Manufacturing Vulnerability in Lebanon: Legal Policies as Efficient Tools of Discrimination

2015-03-19    |   

Manufacturing Vulnerability in Lebanon: Legal Policies as Efficient Tools of Discrimination

The Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon worsened in 2014. In response, the Lebanese authorities endeavored to develop methods of curbing the entry of Syrian nationals into the country, or at least signaled that they would do so.[1] These policies culminated on the last day of the year, when the country’s top security agency, the General Directorate of State Security (“State Security”), published a list of circumstances in which Syrian nationals may be granted entry. This list restricted the entry of “displaced” Syrians to “exceptional circumstances” without elaborating on what constituted such circumstances. During the last quarter of 2014, Lebanon’s security forces and public prosecution offices also reverted to pursuing and arresting Syrians unlawfully present inside Lebanon, a practice that they had earlier abandoned. Simultaneously, the concept of “pledging responsibility” became commonplace in addition to the already existing one of employer sponsorship, in many cases tying a Syrian national’s legal presence in the country to the will of the Lebanese individual sponsoring them or pledging responsibility for them. Hence, the sponsorship concept transcended work relations and came to be applied to more general forms of social relations, including guest-host relations.

These measures will certainly reduce the numbers of refugees arriving in Lebanon through official border crossings. However, it is doubtful that they will reduce the number of refugees living in Lebanon in the foreseeable future, or prevent more from arriving through illegal crossings. Irrespective of their legality, these measures have differentiated Syrians present on Lebanese soil into three groups:

Syrians who are financially well-off and can use their capital or their real estate in Lebanon to meet residency requirements;

Syrians who successfully legalize their status through Lebanese sponsors. These sponsors gain the right to control the legal status of these Syrians in Lebanon and, therefore, the ability to exploit them; and

Syrians who are totally unable to enter Lebanon or stay in the country lawfully. These Syrians remain unregistered and invisible to the Lebanese authorities. The measures stated above will likely lead to a steady increase in the numbers of Syrians who fall under this category. Needless to say, these refugees are extremely vulnerable. They are unable to enjoy the most basic of rights due to fear of prosecution. They are susceptible to the worst forms of economic and political exploitation.

These measures constitute evidence that Lebanese authorities have adopted a policy that can rightly be called “manufacturing vulnerability”. Such a policy aims to strip various groups of their fundamental rights in order to reject their presence and facilitate their exploitation. This policy will not only strengthen the Lebanese authorities’ ability to intervene and reign arbitrarily, but, in many cases, also put victims of such a policy at the mercy of other people. The affected groups are left with two solutions: they either leave Lebanon, or accept exploitation. In some cases, the latter may amount to forced labor and, subsequently, human trafficking.

In their recent decisions about Syrian refugees, the Lebanese authorities seem to be building upon their previous experiences in manufacturing vulnerability. They are combining their rejection of the right to asylum and the violation inherent in such a rejection, with their insistence on upholding the sponsorship system and the exploitation it involves. The existence of such a trend towards compounding these practices of manufacturing vulnerability may be discerned through an examination of prior dealings of Lebanese authorities with three socially marginalized groups: Palestinian refugees, Iraqi refugees, and migrant workers.

Palestinian Refugees Over the Decades: A Target of Punishment and a Threat to be Mitigated Rather than a Worthy Recipient of Solidarity

Although the Palestinian refugee crisis in Lebanon is 67 years old, Lebanese authorities continue to deprive these refugees of their civil rights on the pretext of preventing their naturalization. Underpinning this policy is the idea that any recognition of Palestinian rights will help strengthen their ties to Lebanon and, consequently, help naturalize them. Hence, the refugee is seen not as an individual who deserves international solidarity, but rather as a threat that must be mitigated.

On this basis, the Lebanese authorities did not only abstain from giving Palestinian refugees preferential treatment over other foreigners, but went so far as to employ discriminatory measures against the refugees, some of which verge on collective punishment. This policy has manifested itself in several forms. The gravest is reflected in the para-legal measures taken in practice within and in relation to the refugee camps, along with the vulnerabilities they create. Another form –the legal– culminated in the discriminatory discourse against the Palestinians found in Lebanon’s law on property ownership by foreigners and in public discussion concerning the right of Lebanese women to pass their nationality on to their children. The “laboratory” of Lebanese legislative activity developed an instrument for discriminating against Palestinian refugees that could be applied in both cases of owning property and passing on nationality [by taking advantage of the fact that Palestinians, unlike the vast majority if not all other foreigners, do not belong to a recognized state]. The law thus excluded those who do not have the nationality of a recognized country, which by and large applies to Palestinians, from enjoying specific rights (the right to property and inheritance, in the first case, and the right of children born to Lebanese mothers and Palestinian fathers to a Lebanese nationality, in the second). By doing so, it rendered refugee status and statelessness a civil offence that warrants discriminatory punishment.

The same trend can be observed in the way that the reciprocity clause found in various laws has been interpreted and implemented. This clause stipulates that a foreigner has a certain right in Lebanon if Lebanese nationals have the same right in his or her country. The public administrations and courts have insisted on applying this condition (save for a few exceptions) to Palestinian refugees, even though the latter cannot fulfil it in the absence of a Palestinian state. In practice, this has deprived Palestinians of an enormous number of social and economic rights, such as the right to practice certain professions and the right to severance pay, in a manner that negatively distinguishes them from other foreigners.

The worst outcome of this legislative “experiment” may be the fact that these discriminatory measures were given constitutional approval. When the Constitutional Council examined the constitutionality of the law on foreign ownership of property in 2001, it had no qualms about expounding the concept of “no foreign settlement” found in the Constitution’s Preamble. It concluded that the discrimination occurring against Palestinians in the foreign ownership law is constitutional because it is in Lebanon’s best interest and conforms to the non-naturalization principle, an inseparable part of the Constitution. Using this reasoning, the Council may consider any measure to bolster the rights of Palestinians unconstitutional and any discriminatory measure against them both constitutional and appropriate.

The legislative response to the Palestinian refugee crisis paved the way for measures against Syrian refugees. These measures are leading Lebanon away from a policy of granting Syrians preferential treatment, and towards a policy of discrimination against them. Another “experiment” in this regard took place in the face of the influx of Iraqi refugees in the wake of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.

The Catch-22 of Iraqi Refugees: The Non-Choice Between Returning to Iraq and Arbitrary Detention

When tens of thousands of refugees entered Lebanon shortly after the invasion of Iraq, a new experiment in the handling of refugee crises began and helped further develop the policy of manufacturing vulnerability. Initially, the Lebanese authorities used purely punitive measures to deal with Iraqi refugees. Large numbers received jail sentences for entering Lebanon covertly or overstaying their residency permits. However, the authorities quickly discovered that these measures had a limited effect as they were not allowed to deport refugees who had served their sentences.

Then, as Lebanon continued to reject granting the “right to asylum”, the authorities adopted two methods to incorporate the refugees into the [legal] system. The first was to allow the status of individual refugees to be resolved through the sponsorship system that applies to all foreign workers. In these cases, a sponsor would have to supply a work contract and pay the necessary fees and social security contributions. The second was to have the State Security keep all refugees who were unable to find a sponsor detained indefinitely. These refugees could only be released once they found sponsors, or agreed to leave Lebanon voluntarily.

In some cases, the State Security prevented the status of certain refugees, such as those who had committed an infamous crime, from being resolved. This deprived them of the possibility of ever having their status resolved, giving them a final choice between voluntarily returning to Iraq and detention. Some refugees remained in arbitrary detention for a number of years. In one case, that period reached four years.

Between 2009 and 2014, Lebanese courts issued many rulings condemning the aforementioned practice.[2] Hence, the Lebanese authorities, unable to forcibly deport refugees, apparently endeavored to develop specific instruments and working methods to push the refugees into leaving “voluntarily” by seeking to circumvent international customs and obligations. The Legal Agenda elaborated on this form of “soft power” –using one means or another to push people into voluntarily submitting to certain wishes– in an earlier article.[3]

Lebanese authorities have generally refrained from practicing the kind of arbitrary detention discussed above against Syrian refugees. However, they had no qualms about issuing these refugees with departure orders for one reason or another. Legal researcher Ghida Frangieh concluded her analysis of the details of this practice by describing it as “legal deportation”, distinguishing it from the “physical deportation” that Lebanese authorities have thus far refrained from using.[4] These practices deprive refugees of the right to lawful residence in Lebanon. This puts them in an extremely vulnerable position and spurs them to look for another country to live in.

The Migrant Worker: The Sponsorship System

No less important than the two “experiments” discussed above is the one involving migrant workers, especially domestic workers. At the center of the policy towards these workers lies the sponsorship system, which clearly puts workers in an extremely weak and vulnerable position. In addition to the fact that Article 7 of the Labor Law excludes domestic workers from its protection, the sponsorship system concentrates all the power in the hands of employers. A worker’s legal residency in Lebanon is contingent on the continuation of their work contract with the sponsor, or on the latter’s agreement to relinquish their sponsorship to another person. Hence, in many cases workers are forced to endure very harsh work conditions due to fear of dismissal and subsequent deportation. They may even have to pay relatively large sums of money or relinquish their rights (such as the right to accuse the employer of rape or physical abuse, or the right to their salaries over several months) before the employer agrees to transfer their sponsorship to another person. Naturally, this policy enables broad sections of Lebanese society to exploit domestic workers, and subjects many to work conditions verging on forced labor.

In this regard, current Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi’s extremely angry response to the formation of a domestic workers’ union in 2015 is very telling. Such a union constitutes a threat to the policy of manufacturing vulnerability. The sponsorship system has also helped bolster the security forces’ ability to monitor migrant workers. It does this by forcing the sponsor to cooperate with the authorities, report resignations, and perhaps even prosecute the workers themselves in order to protect their [i.e. sponsor’s] interests and avoid their being held responsible.

Building on Lebanon’s various experiences in manufacturing vulnerability vis-à-vis the three marginalized social groups discussed above, it is likely that the more recent measures by the Lebanese authorities against Syrian refugees have the following five aims:

To normalize a discourse that rejects Syrian asylum. Such a discourse will appease the fears and anxieties that the Lebanese population has about the social and political effects of the refugee crisis. It will also give the impression of the existence of a strong Lebanese state using its sovereignty to protect the interests of its citizens from “outsiders”;

To spur Syrians into looking for better living conditions in other countries, or voluntarily returning to Syria;

To satisfy the greed of economically influential parties by enabling them to exploit immigrants, or improving the conditions under which they can do so. This will also appease many Lebanese citizens, whose indignation over the influx of refugees is inversely proportional to the benefit they can derive from it;

To turn Lebanese citizens into security auxiliaries. Under the sponsorship system, Lebanese citizens are responsible for monitoring the Syrians they sponsor and reporting any breach. They may even be responsible for instigating prosecutions as is currently the case, whenever foreign workers terminate their relationships with their sponsors; and

To keep Syrian immigrants under a tight lid. This allows the Lebanese authorities to deem any refugee right, no matter how basic, as subject to negotiation or compromise, particularly in their attempts to secure international aid.

It is important to note that this policy of creating vulnerability does not only apply to non-Lebanese persons. In fact, it is becoming one of the most prominent characteristics of the Lebanese political system. Within Lebanon, the vulnerability of the citizen is virtually a fundamental component of the polarized political system based on the power and patronage of individual elite leaders [nizam al-zu‘ama]. The more fragile the citizens’ rights are (either in principle or practice) and the more contingent they are on the will of the ruling class, the greater the ability of elite leaders to rally and control the public. Hence, manufacturing vulnerability is an integral part of the rule of elites.

The prime example of the implementation of a policy of manufacturing vulnerability towards Lebanese citizens may be the situation of individuals naturalized in the mid-1990s. Their citizenship is still doubted and legally disputed even though more than two decades have passed since they attained it. Consequently, these people have become a group easily exploited in elections, a factor that has given specific candidates the upper hand in several districts.

Other examples include the various other groups that have found themselves in conflict with the law, due to legislation that undermines their social life, habits, or employment. These groups include homosexuals, drug users, and restaurant owners who cannot meet licensing conditions. Their freedom, or their freedom to work, remains contingent on the tolerance of the ruling powers and the apparatuses connected to them. Additionally, the ability to enjoy certain social and economic benefits is tied to the will of regime officials. This applies to the ability of uninsured persons to access support from the Ministry of Public Health for hospital expenses, as well as the ability to access care benefits from the Ministry of Social Affairs. Further examples include the right to work, enter public service, and access national social security fund benefits, although, there is insufficient space in this article to elaborate on these here.

A weak and subordinate judiciary is one of the most important marks of manufacturing vulnerability. Such a compromised judiciary means that all rights, including acquired exclusive rights, are contingent on the will of the people capable of intervening in judicial affairs. As such, manufacturing vulnerability is intended to reinforce the prevailing regime and consolidate its principles, by strengthening the links of dependency between citizens (the subjects) and the ruling class (the elites).

One of the most important ways that the ruling regime manufactures vulnerability within the Lebanese populace is by giving them a share in the benefits of the process. Specifically, the regime implicates the citizens in the exploitation of the most vulnerable groups amongst them. The more they indulge in this exploitation, the less power they have to legitimately invoke the legal system, along with the concept that each and every human being has inherent rights and the culture it produces. From this perspective, by welcoming the vulnerability of others, such as refugees and migrant workers, Lebanese citizens are acquiescing to the manufacture of their own vulnerability.

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


[1] See: Nizar Saghieh and Ghida Frangieh’s, “The Most Important Features of Lebanese Policy on Syrian Asylum: from an Ostrich Policy to Soft Power”, The Legal Agenda, Issue No. 23, December 2014.

[2] See: Nizar Saghieh’s, “Ping Pong with the State Security: Towards Ending Arbitrary Detention in Lebanon”, al-Akhbar, April 19, 2010.

[3] See note 1 above, idem.
[4] See: Ghida Frangieh’s, “Forced Departure: How Lebanon Evades the International Principle of Non-Refoulement”, The Legal Agenda, Issue No. 23, December 2014.

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