’s governance system being largely centralized, “the absence of comprehensive policies to manage the refugee influx” left the implementation of refugee affairs to local governments, resulting in inconsistent application of national refugee policies as well as a wide range of differing local refugee policies.[7] Inconsistent refugee treatment by Lebanese municipalities has raised concerns about refoulement, the expulsion of refugees to places where they would be persecuted or face danger.[8] Moreover, refugee children born in Lebanon are at risk of becoming stateless because of Lebanon’s refusal to facilitate the registration of refugee births.[9]

Lebanon’s Residency Policy

Lebanon’s restrictive residency regulations have left a great number of its Syrian refugees without formal, lawful recognition as refugees in Lebanon (“lawful status”), leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse with no legal recourse available. According to a 2018 Human Rights Watch (“HRW”) report, 74% of Syrians in Lebanon lack lawful status, a figure corroborated by local and international aid workers in Lebanon.[10]

Lack of lawful status places an enormous strain on refugees. Lebanon’s checkpoint system, which limits movement in certain areas, leaves refugees who lack lawful status vulnerable to arbitrary arrest or detention.[11] In a report by HRW, eleven out of forty interviewed refugees had been arrested or detained because they lacked lawful status. Half of those eleven “alleged ill-treatment at time of arrest and while in detention,” including beatings by security officers.[12] Ihab, a refugee living in Beqaa, Lebanon, told HRW he was tied to a chair and beaten with a hose after showing expired refugee registration paperwork at an army checkpoint.[13] Lack of lawful status has also prevented refugee children from receiving an education. Despite calls from the Lebanese government asking schools to accept refugee children, schools have continued to turn away refugee children without lawful status.[14] During the 2017 – 2018 school year, over 300,000 Syrian children were unable to attend school because of restrictive enrollment requirements as well as child labor and parental inability to afford transport.[15] An estimated 50% of school-aged refugee children are not in school at all.[16] Ali, a twelve-year-old refugee living in Akkar, Lebanon, told HRW that he wished he could go to school but instead works at an automobile repair shop to support his family.[17]

So many refugees are without lawful status because Lebanon’s residency policy imposes strict and prohibitive requirements. Lebanon’s residency regulations sort Syrians refugees seeking lawful status into one of two categories: those who are registered with UNHCR and those who are not.[18] In order to legally remain in Lebanon, refugees who are not registered with UNHCR must find a Lebanese sponsor willing to vouch for them. Additionally, all refugees over the age of fifteen, whether or not they are registered with UNHCR, must pay a $200 annual fee as well as provide “identification papers and documentation about their lodging.”[19] Lebanon’s sponsorship requirement has left refugees vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by sponsors, many of whom are employers or landlords, and the $200 annual fee is prohibitively expensive for most refugees.

Many refugees in Lebanon live below the poverty line and are unable to pay the $200 annual renewal fee required to maintain lawful status.[20] Children under the age of fifteen can renew for free; however, “their application is tied to the head of household’s legal status.”[21] Therefore, “if [a] child’s father does not have the required documentation and cannot pay the $200 for renewal, the child cannot renew either.”[22] Refugees are further subjected to administrative fees which add approximately $75 to each renewal application.[23] Despite Lebanese authorities’ desire to decrease the number of refugees in Lebanon, the reality of the situation is that most refugees cannot afford to leave.[24]

The economic status of refugees in Lebanon is exacerbated because restrictions have more or less halted the issuing of work permits to refugees, leaving many refugees without the ability to join the formal labor market.[25]Refugees registered with UNHCR are prohibited from working in Lebanon and are required to sign a no-work agreement when they renew their lawful status.[26] Many are unable to find work, while those who have found informal employment are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by employers because refugees who lack a work permit cannot benefit from labor protections.[27] Employers of these refugees can “[pay] lower wages, [harass] employees in the workplace, [and force] employees to work in unsafe conditions because they lack legal redress.”[28] Additionally, child labor is on the rise as refugee families struggle to support themselves. “[C]hildren reportedly work for long hours in conditions not suitable for their physical and mental development or skill levels” and are often paid low wages by employers who know they can get away with paying less than they would for an adult laborer.[29] Employers enjoy a great deal of power in these relationships because many employers are sponsors to their refugee employees.

Sponsorship as a requirement to maintain lawful status raises many issues through the imbalanced power dynamic between refugees and their sponsors. Because lack of sponsorship leaves refugees in a vulnerable state, sponsors are able to leverage “considerable control over [refugees].”[30] Amr, a Syrian refugee living outside Saida, Lebanon, told HRW in an interview that he feels like his sponsor’s slave. “[My sponsor] makes me work more than 12 hours a day at his shop. Sometimes I complain but then he threatens to cancel my sponsorship.”[31] The power dynamic created by Lebanon’s sponsorship requirement has also left refugee women vulnerable to sexual exploitation.[32] Employers prefer to hire women and children over adult men “because they will work for lower wages and are easier to control through exploitation and harassment.”[33] Refugee women report feeling powerless in these situations, and most opt not to report incidents to local authorities “due to lack of confidence that authorities would take action and fear of reprisals by the abusers or arrest for not having a valid residency permit.”[34] In an interview with HRW, Sham, a refugee woman living in Tripoli, Lebanon, said: “What type of redress does a female victim of sexual exploitation have? She can’t go to the police because she has no legal status and even her informal networks can’t support her due to community shaming.”[35]

Lebanon’s residency regulations impose restrictive and often unattainable requirements. The $200 annual renewal fee is too costly for most refugees, who cannot find formal employment, and the sponsorship requirement has created a dangerous power dynamic between refugees and their sponsors that leaves refugees vulnerable to abuse and extortion by their sponsors. Lebanon’s government has been hesitant to grant lawful status to refugees, fearing that doing so would encourage refugees to plant permanent roots in Lebanon, but by refusing to facilitate the process of obtaining lawful status and through other refugee policies, Lebanon’s government has created a situation where refugees remain in limbo and cannot leave.

Lebanon’s Other Refugee Policies

Refugees in Lebanon face further challenges brought on by Lebanon’s other refugee policies. Of note, Lebanese authorities’ refusal to facilitate the registration of refugee births has left many refugee children at risk of becoming stateless.[36] Additionally, the arbitrary application of Lebanon’s limited refugee policies by local governments has also raised concern about refoulement, the practice of expelling refugees to places where they would be persecuted or face danger. These two policy decisions are reckless and could have devastating long-term effects.

In 2014, nearly 72% of children born to Syrian refugees in Lebanon went unregistered due to “complicated administrative processes, burdensome fees, and arbitrary actions by local authorities.”[37] In 2015, Lebanon’s Foreign Minister, Gebran Bassil, spoke against registering refugee births, “warning that doing so was one of the ‘first indications of sustainable integration for more than 2 million foreigners on [Lebanese] land’” and calling the presence of refugees in Lebanon a threat to the country’s identity.[38] The consequences of statelessness can be dire; stateless children may experience difficulty enrolling in school, receiving medical care, travelling, working legally, marrying, and passing on their nationality to their children.[39] The registration of births not only protects against these consequences, but has many other benefits. Registration helps organizations such as UNHCR plan assistance strategies and keep families together. Registration also protects against refoulement, arbitrary arrest, detention, and more.[40] While Lebanon’s rate of retroactive birth registrations has improved—the level of full birth registrations increased from 17% in 2017 to 21% in 2018—the problem remains pervasive.[41]

Lebanon’s lack of any “specific framework or dedicated and comprehensive administrative system for the management of refugee affairs” at the beginning of its refugee crisis has left the implementation of much of its refugee affairs to local governments. This has resulted in the arbitrary application of refugee policy. Moreover, while Lebanese politicians have promised to respect the principle of non-refoulement, many refugees have been forcefully evicted by some municipalities.[42] Worryingly, there seems to be no uniformity in how these forced evictions are carried out–in the reasoning for evictions, in the supporting documentation, in the documents local police demanded from refugees, or in the amount of time refugees were given to leave.[43] These evictions are carried out with little due process; municipal “authorities [often provide] affected people no opportunity for genuine consultation, adequate and reasonable notice, or any possibility of appeal.”[44] Additionally, refoulement occurs not only when a refugee is forcefully expelled, “but also when indirect pressure on them is so intense that it leads them to believe that they have no practical option but to return to a country where they face serious risk of persecution or threats to their lives and safety.”[45] Refugees who have voluntarily returned to Syria or gone elsewhere cited harsh conditions as a motivating factor for leaving Lebanon.


In the leadup to Lebanon’s 2018 elections, Lebanese politicians frequently blamed Syrian refugees “for a host of social and economic ills, many of which predate the Syrian refugee influx.”[46]  Lebanon’s infrastructure and economy are in a poor state; deteriorating conditions have prompted mass unrest among refugees and Lebanese citizens alike.[47]Recently, unprecedented protests have broken out across Lebanon with cries denouncing government corruption.[48] The Lebanese government, unable to shoulder its burdens, has directed its frustration at refugees, who are defenseless in the wake of Lebanon’s restrictive residency policy and other refugee policies which threaten refugees’ long-term safety and prospects.

Lebanon must recognize that the refugees within its borders are struggling under the nation’s harsh policies. Lebanon’s residency system and the method by which it recognizes its refugees’ lawful status needs serious reexamination. The lives of Lebanon’s refugees would be much improved by the waiver of the $200 annual renewal fee necessary for lawful status as well as other administrative fees; these fees are prohibitively expensive and many simply cannot pay them. Lebanon’s sponsorship system also needs serious reexamination as it has been used by many to exploit Lebanon’s vulnerable refugee population. Additionally, Lebanon should also guarantee the registration of refugee births regardless of parental lawful status and pass more comprehensive refugee policies to crack down on the arbitrary implementation of refugee policies by local governments.

Furthermore, the international community needs to increase its financial support. Lebanon has responded to its refugee crisis as it has in part because it does not have the proper resources. While Lebanon does receive assistance from the international community, which includes the United States, European Union, United Kingdom, France, and Saudi Arabia, Lebanon still lacks necessary resources.[49] Lebanon’s appeal to the United Nations for two billion dollars “in international aid to meet the humanitarian assistance needs of Syrian refugees in Lebanon for 2017 was only 54 percent funded, as of December 2017.”[50] If Lebanon’s refugee crisis is to improve, much must be done, but for now, the future is uncertain.

[1] Ninette Kelley, Responding to Refugee Influx: Lessons from Lebanon, 5 Journal on Migration and Human Security 82, 89 (2017).

[2] Lebanon: Events of 2018, UNHCR, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019/country-chapters/lebanon (last visited Oct. 11, 2019).

[3] “I Just Wanted to be Treated like a Person”: How Lebanon’s Residency Rules Facilitate Abuse of Syrian Refugees, Human Rights Watch (HRW), Jan. 12, 2016, at 1, https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/report_pdf/lebanon0116web.pdf (last visited Oct. 10, 2019) [hereinafter HRW on Residency Rules].

[4] Year-End Report on Lebanon, UNHCR, 2018, http://reporting.unhcr.org/node/2520?y=2018#year (last visited Oct. 11, 2019).

[5] Kelley, supra, at 84.

[6] Id.

[7] Id. (“Although [Lebanon’s] governance system is largely centralized, Lebanon… has eight governorates, 26 districts (whose leaders are centrally appointed) and 1,108 municipalities whose leaders are elected by their constituents.”).

[8] Refoulement, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), http://www.unesco.org/new/en/social-and-human-sciences/themes/international-migration/glossary/refoulement/ (last accessed Oct. 19, 2019).

[9] Kelley, supra, at 87.

[10] Lebanon: Events of 2018, supra; Lebanon: Residency Rules put Syrians at Risk, UNHCR, Jan. 16, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/01/12/lebanon-residency-rules-put-syrians-risk (last accessed Oct. 10, 2019).

[11] HRW on Residency Rules, supra, 16. (“Both regular and ad hoc checkpoints manned by the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), General Security Office (GSO), Internal Security Forces (ISF) and other security forces, including political parties, act to limit movement in certain areas and check the legal status of Syrian refugees passing through.”); Year-End Report on Lebanon, supra.

[12] HRW on Residency Rules, supra, at 15.

[13] Id. at 18.

[14] Id. at 3; Id. at 30.

[15] Lebanon: Events of 2018, supra.

[16] Year-End Report on Lebanon, supra.

[17] HRW on Residency Rules, supra, at 26.

[18] Id. at 1.

[19] HRW on Residency Rules, supra, 1; Lebanon: Events of 2018, supra; Lebanon: Residency Rules put Syrians at Risk, supra.

[20] Lebanon: Residency Rules put Syrians at Risk, supra; Lebanon: Events of 2018, supra.

[21] HRW on Residency Rules, supra, at 9-10.

[22] Id.

[23] Id. at 10.

[24] Id. at 11.

[25] Kelley, supra, at 87; HRW on Residency Rules, supra, at 2.

[26] HRW on Residency Rules, supra, at 2. The reason for this is unclear and I was unable to find a concrete explanation in my research.

[27] Kelley, supra, at 87; HRW on Residency Rules, supra, at 22.

[28] HRW on Residency Rules, supra, at 24

[29] Id. at 25; Id. at 27.

[30] Id. at 19.

[31] Id. at 20 (internal quotation marks omitted).

[32] Id.

[33] Id. at 28.

[34] Id. at 27-28.

[35] Id. at 29.

[36] Kelley, supra, at 87.

[37] HRW on Residency Rules, supra, at 3; Kelley, supra, at 87.

[38] HRW on Residency Rules, supra, at 32.

[39] Kelley, supra, at 87.

[40] Overview on Registration, UNHCR, https://www.unhcr.org/registration.html (last accessed Oct. 11, 2019).

[41] Year-End Report on Lebanon, supra.

[42] Lebanon: Events of 2018, supra; “Our Homes Are Not for Strangers”: Mass Evictions of Syrian Refugees by Lebanese Municipalities, HRW, 2018, at 2, https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/report_pdf/lebanon0418_web.pdf (last accessed Oct. 11, 2019) [hereinafter HRW on Mass Evictions].

[43] HRW on Mass Evictions, supra, at 2.’s

[44] HRW on Mass Evictions, supra, at 4.

[45] Lebanon: Events of 2018, supra.

[46] HRW on Mass Evictions, supra, at 1.

[47] Laila Bassam & Imad Creidi, Protests flare in Lebanon over dire economic conditions, Reuters, Sept. 29, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-lebanon-protests/protests-flare-in-lebanon-over-dire-economic-conditions-idUSKBN1WE0DD (last accessed Oct. 10, 2019); Tom Perry & Laila Bassam, As Lebanon reforms go slowly, protests suggest widening anger, Reuters, Oct. 2, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-lebanon-economy/as-lebanon-reforms-go-slowly-protests-suggest-widening-anger-idUSKBN1WH1IS (last accessed Oct. 10, 2019).

[48] Ellen Francis & Alaa Kanaan, Protests sweep Lebanon as fury at ruling elite grows over economic corruption, Reuters, Oct. 18, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-lebanon-economy-protests/protests-sweep-lebanon-as-fury-at-ruling-elite-grows-idUSKBN1WX0Q8 (last accessed Oct. 21, 2019).

[49] Lebanon: Events of 2018, supra.

[50] HRW on Mass Evictions, supra.

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