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A refugee on paper

Running from war, bureaucracy could be Syrians’ greatest obstacle

by Maya Gebeily

The unprecedented rate at which the number of Syrian refugees in the region has grown has caught the world’s attention. After nearly four years of unrest, roughly 1.17 million Syrians are currently registered as refugees in Lebanon — and the number continues to creep up. But an often underreported and misunderstood figure is the number of those who have had their refugee status deactivated. During 2013 and 2014, at least 137,000 Syrians lost active refugee status with UNHCR, the agency managing the international response to the refugee crisis. Vague and noncommittal statements to the press by UNHCR, coupled with sudden and at times brash government announcements on the topic, have added to the confusion. With growing government involvement in registration and deactivation, human rights agencies have expressed concern that Syrian refugees will not continue receiving appropriate protection in Lebanon.

Deactivation in Lebanon 

Deactivation of refugee status happens when someone registered as a refugee is removed from UNHCR’s active registration lists. As a result, that individual can no longer receive support from the refugee agency or its partner organizations in Lebanon. The process is part of normal UNHCR procedures around the world: as the situations of refugees change — as they head back to their country of origins, are resettled or are no longer in need of international protection — UNHCR removes them from their registration lists.

UNHCR began registering Syrians as refugees at the end of 2011 in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, and deactivation procedures began in 2012. The year 2013 saw a significant rise in refugee numbers in Lebanon. In that year alone, 690,399 Syrians were registered as refugees in Lebanon — and 36,000 files were deactivated. Lebanon ended the year with 805,835 registered Syrian refugees.

[pullquote]Although many fewer refugees were registered in 2014, those that were deactivated tripled[/pullquote]

In 2014, refugee numbers continued to rise, albeit more slowly. Roughly 441,684 new refugees were registered but 107,250 had their files deactivated. The difference is notable: although many fewer refugees were registered in 2014, those that were deactivated tripled. These deactivations have led, according to UNHCR’s online public portal, to a net decrease in refugees registered in Lebanon.

According to the UN agency, refugee files can be deactivated for a number of reasons, including death, leaving Lebanon and failing to keep in contact with UNHCR offices as required. Agency spokesperson Dana Sleiman tells Executive that this policy is communicated to refugees through counseling sessions during the registration process. To reactivate their status, Syrians can approach UNHCR to request an interview — but reactivation isn’t an automatic process, she says.

The first trigger for deactivation — death — is self evident, but the rest are slightly more complex. Failing to keep in contact with UNHCR offices includes regularly neglecting to appear at distribution appointments and failing to renew UNHCR registration documents within two months after their expiry. UNHCR’s staff declined to specify how many distribution meetings had to be missed before refugees would have their files deactivated. 

Leaving Lebanon also meant risking potential deactivation. If registered refugees are found to be going back and forth into Syria, UNHCR brings them in for an interview to determine the nature of their visits. The agency declined to specify whether it utilized a numerical threshold for how many visits back and forth to Syria would warrant an interview with UNHCR, but deactivation occurs “based on the reasons for return and duration of their stay in Syria,” spokesperson Sleiman says. Reasons for visiting Syria considered acceptable by UNHCR are, for example, visiting a sick relative, checking on property and “go-and-see visits” — trips to Syria to check if it’s safe enough to return permanently. 

[pullquote]“If there’s no fear of return, then a Syrian national should not be registered with UNHCR”[/pullquote]

As UNHCR conducts these interviews with refugees, Sleiman says the rule of thumb is whether or not these refugees were afraid to travel to Syria. “It boils down to the fear of return. If there’s no fear of return, then a Syrian national should not be registered with UNHCR,” she clarifies. “There is no mathematical equation to figure this out.” According to Bill Frelick, refugee program director at Human Rights Watch, UNHCR Lebanon’s “fear” clause is in line with definitions on refugee status.

“We think that people fleeing conflict ought to be protected on a complimentary level, but the refugee definition itself is a well founded fear of being persecuted,” Frelick tells Executive. As such, UNHCR has to constantly make “judgment calls” on who should be deactivated, he adds.

Because of the proximity and relatively open borders — at least, until the beginning of this year — Syrians could cross back and forth into Lebanon fairly easily. Many, whether registered refugees or not, would go back into Syria periodically for the “legitimate” reasons listed above. One Syrian–Kurdish refugee told Executive in September 2014 that despite the fraught situation in his hometown in Aleppo, he would make the dangerous journey there every year to check on his old family home. Additionally, Syrians with residency in Lebanon who could not pay the $200 yearly residency renewal fee would travel back to Syria, so that they could get a renewal for free upon their entry into Lebanon.

[pullquote]The government’s ultimate aim is “negative growth”[/pullquote]

But a government announcement in June of 2014 changed that. As Ministry of Interior representative Khalil Gebara told Executive in December, the government’s ultimate aim is “negative growth” — more deactivations and fewer refugees coming in because of tighter border controls, so that the number of active refugees is constantly decreasing. To that end, Minister of Interior Nouhad Machnouk declared last June that any refugees who went back to Syria would have their refugee status revoked. In reality, the process for deactivation was more nuanced than that.

During June and July 2014, Lebanon’s General Security Office provided UNHCR with the names of all Syrians who had traveled into and out of Lebanon. UNHCR then cross referenced these names with its registration lists. Registered refugees who had traveled into or out of Lebanon were interviewed by UNHCR to determine whether or not they feared returning to Syria.

By the end of June 2014, according to a source close to the subject, 12,345 Syrians had lost their refugee status specifically because of their commutes into Syria. UNHCR declined to provide Executive with data on how many refugees had their status deactivated this way, but said that it was a minority of the total number of deactivations. An emailed statement by UNHCR noted that the cooperation mechanism with General Security on this matter was no longer active at the time of writing.

UNHCR registration: growing importance 

How a refugee’s status changes has a lot to do with how that refugee was registered. Syrian refugees in Lebanon are registered under a temporary protection regime, based on criteria that UNHCR has agreed upon with the government. Lebanon is not party to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which defines refugee rights and state responsibilities towards them. Consequently, when refugees in Lebanon are registered, their status is recognized by UNHCR and its partner organizations, but not officially by the Lebanese government.

[pullquote]Syrian refugees who are seeking to renew their residency in Lebanon are now required to present their UNHCR paperwork to a General Security office[/pullquote]

Nevertheless, Lebanon — in practice, if not in law — has afforded value to registration with UNHCR. According to Ministry of Interior representative Gebara, Syrian refugees who are seeking to renew their residency in Lebanon are now required to present their UNHCR paperwork to a General Security office. This new requirement comes as a consequence of Lebanon’s new regulations on the entry and residency of Syrians into Lebanon, which came into effect on January 5. The result, from Lebanon’s perspective, is a semi recognition of refugee status; although the country does not legally assign it, it requires UNHCR documentation to provide legal residency for Syrian refugees. From a Syrian refugee’s perspective, it makes registration with UNHCR all that more important — as it is now increasingly demanded by the government in order to live in Lebanon legally.

Whether registered or not, refugees are entitled to a level of protection in Lebanon. The Lebanese state “has an obligation under customary law not to forcibly return refugees who have a real or perceived risk of persecution,” says Khairunissa Dhala, researcher and adviser on refugees at Amnesty International. “Doing so would amount to a violation of the principle of non-refoulement, which is binding on all states.”

Aside from the limited benefits afforded by the Lebanese state, refugees receive significant support from UN agencies if they are registered. This aid includes everything from food and healthcare to education and psychosocial care. Registered refugees are also eligible to access UNHCR’s resettlement program to be resettled in a number of Western countries.

The growing importance of holding UNHCR refugee status makes deactivation all the more significant. But with the government requiring proof of registration in order to renew residencies, deactivation also has legal consequences for Syrians seeking to stay in Lebanon legally.

In the government’s hands?

The process of registration and deactivation will see more involvement by the Lebanese government in the coming months. Lebanon has recently been seeking greater control over the presence of Syrian refugees on its territory, as exhibited by its decision at the end of 2014 to require that Syrians entering Lebanon obtain visas, which Executive reported on in its February issue. The next step, according to Ministry of Social Affairs representative Hala El Helou, involves UNHCR sharing its information on registered refugees with the Lebanese government.

[pullquote]UNHCR and the Lebanese government are still in talks to determine the exact nature of their future prerogatives[/pullquote]

“Transfer of data is for the government to be able to have the data of the people who are present on its territory,” Helou explains. “We’re working very closely as the government with the UN. The data has to do with mapping and just having the numbers and figures of who is present, and to build on that.”

Helou adds that the effort stems from a need to make assistance to refugees more efficient by identifying those who are most in need. “Because the assistance is becoming less and less, we need to work on rationalizing it … we need better targeting,” she says.

UNHCR and the Lebanese government are still in talks to determine the exact nature of their future prerogatives, but Helou says the government will be more involved in registering new cases. Amnesty International’s Dhala says it’s unclear how the government will use the information shared with it by UNHCR and what criteria it will use to determine refugee status. Whatever Lebanon decides, Dhala says, it should continue to provide Syrians with “international protection in accordance with international law, as they have a well founded fear of persecution in Syria due to the nature of the conflict.” 

The government has already asked UNHCR to stop registering new refugees without the Ministry of Social Affairs’ approval, Helou tells Executive. She adds that Lebanon will also have a hand in the “possible evaluation of the registered cases.” The mechanisms have yet to be established, but government influence on them may be cause for concern for human rights NGOs.

[pullquote]“At the end of the year, the calculations should show more deactivations than new refugees”[/pullquote]

“The Lebanese government has a policy regarding Syrian refugees and asylum seekers which we do have a lot of concerns about,” comments Lama Fakih, Human Rights Watch’s Syria and Lebanon researcher. Based on government statements, including Interior Minister Machnouk’s statement mentioned above, Lebanon sees refugees visiting Syria for any reason as de facto forfeiture of their refugee status.

When asked whether the government had pressured them into tougher measures on registration or deactivation, UNHCR representatives told Executive in an emailed statement that “the government of Lebanon has always and consistently respected UNHCR’s role and responsibilities,” and declined to comment further.

Nevertheless, the government’s objective remains the same: decreasing the number of registered refugees in Lebanon. “At the end of the year, the calculations should show more deactivations than new refugees,” says Gebara, the Ministry of Interior representative. With stricter regulations on Syrians entering Lebanon, more deactivated cases year after year and growing government involvement in registration and deactivation, the government’s goal of “negative growth” doesn’t seem so far away.

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Maya Gebeily

Maya Gebeily is a Lebanese-American freelance journalist currently based in Beirut. She writes about security, diplomacy, and social issues throughout the Middle East. She tweets at @gebeilym.

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