Restricting Refugees: Measuring Municipal Power in Lebanon

2016-09-30    |   

In recent months, a number of municipal authorities in various parts of Lebanon have established new procedures to regulate the presence of Syrian refugees in their area. The reason behind these new procedures could be the election of new municipal councils, or perhaps the arrival of travelers and expatriates to these areas during the summer season. But the majority of municipalities justify these new measures based on security reasons (which remain unclear), complaints from citizens, or the need to preemptively avoid problems in their towns.

Some local authorities are content to regulate the presence of Syrians by collecting information, or by placing limits on the number of Syrians living in a single room and requiring that their rental contracts be registered. At the same time, however, many municipalities have exceeded their legal authority to impose restrictive measures that are disproportionate to the needs associated with regulating Syrian residence – such as restrictions on Syrians’ movement, or on their presence in public space. Such restrictions constitute a clear violation of [the municipalities’] legal authority.

Municipalities have adopted these procedures based on instructions issued by the Interior Ministry starting in 2014, knowing that the ministry is aware that the municipalities are overstepping the bounds of their legal authority. Pressing questions remain concerning how local authorities have interpreted their purview, and the limits of their activities related to the regulation of refugees’ status within their districts. Have they received clarifications of the limits of their authority, or does the system for settling refugees differ from one municipality to another?

Early last July, acting governor of Mount Lebanon, Fouad Fleifel, repeated the contents of a circular from the Interior Ministry that had been issued regarding the security of arts festivals.[1] Fleifel’s announcement stated that “all municipalities are required to complete paperwork for Syrian migrants and update it periodically, and to inform owners of rented buildings that they are required to register their rental contracts in accordance with procedure”. This broad statement does not clarify, however, the limits of municipalities’ relationship with Syrian refugees. On the contrary, it opens the door for a broadening of restrictions of Syrians’ freedoms in the guise of security and stability. Given this, sharp contrasts appear between measures taken by various municipalities concerning refugees in Mount Lebanon and elsewhere in the country. [What follows is a rundown of the varied landscape of municipal action in this regard].

Zgharta – Ehden: Considering Options

Thus far, the municipality of Zgharta – Ehden appears uncertain. Speaking with The Legal Agenda (LA), Antoine Frangieh, a member of the municipal council said, “since we were elected by the municipality two months ago, we have been asking associations, [Lebanon’s national security agency] the General Security, and all parties involved with the issue of refugees to define the nature of our authority, and the procedures we can undertake in the matter”. Among the questions that appear to have gone unanswered was whether the municipality had the authority to turn in individuals in violation of the official residency conditions set by the General Security. Until they are given clear answers, “the municipality is compiling information about the Syrian refugees residing in the city of Zgharta”, with the aim of “creating a lawful and orderly situation”.

Frangieh added that there was “a committee made up of an engineer, a policeman, and a tax collecting official, which had conducted a field survey to gather information about Syrian presence, and their obligation regarding taxes levied as a result of their residence, as well as other information”. All of this information will be used to organize Syrian residence, especially in the case of those whose status is illegal. The municipality has begun taking measures to ensure that there is a sponsor for each individual in order to enable them to legalize status, according to Frangieh: “we cannot take any other measures besides organizing their presence.” He added, in a tone of resignation and an implicit opposition to measures of expulsion, “what do we do, kick them out?”

Thus, Zgharta is pondering what measures to take; in the meantime it is refraining from taking money from refugees in connection with their [refugee] status. Refugees living there are not required to pay more than what is legally required of them. Frangieh emphasized this, adding that there was also no system to control the issue of refugees’ movements after dark – even though it was one of the first issues the municipality addressed. “Freedom of movement is essential. However, the local police can take measures [which were not specified] towards an individual should they behave in an inappropriate moral or social manner.” Thus the door was left open to prevent Syrians’ movement, insofar as it is subject to the prerogatives of the municipal police.

Overall, the situation in Zgharta appears to be a work in progress. The municipality has refrained from efforts to expand its authority when it comes to the Syrians residing in its area, and no such system has been discussed. At the same time, the situation is a striking example of the limits of central authority, particularly that of the Interior Ministry, on this front. Other municipalities have, in fact, violated laws on the pretext of regulating refugee residence.

Jeita: Robbing Refugees?

In contrast to Zgharta – Ehden, the municipality of Jeita has established a definitive system regarding Syrian refugees. Speaking with LA, many refugees indicated that what bothered them most was their obligation to pay unjustified sums of money in the form of fees or fines. This raises the questions about the extent to which exacting these funds from refugees is legal, and the legitimacy of the parties that receive them, particularly since one of the parties interviewed by LA was not given a receipt for the sums he had paid.

According to refugee statements, each refugee living in Jeita paid a fee of LL10,000 [US$6.50] each month in exchange for identity cards, which were required by the municipality and had to be renewed monthly. Hossam, a father of two, currently must pay LL30,000 [US$20] each month to renew the municipality–issued identity card.[2] This covers the cost of himself, his wife, and the car that they own; it will increase to LL50,000 [US$33] once their child turns fifteen. And yet, the card does not ensure a refugee’s basic rights, such as the right to movement. Even those who hold the card are not permitted to move freely after 7:30pm. “Before the new council took over, the card was provided for free; the card still exists, but it’s become something that must be paid for.”

What happens if a Syrian refugee violates the municipal curfew? According to Ibrahim, “your papers are confiscated, even if you have official residency from the General Security, and you can’t get them back until you pay LL50,000 [US$33]”. Salim confirms this, referencing his own personal experience. “In just one week I had to pay LL200,000 [US$132.50] in fines. One of them, LL100,000 [US$66], was doubled because I rode my motorbike to the pharmacy. I had to pay LL50,000 [US$33] for myself and the rest for the bike.”

Refugees see these amounts as unjustifiable, given their economic circumstances; the average income of a Syrian laborer does not exceed US$600 per month. This figure comes alongside the decision of some municipalities, such as Rachaya el-Wadi, to limit the maximum wage for Syrians to LL30,000 [US$20]. Syrians find it difficult to cover the costs of their living expenses to begin with, especially given that they are bound to the sponsorship [kafala] system. How can they be expected to pay an additional mandatory monthly fee, especially one that is not justified? Such fines should not typically be imposed except in limited cases of legal violations, which do not include [unauthorized] movement.

When asked, mayor of Jeita, Walid Baroud, explained to LA that the municipality only required LL5,000 [US$3.30] for the identity card, to cover “the costs of issuing the card”. The sums collected are put towards “buying a machine that produces more advanced digital cards at a later date”. Currently, the municipality is “gathering information about refugees in the area based on the General Security requirements”, asserts Baroud. He adds that, “the card includes the carrier’s full name and mother’s name, nationality, place and date of birth, identity number, the numbers of the employer and the sponsor, and residential address, as well as an ID photo”. The municipality also takes “fingerprints from each individual”.

At the same time, according to Baroud the card is only granted to individuals holding official residency, leaving the pressing question of why the General Security would need this card, given that they have already collected all the information it contains through the requirements necessary to grant official residency. This point renders the municipality’s argument for the need to gather information unconvincing. As Baroud himself confirms, this regulation does not result in any change to Syrians’ status. So is financial gain the primary reason for issuing these cards?

Another issue connected to the regulation of Syrians in Jeita is the fact that the cards that are issued do not permit them to move freely after 7:30pm; except in special cases whereby a sponsor requests delivery workers for restaurants. Registering such cases is based on favoritism, and whether the sponsor is on good terms with the municipality. Outside of this context, refugees moving after the prescribed hours must pay a fine, despite the fact that the restriction has no legal basis.

Kfardebiane and Kfaremane: Monitoring and the Invention of New Restrictions

Ever since restrictions on Syrians’ movements have become commonplace among municipalities –despite being neither legal nor constitutional– Syrians have faced a number of difficulties on a daily basis. Perhaps the most prominent is the introduction of the landlord and the sponsor as regulatory figures, driving a wedge between the refugee and the local authorities. Ibrahim, a refugee, recounted an incident when he was standing in front of the door to the room where he lives at 8pm. His landlord asked him, “what are you doing outside?” adding, “I don’t want problems with the municipality.” This explains the municipality’s desire to have the phone number of refugees’ landlords: i.e., they are being transformed into a mechanism for controlling refugees by way of their housing security. The situation also applies to employers, who must exert power over their workers on a daily basis in order to avoid “a headache with the municipality”.

This relationship is made explicit in the announcement issued by the municipality of Kfardebiane on June 24, 2016 addressing “owners of buildings rented and housing Syrians” in the town. Among the demands made by the local authorities of landlords is that they “provide the municipality with a list of names of tenants, including a copy of their ID and how they entered Lebanese territory”. They were also required to forbid renters from “hosting anyone, especially after 8[pm]”. In doing so, the municipality is delegating authority over tenants that it does not possess in the first place, for the sake of carrying out the measures it wishes to take. The municipality is enforcing individuals’ compliance with its wishes but without any legal basis, and under pressure of expelling renters from their homes. The complete silence of Syrians on the subject prompts the question of the extent to which they have any real ability to oppose these municipal procedures, and achieve any justice in defense of their legal rights.

While justice may be difficult for Syrians to access, access to public space has become impossible for them in many places. In an announcement issued on the same day as the one referenced above, the municipality ordered “young male Syrian refugees…not to enter public or private property”, effectively subjecting public space to the same system as private property where Syrians are concerned.

In the southern municipality of Kfaremane, the situation has become even more oppressive. It is the most egregious example of putting a comprehensive, detailed system into place that includes extreme transgressions of the rights of Syrian refugees living in its territory.[3] To say the least, the system aims at the “transfer” of Syrians out of town. The municipality decided to ban refugees from “parking their cars or motorbikes in public places or on the street, no matter the reason, and is restricted to parking them in the courtyards of homes they are renting”. Likewise, it has decided that “Syrian refugees are not permitted to visit public parks, due to the overcrowding of Lebanese citizens in these areas, throughout the spring and summer, for security reasons”. Refugees are also not permitted “to hold weddings without informing the municipality, and receptions must take place far from places with residential communities; the hour and place must be determined to ensure that weddings end by 7:30pm”. This corresponds to the end of the hours during which Syrians are permitted to move throughout the town, which end at 8pm during the summer.

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article's title used “internment” rather than “restrictions” to describe conditions of displaced Syrians in the municipalities surveyed. Restrictions was deemed a more accurate depiction in the legal sense of the term.

[1] See Circular No. 2072/2016, concerning procedures in connection with maintaining public stability, issued by the governor of Mount Lebanon on July 5, 2016.

[2] All names have been changed.
[3] See Decree No. 148, concerning regulating the files of displaced Syrians in Kfaremane, issued by the local municipal council of Kfaremane on September 11, 2016.

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