SAADNAYEL, Lebanon: Shams Bader eyes the entrance of her tented settlement in the Bekaa Valley town of Kfoury with suspicion; a year in Lebanon with limited legal status has made her wary of outsiders and, more so, law enforcement officers.
Bader, who arrived from rural Aleppo in 2012, has been living in Lebanon illegally for a year, after her entry permit expired and she could not afford the $200 charge to renew it, the requirement for all Syrians above the age of 15. Four of Bader’s six children are in the same legal predicament; legalizing their stay in Lebanon would cost $1,000, a sum so large she ridicules the mere thought of trying to assemble it.
The average Syrian refugee in Lebanon makes $250 a month and the opportunity cost of renewing one entry coupon entails forfeiting money to pay four months of rent or heating, food for just over a month or one non-caesarian birth, according to the calculations of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
“We don’t have enough food to begin with,” Bader says. “We just don’t have enough money.”
A report released by NRC Thursday found that an overwhelming number of refugees are in a situation of limited legal status, meaning they either don’t have an entry permit because they crossed into Lebanon illegally or their proof of legal stay expired after the one-year mark. Almost a third of those interviewed stated that they could not renew their residency permit, and in 85 percent of these cases, the cost was given as the reason.
The report highlights the condition of a rising number of refugees who feel compelled to limit their movements for fear of detention. These anxieties have escalated recently with the prevalence of ad hoc checkpoints across the country.
“We don’t go looking for them,” a high-level General Security source told The Daily Star. “But, if they are arrested, it is done by one of the security forces on the road.”
In 2013, General Security detained 1,300 Syrians over issues of residency. Officers at the Adlieh detention center in Beirut had confirmed to The Daily Star that overcrowding was due in part to a rise in Syrian inmates.
The security body has also reported a rise in arrests of individuals possessing false documents, including residency permits, adding that the phenomenon has also been on the rise since the Syria crisis.
A fear of arrest isn’t the only thing refugees without legal papers have to worry about; the repercussions spill over into nearly every aspect of life. Refugees without proper documents are effectively cut off from receiving health and social services, participating in income generating activities and registering marriages or the birth of newborns, as both processes require proof of residency.
Many refugees who entered Lebanon from illegal crossings, as most in Arsal and Wadi Khaled have, fear passing checkpoints to register at UNHCR’s official centers.
“What we are finding is that there are a lot of people who for different reasons cannot come through the [official] Masnaa crossing, some because of their geographical placement, others because it would have been too dangerous for them, they felt, so they crossed at other [illegal] points,” explains Olivia Kalis, an advocacy and information adviser with the NRC. “Some were worried about military conscription on the Syrian side.”
According to the report, many refugees in Wadi Khaled said they were systematically turned back at the Shadra checkpoint, which is on the only road out of the region, because they could not provide proof of legal stay or IDs. Some were threatened with detention and deportation if they came back.
Part of the problem is the legal ambiguities surrounding the categorization of displaced Syrians. Lebanon is not a signatory to the refugee convention, but its ratification of key international declarations means it must recognize the right to seek asylum.
In practice, this has kept Lebanese borders with Syria open and led General Security to extend legal stay for Syrians to a year at no charge, but after that, renewing the entry permit comes at a cost.
Outside a community center in Saadnayel, refugees sit expressionless in room that doubles as a play area for children, patiently waiting for Faris Kattan, a lawyer with NRC’s legal assistance program.
“The most pressing issue is registering newborns,” he says. “The problem is that most parents either entered Lebanon illegally or have an expired entry coupon, haven’t registered their marriages, or have missing documents.”
In order to register newborns, Syrian parents must present various authorities with documents proving legal residency, identity and marriage. Lacking one impedes the entire registration process. As of July 2013, the legal clinic has seen 620 refugees, 50 percent of whom have issues in registering newborns.
“We always advise them to gather the money somehow, because they have no choice,” he says of those who cannot afford to renew their residency permits.
However, for those who lack legal stay, either because their entry permit has expired or they crossed illegally, the cost grows even higher. They can apply for a Plea of Mercy with General Security. If approved, at the discretion of the director general, they pay $630 for a “status settlement.”
Kattan concludes: “They are forced to be in an illegal situation.”
Though refugees can theoretically re-enter the country through Masnaa to renew their entry permits for free, international agencies advise against this.
Bader says her 18-year-old son could not accompany her if she chose to make the trip to Masnaa. “He would be conscripted to the military, if I did that.”
Asked whether it was possible to make exceptions for refugees with financial woes, the security source said: “We can’t change the law, only the Parliament can do that.”
Lack of recourse has led some refugees to improvise solutions: In a settlement in Deir Zannoun, the majority of men had managed to renew their stay, unless they were wanted by the regime, while their wives and children had not.
“The males go back and forth for work,” said Bassem Khaseb, a resident of the settlement.
“I just go the nearby supermarket and that’s it,” his wife, Dilal, said.