The municipalities’ involvement in managing the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon reduced the impact of restricting the issue to the central authorities. However, it also led to great inconsistency in the measures taken towards the refugees by different municipalities. One of the most severe cases is the Nabatieh district’s Kfar-Rimman municipality. On August 11, 2016, the municipality issued Decision No. 148, banning Syrians from accessing or parking their cars in public places, restricting their ability to hold weddings, and tying their residence in the town to having local sponsors there. At the time, an audio recording spread around the township and on social media sites, informing the Syrians that they had 15 days to leave the township if they lacked residence permits or their sponsor was not from the township.
That municipalities lacked any real reference point for managing this crisis was the favored explanation for the inconsistencies among them, a justification corroborated by the interview that The Legal Agenda (LA) conducted with Ministry of Interior Advisor Khalil Gebara. He explained that the ministry cannot prevent the municipalities from implementing curfews as such measures touch on concerns of Lebanese people. The ministry thus leaves the matter to the municipalities, the central security cell, and the subsidiary cells formed at the district level.
However, a series of circulars issued by the subsidiary security cell in Nabatieh negates the aforementioned hypothesis, and shows that the Ministry of Interior is pushing the municipalities via circulars issued by the security cells to adopt such decisions. The source who revealed these circulars to LA explained that the restrictive measures in the Kfar-Rimman municipality’s decision –particularly barring the refugees from accessing or parking in public places and the harshness in sponsorship matters– “are all found in the security cell’s circulars”, which express the policy of the Ministry of Interior. In this sense, the municipalities are merely a front for the will of the central authorities, and the former’s decisions do not necessarily reflect their true dispositions. Worse, the inconsistency in the measures adopted from one municipality to another, is probably a result of discrepancy between circulars issued by a single central authority via its various security cells.
Overcrowding as a Justification for Harshness
Muhammad Najdi, Kfar-Rimman’s Municipal Council member in charge of refugee affairs, stated in an interview with LA that the municipality is lenient relative to the content of the circulars that it receives. He justified the council’s aforementioned decision on the basis of the overcrowding that has recently afflicted the township. There are “8,000 Syrian refugees in a township that had 9,000 residents, and around 3,000 Lebanese from the surrounding villages”. These surrounding villages “expel Syrians, so they flock to Kfar-Rimman”. This large number has stressed the township’s infrastructure beyond its limits, and caused security concerns about “the presence of all these people unknown to the local authorities”. These two problems have been exacerbated by “the failure of the government and international organizations to provide the necessary support”. Najdi stated that “we are suffering from the state’s inability to regulate the issue. It is not fair for us to have 8,000 people in one village, without the absorptive capacity and capabilities of each township having been considered”.
The Legal Agenda asked Najdi about the decision that Syrians are only allowed to hold weddings “after informing the municipality, in rest houses far from residential areas, and if the time and place are specified and they end at 7:30”. He justified these restrictions on the basis that such weddings include hundreds of invitees unknown to the municipality, and that there have been fist and knife fights. This claim was rejected by a refugee that LA met. He stated that such incidents “haven’t happened at all; the locals just have the preconception that all Syrians are uncivilized, which isn’t true”.
International Organizations Impose Solutions While the Municipality Prioritizes Infrastructure
Najdi thinks that the aid provided by international organizations is “dropped from above and divorced from reality”. The municipality member is not the only one who believes that some projects are exacerbating the crisis instead of solving it. For example, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) rents commercial premises for large groups of young refugees to live in, or rents an apartment for every two or three families. According to one refugee in Kfar-Rimman, the availability of free collective housing has caused many refugees to refrain from seeking better housing conditions, even though they have good income enabling them to rent private apartments for their families. Najdi explained with details and figures how this overcrowding in housing units strains the infrastructure; he cited the censuses that the municipality conducted on refugee-inhabited buildings. One building consists of ten apartments inhabited by 92 people, whereas “the average number of residents in such a building is around 50”. Another building consists of seven studio apartments and is inhabited by 36 people.
How do these figures actually affect the infrastructure? Najdi said that “we approached the water company because the volume being pumped into the village is insufficient. The company responded that it is aware of 1,500 customers, and that it supplies a volume suitable for this number.” To get the crisis under control, the village turned to “cooperation with international organizations such as the UNDP, which built a well”. To continue operating, this project requires “eight employees and $400 each month for fuel, or in other words around $6,000 monthly”. The payoff is “only five or six extra hours of water each day”.
Najdi said that the other projects, such as those aimed at providing temporary work opportunities to “a tiny segment of Syrians”, or teaching Syrians to make dolls “benefit neither the refugees nor the township”. He believes that “it would be better if these organizations helped improve the infrastructure situation”.
The Municipality: We Want Regulation, Not Expulsion
“The Syrian crisis and the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon is not an exceptional situation anymore as it has persisted for four years”, said Najdi. Hence, “we now need to find solutions that lead to the Syrians’ integration into Lebanese society”. The decision demanding that Syrians with sponsors from outside the township leave, is therefore aimed at providing “regulation that spares us from needing to reduce the number of Syrians residing”.
Najdi explained that when the decision came into effect, many shortcomings emerged, requiring the municipality to make some adjustments to its implementation. Most significantly, the municipality was unable to expel refugees based on where their sponsors live, especially as “it turned out that 90% of Syrian refugees in Kfar-Rimman have sponsors from a different township”. In practice, it remained possible “for every Syrian sponsored by a person from the surrounding or nearby townships to continue residing in Kfar-Rimman”. However, the same cannot be said for persons with sponsors from distant regions “such as Tripoli, Zgharta, or the [regions in the] other cases that existed”.
Najdi denied that the municipality has “taken any expulsion decisions so far”. However, he confirms that about 200 Syrians have left the township. The refugees are only required to “register with the municipality and pay the taxes levied on every person residing within the municipal limits, provided that they update their information on a yearly basis”. The existence of these records will not lead to the issuance of identification cards to refugees, as occurs in Jeita for example. Najdi says that the consultations conducted with the governor before the decision’s issuance deemed the issuance of such cards illegal. The governor acknowledged the “illegality of interfering in refugees’ place of residence based on their sponsors’ place of residence”. However, while the municipal council adhered to the governor’s view on the impermissibility of issuing cards, it insisted on requiring Syrians wanting to reside in the township to have a local sponsor.
Although Kfar-Rimman’s municipality finds that “regulating the refugees’ presence mitigates many of the concerns, even those related to security”, Najdi did not express a definitive stance for the period after the decision’s implementation ends. Specifically, he took no position on restoring the refugees’ right to move about freely. In short, “the municipality needs a lot of time to reach conclusions on the status of the refugees or even to evaluate the decision’s consequences. Until then, we are concerned not with expelling the refugees, but with regulating their status”.
The Syrians: “Here, They’re Demanding That We Return, But Over There They’re Prohibiting Us From Entry”
The Legal Agenda was unable to meet Syrians who left the township because of the municipality’s decision. However, it did meet Wisam (whose name has been changed to protect his anonymity), a Syrian refugee who moved to Lebanon at the end of 2011. Today, he owns and lives off his own investment in Kfar-Rimman. Nevertheless, Wisam is now considering leaving the township just like the “many who left after the decision’s implementation”. Unlike Nadji, who denies the existence of cases of actual expulsion and refers to no more than 200 people who left the township, Wisam says that “a large number of refugees have left the township” because of this decision.
Wisam met his wife in 2006 when she took refuge in Syria during Lebanon’s July War. She is a Syrian national, but she was born in Lebanon and is of Lebanese ancestry. The locals have told him that her grandfather “built the village in which she was born”. Today, the wife, as well as her family and husband, live in “a big cage”. Wisam explains that the restrictions on his wife’s movement, and their movement as a family are difficult, “especially because her relatives and kin all live here”.
Wisam agrees that “it’s in the interest of both Syrian and Lebanese people for the municipality to take security measures”. However, he considers the measures acceptable only if they apply exclusively to “young people living alone and families who have just moved into the area before enough is known about their members”. With regard to his own life, Wisam feels that he is now between the hammer and the anvil: “It’s safe inside our area in Syria, but the regime won’t let us enter it…We’re living between two fires. Here, they’re demanding that we return, but over there they’re prohibiting us from entry.”
This article is an edited translation from Arabic.
 See: Ghida Frangieh and Elham Barjas’s, “Interior Ministry Advisor: Lebanon Refugee Policy Based on Set of ‘Nos’”, The Legal Agenda, Issue No. 43, November 2016.