A severe winter storm has gripped several parts of Lebanon over the past several weeks, including eastern Lebanon, which is currently home to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. The cold temperatures is making life even more difficult for this already vulnerable population, which by and large lives in makeshift tents, garages, and barns.
The storm has also had a calamitous effect on Syrian refugees attempting to cross into Lebanon in a bid to escape the brutal violence that continues to devastate their country. According to Lebanese Civil Defense sources, seventeen Syrian refugees froze to death in eastern Lebanon over a period of three days. On January 19, the bodies of nine Syrians were found along an eastern smuggling trail near the al-Masna‘a border crossing. On Saturday, six additional bodies were discovered along the route, including those of three children, while two bodies were also recovered on Sunday. It is assumed that the victims were fleeing the Syrian regime’s offensive on rebel-held Idlib in northwest Syria.
According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), the tragic deaths are a reminder that “the situation inside Syria remains very difficult.” Indeed, while Lebanese authorities look for ways to facilitate the return of the displaced to “stable and low-tension areas” in Syria, the situation is far too dangerous in the besieged and war-torn country to consider mass re-settlement.
At the same time, the deaths serve as a reminder of Lebanon’s current border policies and the precarious position of Syrian refugees within the country. Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2011, well over 5 million Syrians have fled their homes to neighboring countries, mainly Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. According to the Lebanese government, by 2015, the number of Syrian refugees in the country had reached 1.5 million, or roughly a quarter of the population.
From 2011-2014, Syrian refugees entered the country with comparative ease. If in possession of a Syrian ID card, they received a six-month residency status that could be renewed at no cost. Work permits were not required, thanks to a 1993 bilateral economic agreement, and Syrian children could also enrol in public schools for reduced (or waived) fees.
To be sure, Syrian refugees still faced many hardships. With the government forbidding the building of official refugee camps, hundreds of thousands of refugees were forced to live in some 1400 informal settlements without water or sanitation facilities. Documented refugees also had difficulty accessing public health services thanks to Lebanon’s overstretched (and underfunded) system. In addition, public resentment towards Syrians steadily grew, with anti-refugee rhetoric in the media blaming refugees for allegedly driving down wages, stealing jobs, and overloading water and power supplies. No doubt this attitude was the result, in part, of historical tensions with Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon, as well as deeply held prejudices that developed under decades of Syrian political domination. Still, despite these very serious issues, the economic and social conditions in Lebanon were relatively favorable for settlement during the first few years of the Syrian uprising.
But, according to the Lebanese government, the consistent flow of refugees was threatening economic and political destabilization. As time passed, the government began to steadily impose tougher and often challenging residency requirements to reduce the Syrian presence. For example, in January 2015, Syrians had to apply, for the first time, for one of six entry visa categories, with each requiring difficult to obtain supporting documents, such as a tenancy agreement with a landlord or sponsorship from a Lebanese national or employer (for those registered with UNHCR, evidence of financial support from the UN was necessary). The government started to enforce a prohibitively steep $200 residency renewal fee. In May 2015, the Lebanese government even ordered UNHCR to suspend refugee registration, including for those already in the country.
The government has since eased some residency rules. But, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council, up to 80% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon do not have valid residency permits due to post-2015 measures. As a result, they cannot access public services. Additionally, movement for undocumented Syrians inside Lebanon has been severely limited, as without legal residency, Syrians face arrest, if discovered. Families also encounter greater difficulties registering births (risking the statelessness of these newborns). These developments have also curtailed the entry of refugees into the mainstream job market, which has pushed many families (along with children) towards exploitative work in the informal sector, including illegal organ trading. What is more, crippling poverty is forcing Syrian girls into early marriage. According to the UNHCR, Syrian refugees in Lebanon are now “more vulnerable than ever,” with three quarters living on less than $4 a day.
Because of these residency restrictions and border controls, Syrian refugees, such as the seventeen recently found dead in eastern Lebanon, are forced to take desperate measures to find safety. With sufficient international support, Lebanon must end these restrictions, enable safe passage for Syrian refugees, and ensure a protective environment until the guns fall silent inside Syria.