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by Maja Janmyr, Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Oslo

On 24th and 25th April, the European Union and the United Nations co-chaired the Second Brussels Conference, where a total of $4.4 billion was pledged in humanitarian support to Syria and neighboring refugee-hosting countries. While these funding commitments were nearly $5 billion short of what is needed to fund the humanitarian response, conditions on the ground demonstrate how far more than humanitarian aid is needed for any real and positive change to happen in the lives of Syrian refugees.

In Lebanon, a country with the highest per capita number of refugees in the world, the situation can be seen as particularly dire. At the Brussels conference, Lebanon made important commitments to refugee rights, but at home, political debates are raging surrounding the mass return of the same persons. But who is designated as a refugee in the first place? And who is really targeted for return? Research shows how these questions are far more complex than they may seem at first glance.

Take, for example, the 2017 Lebanon Crisis Response Plan (LCRP), jointly drafted by the Lebanese government and the UN in order to address refugee protection and assistance needs. It accurately conveys the tension that Lebanon long has had with the international refugee regime. Specifically,  the preamble of the LCRP establishes that:

The UN characterizes the flight of civilians from Syria as a refugee movement, and considers that these Syrians are seeking international protection and are likely to meet the refugee definition. The Government of Lebanon considers that it is being subject to a situation of mass influx. It refers to individuals who fled from Syria into its territory after March 2011 as temporarily displaced individuals, and reserves its sovereign right to determine their status according to Lebanese laws and regulations.

The partnership document  jointly developed by the Lebanese government, the EU and the UN ahead of the Brussels conference demonstrates the same approach. In other words, Syrians fleeing to Lebanon are considered by UNHCR to constitute a ‘refugee movement’ but by the host state to be ‘temporarily displaced individuals’. In this blog, the following questions will be addressed: What, more exactly, does this approach entail? How does the legal concept of refugee fit in? And what has its effect been on the lives of Syrians in Lebanon?

Lebanon and ‘the refugee’

Despite hosting up to approximately 1.5 million Syrian refugees, Lebanon strongly opposes the notion of being a ‘country of asylum’. While it engaged actively in the establishment of the international refugee regime, it steadfastly rejects ratification of the major refugee law instruments, including the 1951 Convention. Lebanon also does not have a formal domestic refugee legislation in place, and the provisions on asylum found in its 1962 Law Regulating the Entry and Stay of Foreigners in Lebanon and their Exit from the Country are in reality redundant.

An essentially contested concept for the Lebanese authorities is the one of refugee. In June 2012, Lebanon’s caretaker government established a policy of neutrality towards the events in Syria, of which one strand was the enforcement of the term ‘displaced persons’ rather than ‘refugees.’ I have elsewhere discussed in greater detail the key reasons why Lebanon seeks to avoid the refugee label, and these include a fear that doing so would not only entail the permanency of refugees on Lebanese territory, but also trigger the application of the international refugee law regime. Avoiding the term “refugee” altogether may in this sense be seen as an attempt to circumvent any legal obligations for those meeting the criteria set out in the refugee definition.

In the early stages of its Syria operation in Lebanon, UNHCR had agreed to avoid using the term refugee but, as UNHCR’s response grew more conventional, it increasingly insisted on the importance of using refugee terminology – much to the ire of the Lebanese government. The wording in the LCRP and the partnership document is thus an example not only of the contentious nature of terminology, but also of an attempt to reconcile conflicting humanitarian and state views.

The UN’s usage of the term ‘refugee movement’ is also worth noting. UNHCR has not made any official declaration of prima facie refugee status for Syrians. Prima facie refugee status is normally recognized on the basis of readily apparent, objective circumstances in the country of origin and is commonly used in mass influx situations around the world. In the Syrian case, however, UNHCR characterizes the flight of civilians from Syria equivocally, referring to it as a ‘refugee movement.’ This raises a number of questions, not the least because, in contrast to prima facie refugee status, simply characterizing a flow as a ‘refugee movement’ is not an established mean of status determination under international law.

The lack of a consistent legal framework in Lebanon has made Syrians vulnerable to vacillating political interests. Following the formation of a new government in September 2014, Lebanon’s Council of Ministers adopted its first clear policy on Syrian displacement known as the October Policy. This policy had one explicit goal; to decrease the number of Syrians in Lebanon by reducing access to territory and to encourage return to Syria. In addition to de facto closing of the border for many wishing to seek protection, on the ground the policy has most notably resulted in an estimated 74 % of Syrian refugees in Lebanon lacking legal status . This lack of status impacts most aspects of refugees’ lives, including limiting their ability to move freely.

The border regulations that accompanied the so-called October Policy effectively restrict admission to Lebanon for Syrians to those who can prove that their stay in Lebanon fits into one of the approved entry categories, such as tourism, business, study, or medical treatment. Importantly, the policy was followed by the implementation of two primary options for Syrian nationals to obtain residency: sponsorship by a Lebanese citizen or reliance on a UNHCR registration certificate. In other words, a Syrian can be lawfully staying in Lebanon if she or he is an economic migrant under the sponsorship system or is registered as a refugee with UNHCR. As we shall see below, this distinction has become increasingly important.

Registration and residency

Registration procedures are a fundamental component of international protection in the Lebanese context. Notably, in 2013 and 2014, UNHCR registered on average 47,000 Syrian refugees per month in Lebanon. However, in an attempt to reduce the official number of refugees in the country – which by March 2015 had grown to almost 1,200,000 – in May 2015, the Lebanese government suspended UNHCR’s registration of Syrian refugees. At the time of the suspension order, the UNHCR registration certificate had limited practical value. While it entitled refugees to international protection and humanitarian assistance, it did not normally confer any formal status recognised by the Lebanese government. Not long after the Lebanese authorities suspended UNHCR registration, however, the registration certificate became crucial for many Syrians to obtain legal residency in Lebanon as this option was introduced by the so-called October Policy.

No longer being able to secure a UNHCR registration certificate, many Syrians have become forced to obtain residency by securing a national sponsor. This has arguably had the effect of transforming Syrian refugees and displaced individuals into economic migrants, and therefore without the international protection ordinarily afforded to refugees. Making matters worse, only registered Syrians can renew their residency in Lebanon without the prohibitively expensive 200 US dollar annual renewal fee required of Syrians who are not registered.

The policy waiver of the annual residency fee for UNHCR-registered Syrian refugees thus excludes, among others, Syrians not registered with UNHCR and registered refugees who renewed their residency through sponsorship by a Lebanese national. It is surely for this reason that the partnership document developed ahead of the Brussels conference requests that Lebanon ‘(…)consider[s] measures to cover all categories of refugees in an inclusive manner through the expansion of the residency fee waiver to categories of refugees currently not covered.’

Lebanon’s push for refugee return

Of particular concern is that the rebranding of refugees as economic migrants, and the consequent de-legitimization of Syrians’ claims to refugee status, conceal more difficult political aspirations, such as the return of refugees to Syria. UNHCR has declared that the current conditions in Syria do not allow for the assumption of a safe return, and participants of the Brussels conference also issued a declaration clearly stating that conditions in Syria are not conducive for the voluntary return in safety and dignity of refugees.

This declaration has been rejected by both Lebanon’s President and the minister for foreign affairs, who argue that it in fact aims to ‘resettle Syrians in Lebanon’. They warn that waiting until there is a political solution to the Syrian conflict before returning refugees could mean waiting in vain. Over the past year, Lebanese politicians have therefore increasingly called for the return of refugees, claiming that many areas are safe. Amid the above described complex discussions of who is to be considered a refugee, there are thus many reasons to be worried that bona fide refugees may be targeted for return at a time when it is generally considered unsafe.