In an attempt to limit Syrian immigration to Lebanon, visa requirements have been introduced - an absurd and moreover dangerous measure.
This is a first in the history of the two countries. Before this change in legislation, it was sufficient for Syrians to present their ID card when crossing the border. The absence of visa requirements led to a surge in the number of Syrian refugees coming to Lebanon, 1.2 million people since the outbreak of fighting in border regions (Homs, Damascus and environs) in 2012.
This increase in immigration puts an enormous strain on the already fragile security situation in Lebanon. In addition, the country is faced with an ailing infrastructure and economic problems. Both the Lebanese government and the general public are politically divided in their view of the events in the neighbouring country. After all, Hezbollah, a government party, fights alongside Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
In light of this complex situation, new visa requirements were established in the beginning of 2015 in an attempt to secure stability. Syrians seeking to enter Lebanon are now required to declare the reason for their immigration and demonstrate proof of sufficient funding when applying for a visa. Visas are valid between 24 hours and six months at most. If they fail to provide either, they are no longer admitted to Lebanon. The goal is clear: future applications for asylum seekers are to be prevented, the influx of Syrians to be regulated and their whereabouts in Lebanon are to be controlled. Yet the very opposite is the case.
A week after introducing the measure, a high-ranking source from the Lebanese Ministry of Interior stated to newspaper Asharq al-Awsat that the number of Syrians entering Lebanon legally had dropped indeed, from 8,000 to 3,000 per day. At the same time, however, illegal immigration is increasing as the war in Syria continues with brutal ferocity. The difference is that the exploitation of displaced Syrians has only become easier.
Even less control
As a great deal of Syrian immigration now is expected to take place illegally, Lebanese authorities can no longer trace their whereabouts or the total number of refugees. The comprehensive control of the entire 330-kilometre-long border is not possible in any case, which is also why smuggling activity and organised crime are on the rise. The question therefore is: why have the authorities agreed to this absurd measure?
1. The Lebanese coalition government deeply divided, not only in relation to Syria, but generally. This makes any decision making process incredibly difficult, especially when discussing questions of detail. Most decisions are therefore restricted to the determination of general guidelines – and the practical consequences of new legislation are ignored.
2. Lebanon struggles with a difficult heritage regarding the handling of refugees. The experience with Palestinian refugees, for many Lebanese, is a painful memory to this day as they are perceived as a key catalyst for the civil war. This is another reason for which Lebanese authorities are keen to get rid of Syrian refugees.
3. Lebanese office-holders notoriously neglect to establish contact with civil society and instead choose populist measures. There is broad agreement that something needs to happen in order to stop the influx of Syrian refugees.
No pass, no lease
These are the consequences of the visa requirements at the level of individuals: Lama, a young Syrian woman, has lived in Lebanon for one-and-a-half years and works for a Lebanese relief organisation. At the beginning of the year, she wanted to register her residence. Her landlord however denied her an official lease agreement in order to avoid having to pay taxes. Lama then went in search of a different apartment, but could not obtain one she could afford. She still lives without a residence permit, hoping that the law will be abolished.
Young Syrian Azzam studies at a Lebanese university. In February, he tried to apply for a student visa. According to the new rules, he must present documentation on his financial situation (bank accounts, transfer receipts etc.). However, he has no bank account. His family sends him money from Syria, via friends and relatives. Without work or residence permit he in turn cannot open a bank account – one of the economic sanctions against Syria. Azzam is stuck in a vicious circle. He also has no residence permit and hopes for a change in legislation.
There is no statistical data on the situation or whereabouts of Syrian refugees and that makes it difficult for Lebanon to receive international subsidies for the refugees. In addition, the Lebanese government obstructs the work of international aid organisations as work permits for foreign experts cannot be renewed.
Oftentimes, Syrian refugees are made responsible for the rise in crime in Lebanon. However, the official numbers published by the ISF (International Security Forces) for the period between 2011 (the outbreak of the Syrian revolution) and the third quarter of 2014 document the contrary: The numbers point to the fact that the percentage of crimes committed by Syrians on Lebanese citizens dropped from six percent (2011) to five percent (2014). However, the percentage of crimes committed by Lebanese citizens on Syrians in the country rose from two percent (2011) to nine percent (2014). Lastly, the percentage of crimes committed by Syrians on their fellow countrymen rose from five percent (2011) to twelve percent (2014). The statistics also reveal that crimes targeting Syrians have increased. The reason for this is that there is no legal framework to efficiently deal with these crimes.
If this was already the case before the new legislation on visa requirements was in place, what impact will the increasing illegal immigration have on this situation? And still, the Lebanese people continue to accommodate Syrian refugees with unequalled generosity. If that was not the case, the situation would long have escalated. My impression is that though the view that the migration of Syrian refugees needs to be limited dominates, many Lebanese people at the same time deem these measures counterproductive, and even dangerous.
Translated from German by Christine Kollmar