BEIRUT: The number of Syrian refugee households without a single member having legal residency increased by 26 percent in the last year, an annual study published Friday by the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Program found. The Vulnerability Assessment for Syrian Refugees in Lebanon reports that the number of households without any legal residency rose from 29 percent in 2016 to 55 percent this year while the overall number of Syrian refugees surveyed aged 15 and above without legal residency stands at 74 percent.
Poverty levels have risen contemporaneously with the rise in families without legal residency. The number of households living below the poverty line has increased from last year to 76 percent, while the number in extreme poverty (less than $2.87 per person, per day) and unable to meet survival need has increased 5 percent to 58 percent.
The report noted that “limitations on access to the labor market and the consequent lack of income opportunities have made it difficult for refugees to meet basic needs without external assistance.”
Mouin Merehbi, minister of state for refugee affairs, told The Daily Star that he personally hadn’t seen a tangible change in circumstances for refugees since last year, but “Syrians are living in [terrible] conditions.”
The minister said Lebanon was hoping for further investment from the international community to help stimulate employment in the construction and agriculture sectors, in which Syrians are allowed to work in Lebanon. “We are calling [on] the international community to help those refugees,” he said, expressing hope that there would be a strong commitment at the Paris IV conference next year.
Lisa Abou Khaled, a UNHCR spokesperson, emphasized to The Daily Star that the primary cause of lack of legal residency, cited by 88 percent of refugees interviewed for the study, was a lack of resources: namely, the $200 cost of residency renewal. This indicates a possible link between the rise in poverty levels and the increasing number of refugees unable to renew their residency.
Abou Khaled said she hopes that a waiver program introduced by General Security earlier this year, “should result in more families being able to renew their residency.” The initiative should have relieved a significant number of refugees registered with UNHCR of pay their residency renewal.
Clearly, the waiver program has not yet significantly impacted the huge increase in refugee families without residency. Abou Khaled suggests this is because of the short space of time between the implementation of the waiver program and the beginning of the research for the study. “It’s not going to happen immediately,” she said.
However, the report noted that they continued to face difficulties renewing their residency as a result of “inconsistencies in application by the [General Security] or being refused on the grounds that they were working, which may be perceived or actual.”
“Whenever we hear of such instances we raise them with the authorities to try to address the discrepancies in the way these decrees are applied,” Abou Khaled said. She pointed out that the huge increase in pressure for local General Security offices as a result of theintroduction of the waiver has led to issues, but “we’re trying our best to work with General Security and support them to expand their capacity to process these requests faster.”
A General Security source told The Daily Star that “There [are] no inconsistencies in application [and] all the [General Security Offices] apply the same regulations.”
A large number of refugees are unable to apply for the residency renewal waiver as they are not officially registered as refugees: the UNHCR stopped officially registering refugees from Syria in 2015 at the request of the Lebanese government.
One Syrian refugee who spoke on condition of anonymity said that he fled his country after that date having suffered imprisonment and torture by the Syrian government. He reached Lebanon by finding an employment sponsor, but he does not have regular work and, as he is not an officially registered refugee, he is ineligible to apply for the waiver.
The pressure caused by residency renewal is a cause of constant financial and psychological anxiety.
“This financial burden is so much on Syrian refugees,” he told The Daily Star.
He was able to find the money to pay for his own residency this year by borrowing from friends, but could not afford to also pay for the renewal of his wife’s residency.
He said that he knows of many Syrians being arrested for failing to renew their residency. His is due for renewal early next year, and he faces a problem: “When I want to renew for the next year ... the Lebanese authorities will refuse to renew for me because they will ask me to renew for my wife before accepting my application.”
This means that he will have to pay $400 if he wishes to maintain legal residency.
The source said that his sponsor has been warning him that without legal residency he will ask the Lebanese immigration authorities to deport him to Syria. The source said that he suffered imprisonment and torture by the Syrian government for taking part in anti-government protests, and will “face death if I go back to my country.”
Merehbi told The Daily Star that no Syrian is being forcibly returned to Syria. Nevertheless, the anxiety is becoming overwhelming for the Syrian source, and he told The Daily Star that he has several times considered ending his life. “The easiest and the fastest way to put an end to such suffering is committing suicide,” he said.