An unquantifiable tragedy

UNHCR discusses the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon

Greg Demarque | Executive

In January 2015, Lebanon put new visa rules in place for Syrians entering the country with an aim of stemming the flow of refugees crossing the border. In May, the government ordered the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to stop registering new refugees. As a result, the total number of refugees has been declining in 2015. As of October 31, 2015, there were 1,075,637 Syrian refugees. The number of registered refugees from Syria in Lebanon was 1,166,760 on September 26, 2014, according to UNHCR’s website. Executive speaks with UNHCR Lebanon Representative Mireille Girard, who arrived in the country in July, about the new policies and the increasingly difficult life for Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

E   Reading through various UNHCR reports throughout the year, it sounds like life for Syrian refugees in Lebanon got much harder in 2015. For example, in the first nine months of the year, you report that 15 percent more refugees are living in substandard conditions compared to the same period in 2014. Why is that?

It’s the impact of four to five years in exile. People who came with savings have no savings anymore. People are paying a number of bills every day which is difficult to afford over a long period. They pay rent. And the international community does not have the capacity to cover all of refugees’ needs. We cover as much as we can for the most vulnerable, and that amounts to over $800 million per year, but it is still largely insufficient if you look at what is needed. They’re chipping in themselves a lot. Average rent is $200 per month. They pay electricity and water. People need to renew their residency permit every year and it costs $200 for each person over the age of 15. If there are five people over that age in a family, it costs $1,000.

E   What are refugees doing to cope with this shortfall in assistance?

They are reducing the number of meals they have per day, and we see that increasingly. In addition to this, [the World Food Program] had to reduce the amount of food aid per refugee they were giving by half in the middle of the year, which was extremely traumatic. Fortunately, thanks to a recent contribution, the amount went up again, but is still below earlier levels. And the WFP only has funding to continue until January. After that, what happens? We don’t know. So with the unpredictability of humanitarian assistance and the fact that the size of it only covers the most vulnerable, a larger and larger segment of this refugee community cannot make it any more. They’re falling into the most vulnerable categories. For example, last year 40 percent of the refugees told us they had to borrow money to cope and were reducing food intake or buying less nutritious food because it’s cheaper.

E   In May, the government announced a new policy saying that UNHCR could not register any new refugees. What impact is this having; are Lebanon’s borders closed to Syrians?

No. People can come under the allowed visa categories – students, for example, or if you are here on business or for medical treatment – this is allowed. However, to enter as a humanitarian exception, you really have to have a very compelling situation – like a child alone whose parents are here or a person with disabilities whose caretaker is here.

E   Do you have a number for how many humanitarian cases have been allowed in since the new policy went into effect?

Very few.

E   What communication do you have with General Security to make sure the most vulnerable are not turned away at the border?

We have very good communications with them. We also work closely with the Ministry of Social Affairs, which has the mandate to handle the Syrian refugee crisis. We have a framework and you’re not seeing students deported or migrants deported.

Has Lebanon been deporting refugees?

No. The government of Lebanon is upholding its international law obligation not to push people back to a war situation. But many refugees are not able to renew their residency permits because of both the cost and the documents they have to provide – such as a lease agreement. You don’t have a formal lease agreement for a tent. Over 60 percent of refugees are incapable of extending their residency permits. They live with fear that they will get in legal trouble or deported, but deportations are not actually happening, to our knowledge.

E   Is General Security detaining Syrian refugees for not having residency papers?*

The General Security Office detains non-Lebanese persons including Syrian refugees for their irregular status. Most are released within a day or two.

E   How many are currently in detention?*

Please refer to the Lebanese authorities for an accurate figure.

E   What’s the general trend in detention you’ve seen since the crisis started and has there been a spike in 2015?*

The percentage of Syrians in prison has slightly increased from 2010 to 2015, a reflection of the increased size of the Syrian population in Lebanon.

E   Was there any spike after the May decision on no new registrations?*

No.

E   During the summer of 2015, hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees began entering Europe. Do you have any sense of whether refugees in Lebanon left the country for Europe given the worsening conditions here?

There are two categories of movements that are arriving in Europe. Departing from the region, you have legal movements and illegal movements. The large, large majority from Syria are legal. People cross the border [into Lebanon, for example], get a transit visa, show their travel documents which they’ve paid for legally – whether travelling by air or sea – and go to a country where they don’t need a visa: Turkey. And at the moment, we are seeing the middle class in Syria leaving. We’ll have a better idea once more interviews are conducted with the refugees arriving in Europe, but the snapshot so far is that many were people who had things to hold on to and were reluctant to leave but have decided they cannot live another year in Syria. Once they arrive in Turkey, this is when they get into contact with smugglers and all of the movement from there is illegal. 

E   Where does Lebanon fit into this equation? We’ve heard that there are many Syrians transiting through the country but there are also reports of smugglers illegally taking refugees out of the country. Do you have an idea about the scale of smuggling?

Here, there are some people who do not have up-to-date residency permits, so they would have to regularize themselves to be able to leave legally. That can be expensive because you have to pay for each year you were here without papers. So, refugees either choose to do that or pay a smuggler.

E   How do you get this information about refugee smuggling out of Lebanon?

We get information from different sources to try and triangulate the information. We do random surveys among the refugee population and speak to people when they come to ask for assistance. Here we try to gauge intentions, whether they plan to leave for a third country. We also measure the number of people who are not showing up [for meetings with UNHCR], and try to find out where they are.

E   When UNHCR cannot reach a refugee for a period of time, that person is deregistered. There were 149,000 deregistrations in the first nine months of 2015. Is this a significant increase from last year?

It’s more than last year, but not a significant increase. Last year we deregistered 125,000 for the whole year. This year, by September there were 149,000.

E   Do you attribute that increase to smuggling or legal movement with the aim of getting to Europe illegally?

It includes everything: formal resettlement, death or return to Syria. We do try to find out if there are any indications of people who tried to go to Europe. We did a random survey recently and found around 40 percent of people said they either knew someone or heard of someone who has left. Then we asked where. There was a big proportion that stayed in the region. It depends on connections people have, relatives who can help them. It depends on where they can get a visa.

E   It seems Lebanon is trying to disincentivize Syrians from coming here. Are there still large numbers of people unfamiliar with the process here who are trying to enter as refugees?

In general, people know. The number of people that come to the border under the humanitarian category is very low. This means that people know there are not many being let in. By now the word has spread. People who are coming here know what they need and bring the right documents. In the past two years, we’ve seen a lot of people that came to Lebanon with savings and didn’t feel the need to register as refugees with UNHCR. As their savings diminished, or if they lost jobs they had, they would come and register even though they’d already been here for one or two years. These are the people we’ve had to stop registering since May when the new government policy went into effect. Now, we don’t see as many of these people coming, so I think the word has spread.

E   If they do come, can you refer them to partners? Are these people able to get any aid?

In education, the government doubled the amount of space available for Syrian refugees, so now the target is 200,000 – which is still half the number of those who need education, but it is double the number from last year. We’ve so far registered 160,000 but 200,000 spots are available. Kids don’t have to be registered or have proper residency papers to go to school.

*This portion of the conversation was conducted via email after the face-to-face interview.

Matt Nash

Matt is Executive's Economics & Policy Editor. He has been reporting on Lebanon since 2007 with a focus on oil and gas, policy and legal matters.

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