For the first time since its establishment, the Lebanese state has imposed restrictive measures on the entry of Syrian nationals into the country.
On December 31, 2014, Lebanon’s General Directorate of General Security (“General Security”) introduced criteria regulating the entry of Syrians into Lebanon. To qualify for entry, a Syrian must have a Lebanese sponsor, own real estate in Lebanon, or the purpose of their travel must fall under one of the following categories: tourism, business,, study, transit, medical treatment, or visa application at a foreign embassy.
On January 13, 2015, the General Security published a more detailed directive, which included additional categories for entry, such as: holders of a residential rental agreement, holders of Lebanese residence permits and their family members, spouses of Lebanese nationals, children of Lebanese women, wives of Palestinian refugees registered in Lebanon, holders of residence permits in another Arab or foreign country and diplomats.
Syrian nationals who fulfill these criteria are granted short-term, temporary residency. Previously, even after 2011, Syrians automatically obtained residency for six months, with the possibility of renewal.
These new General Security measures are an implementation of the first provision in the “Policy on Syrian Displacement” adopted by the [Lebanese] cabinet on October 23, 2014. The policy consists of “putting an end to displacement across the borders, except for exceptional humanitarian cases, and registering those who enter [Lebanese] borders based on reasons of entry in order to verify the implementation of these measures”.
The General Security decision also amounts to an attempt to clarify its practices on the matter. Some months ago, the agency began restricting Syrians’ entry into Lebanon in ambiguous, unclear, and highly arbitrary ways. The arbitrary and ambiguous measures put into place at the time had discouraged Syrian citizens already residing in Lebanon from leaving, for fear that they will not be able to return.
The new measures raise a number of concerns, most notably the following:
Discriminatory measures against Syrian nationals in comparison to other foreigners.
This decision clearly violates not only bilateral agreements between Lebanon and Syria, but also Lebanese laws that grant Syrian citizens privileges to enter and reside in Lebanon, as well as freedom of movement between the two countries, in exchange for reciprocal privileges granted to the Lebanese by Syria. Did the loss of these privileges render Syrians on par with other foreigners, or have they now become subject to conditions of treatment that are inferior to other foreigners? It appears that the decision is a move in the latter direction, as it sets restrictive conditions that are only applicable to Syrian nationals. The decision also appears to omit any reference to cases that usually permit any foreigner to enter and reside in Lebanon, such as entry for the purpose of working in Lebanon.
The closure of official borders to those most in need of entry into Lebanon.
A closer look at these criteria indicates that they will lead to the closure of Lebanon’s official borders to Syrian nationals who are most in need of entry, most notably refugees fleeing from oppression and violence in Syria, either by State or non-State actors, and seeking a safe haven in Lebanon.
The detailed list of criteria for permissible entry specifically states that no Syrian will be allowed to enter Lebanon as a “displaced person” (i.e. a refugee) except for exceptional cases, and that these procedures will be later determined in coordination with the Ministry of Social Affairs. This is clealry aimed at maintaining selectivity and nebulousness in terms of determining its applicability to new entries.
Just as important, who will assume responsibility for verifying whether conditions for asylum are met, and should these conditions be included among the reasons justifying entry to Lebanon? Are Syrian nationals expected to share their reasons for seeking asylum with the General Security staff, who have not been trained on refugee status determination? What role is there for UNHCR, the entity that is internationally mandated for this purpose, but which has no presence at the borders?
Rather than lead to a decline in the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, these restrictions are likely to lead to an increased number of refugees entering Lebanon through unofficial border crossings. They will join those currently residing in Lebanon whose residency were not renewed to become unofficial residents, and as a result face subsequent marginalization.
Discrimination between Syrians based on their financial capabilities.
It is clear that the list of reasons stipulated by the General Security aims to deny entry to poorer Syrians, while keeping the borders open to those who enjoy good financial standing. Entrants must show proof of hotel reservation and possession of a sum of a thousand dollars for a tourist permit, or proof of ownership of real estate in Lebanon, or evidence of a commitment by one of their personal contacts in Lebanon to sponsor their residency and housing. The latter requirement increases the potential of exploitation of Syrian nationals by Lebanese sponsors.
Finally, it is not clear to what extent these standards apply to Syrian citizens who entered Lebanon prior to 2015, or how they will affect Palestinian refugees living in Syria.
This article is an edited translation from Arabic.