Reflections from Lebanon: Illegal Status, Syrian Refugee Children and Roles of NGOs
Increasing numbers of displaced Syrians are becoming illegal in Lebanon. The blog will describe the negative consequences of the lack of legal status on children’s rights in practice, that have been observed through the author’s experiences on the ground.
Recent developments in the laws, policies and practices in response to the mass influx of displaced persons have pushed over half of the 1.5 million displaced Syrians in Lebanon into illegality (LCRP 2017-2020). As children’s rights are interdependent, the absence of legal status directly affects the enjoyment and fulfilment of children’s fundamental rights (i.e. access to education, health care and an adequate standard of living) and their healthy development and future as a human being.
My personal story
After completing the Master of Laws: Advanced Studies in International Children’s Rights programme at Leiden University, I started working with an international NGO based in Beirut, Lebanon, as a project manager. I am working directly with displaced children and children affected by the Syrian conflict, and am currently managing three different projects targeting displaced children (mainly Syrian but also Iraqi and displaced Palestinians from Syria) as well as the host communities’ families and children (Lebanese and Palestinian) who are in dire need. Through my work, I have come to understand that what I described as the consequences of the lack of legal status and protracted displacement on children’s living rights in Thailand is starting to emerge for displaced children in Lebanon.
Background: Syrian refugees in the Lebanese context
Due to its historical generosity towards refugees and its geographic location, Lebanon now has the highest per-capita concentration of refugees in the world (VASyR, 2016). This has placed extreme pressure on the country’s already limited resources, and the living conditions and protection space are deteriorating for both Lebanese and displaced persons alike.
From a legal perspective, Lebanon is not a party to the 1951 Convention nor its 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Consequently, there is no specific domestic legislation nor administrative body governing and addressing asylum procedures. Nevertheless, Lebanon has signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) without any reservations, and the Lebanese national legal system meets quite high international standards on paper to some extent – for example, every child’s right to education is recognized and stipulated under the Lebanese Compulsory Education Act (Legislative Decree Number 26 of 1955, art. 17; Law Number 686 of 1998 Articles 17, 43, 44; See the Law Library of Congress).
The Government of Lebanon (GoL) has implemented a set of policies to formalise and restrict the Syrian presence and to safeguard Lebanese employment since 2011 (Lebanon Support, 2016). The present system leaves Syrians who seek to legally reside in Lebanon with two choices: either stay registered with UNHCR and sign the pledge not to work, or obtain a ‘pledge of responsibility’ from a Lebanese sponsor (kafeel) and pay expensive fees to receive a valid residency permit (Lebanon Support, 2016). However, neither choice is affordable nor does it provide them with practical possibilities to live in dignity and have an adequate standard of living.
Syrian refugee children and their family’s reality in Lebanon
The lack of legal status and subsequent lack of mobility, combined with higher risks and fear of arbitrary detention, evictions, deportation and harassment, all pose additional barriers to accessing basic services, including legal livelihood opportunities, health care services and education, and increases the vulnerability of families and their children as they lack legal protection.
Access to basic rights, particularly healthcare, is severely limited for displaced Syrians. For example, in theory, the UNHCR provides primary health care assistance as well as health insurance called the NEXtCARE to cover 75% of life-saving and 90% of obstetric care for refugees. Nevertheless, children die of curable diseases/injuries and pregnant women give birth on the street in front of a hospital due to too expensive medical costs, delayed responses from the heath-sector actors and lack of steady income. Many families I know are taking risks to return to Syria just to get their children treated – some never return, some experience the death of their child after all their efforts and others are forced to take on huge debts.
The situation of Syrians with a legal residence permit is no better under the GoL’s current policy restricting their access to the labour market to only the agricultural, construction and environmental sectors (Lebanon Support, 2016). Additionally, many business owners nowadays only hire children and youths who are considered cheaper labour (see for example, Al Jazeera, 2017). Furthermore, factors such as unclear procedures regarding the renewal of residency permits, arbitrary application of the rules, and high costs involved pose additional challenges for those with legal residency to renew and/or extend their permit (Lebanon Support, 2016).
For example, it is not uncommon that a Syrian person’s passport is taken away by an officer from a General Security Office in Beirut when they go to renew their residency permit. In theory, any registered Syrian refugee who arrived in Lebanon before 2015 is supposed to receive a waiver on the fee for residency renewal, thanks to the UNHCR’s advocacy efforts. In reality, many are told to either acquire a sponsor’s pledge of responsibility and pay extra, expensive fees to get a work permit to stay, or accept the order to leave the country. Many incidents of subsequent harassment, arbitrary detention and deportation have been reported throughout Lebanon (Human Rights Watch, 2017).
As a result, 70 per cent of over 1.5 million Syrian refugees are now living below the extreme poverty line and over half of them with illegal status (LCRP 2017-2020). In response, in order to meet their basic needs, many adopt coping mechanisms that can be harmful or put them at more risk, such as: returning to Syria (many face various risks inside Syria and when they re-enter Lebanon); paying high fees for brokers and forged documents; dependency on the sponsor(s) (kafeel) and/or broker(s) (shaweesh) to find a job and housing; and borrowing money (Lebanon Support, 2016).
Syrian Crisis as Children’s Crisis?
An overwhelming number of children are affected by such laws, policies and practices, as over half of the registered refugee population are children aged between 3 and 18. Because children’s rights are interdependent, lack of legal status means lack of access to basic services (shelter, food, health care and income). Additionally, the family’s inability to meet their basic needs directly affects children’s right to education and protection. In fact, over half of 500,000 displaced children in Lebanon remain out of school, along with 50,000 Lebanese children. 84% of youths aged 15 years have no access to any form of education (Human Rights Watch, 2016). This is also due to the increased reliance on harmful practices, such as child labour (on the street and in stores and factories) and child marriage, as well as coping mechanisms.
Through my work, I personally met girls, as young as 13-14, who are married to over 40 years old Lebanese men and became pregnant. Many more cases are reported to us, and countless older children drop out of our educational programmes to work, to move and to get married. Let us not forget that these Syrian children were severely traumatised already by the experiences of war and displacement in Syria, and are now forced to continue suffering from negative consequences of poverty and strict policies without adequate psycho-social support in Lebanon.
Without a safe learning environment, many Syrian children lack the opportunity for healthy development, time to play, or the protection that every child deserves. Without a legal status, they are stuck in limbo, without any certainty for their future.
The way forward?
At the heart of their vulnerability stands the lack of legal identity. Merely offering a safe learning space to access education and psycho-social support, cash assistance and health care is not enough to support these children and their families.
Displaced persons from neighbouring countries, including Iraq, will continue to enter, reside and work in Lebanon, legally or illegally, given the ongoing conflict and the limited, expensive and risky alternative routes in the Mediterranean area.
In the face of the recent developments leading to further unrest in Lebanon (See Aljazeera, June 2017; Aljazeera, July 2017; Middle East Online, July 2017), there is an urgent need for the government, international community, as well as Lebanese and displaced communities to face reality and agree on a feasible and sustainable solution that meets mutual interests.
Keeping vast numbers of displaced Syrians illegal and allowing the exploitative black market to expand are surely not in any party’s interest in the long term. Lack of legal status reduces the person and the child’s ability to make claims on the state in today’s human rights scheme. The emergence of the illegal labour market also reduces the state’s ability to control the Syrian population.
However, in the Lebanese context, where the complex political atmosphere does not allow any legal or political changes, where the overwhelming majority of the displaced population, particularly children, are becoming illegal and exposed to exploitative employment opportunities or at risk of abuse, what other answers do we have?
To oversimplify the answer, we need both short-term oriented basic assistance and long-term oriented advocacy, lobbying and policy reform efforts that are advanced in parallel. In the Lebanese context where Syrian refugees cannot have legal status, mobility, nor legal livelihood opportunities, many families are in dire need of direct cash assistance to meet their basic needs and to keep their dignity, however dependent it will make them and unsustainable it is. At the same time, more initiatives are required to empower Syrian parents and children themselves to remain agents of their lives.
I am no expert here, but I can say one thing – no adult wants to see his/her child suffer. Children are our society’s future. If we let these Syrian, Iraqi, Palestinian and Lebanese children and youths become the lost generation, there will be no Syria, Palestine, Lebanon or Iraq. A child’s rights centred approach to laws and policies could provide us with common ground, a space for mutual understanding. Child-rights centred, multi-sectoral measures for improvements are not only vital to protect the rights, safety and dignity of every child, but will also serve the long-term interests of the GoL and other parties involved.
Given the universality of the UNCRC, shifting the perception of displaced children as ‘illegal migrants’ or ‘terrorists’ to ‘learner-citizens’ may offer an alternative way forward – a path that is more sustainable, inclusive and beneficial for all.