Lebanon News

Refugees hit with visa restrictions, dwindling support

Lebanon's Syrian refugees are caught between a rock and a hard place. AFP PHOTO / JOSEPH EID

TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Five years since the start the civil war, Syrian refugees are caught between a rock and a hard place as their search for a safe haven continues. Refugees are facing increasing difficulties in attaining the proper documentation to legitimize their status as refugees and extend their stay.

Any refugee without the proper documentation is at risk of immediate deportation and return to a war-torn society, where barrel bombs rain from the sky and a sniper’s scope is fixed on every corner.

With more than 1.2 million refugees in the country, the Lebanese government issued stringent new visa and residency requirements for Syrians in January of this year, placing an onerous new burden on those who were able to flee the fighting.

“We are prisoners of the circulars being issued by the Lebanese General Security office,” said one refugee who preferred to remain anonymous. After securing his place in line at the General Security office in Tripoli, he sat outside puffing a cigarette, a weary expression on his face.

“The circulars dictate the arrangements for securing a Lebanese sponsor, rent documentation and other requirements,” the refugee explained. “It is making our lives very hard, as we are under constant surveillance.”

A General Security officer began to announce the names of individuals who had been successfulin their application and had been granted the coveted documents – which legitimize the extension of a refugee’s stay in Lebanon.

With a flick of the wrist the man quickly disposed of his cigarette and rushed into the building hoping to hear his name.

General Security rules say that a Lebanese sponsor must organize a refugee’s documents before they are permitted to enter the country.

Most refugees cannot afford a sponsor, and have become increasingly anxious and uncertain over their future.

Nearly 300 organizations have worked to meet the needs of Syrian refugees since the onset of the crisis, but an activist affiliated with one such organization said that the system was bloated and argued that fewer were required to provide the necessary services.

According to the activist, most organizations are not set up for the benefit of refugees, but rather to exploit financing from charitable funds set up in the wake of the crisis.

“Initially a lot of local agencies, using financing from Europe, began renting homes and apartments to house the refugees,” the activist said.

But early this year the increase in demand led prices to skyrocket, pushing rents beyond the reach of most Syrians.

The protracted nature of the conflict has also seen the funding of some programs dwindle, leading to diminished organizational support for refugees.

The World Food Program was forced to cut its food stipend to Syrian refugees in half. UNRWA, which supports Palestinian refugees arriving from Syria, cut its housing subsidy in the face of a massive budget shortfall, pushing people into homelessness.

The lack of support has sparked a social catastrophe, causing a substantial number of refugees to take refuge on exposed land next to the International Rashid Karami Exhibition Center in Tripoli.

Others, confronted with a weak job market, work restrictions and difficulty securing legal documentation, are looking to European shores to escape their woes.

An organized mafia of human traffickers is reportedly smuggling refugees into Greece, then on to other European countries, mainly Germany and Holland.

Lebanese citizens are not immune from the suffering. Many previously resided in Syria, especially in Homs, but now see themselves as “foreigners in their own land.”

“I left a three-story house, a factory, land and a commercial [showroom], that are now all completely destroyed,” Ola said. Tears streamed down her face as she recounted the circumstances that brought her to a cramped two-room apartment in Tripoli’s Abi Samra neighborhood.

“I rented this small apartment and all four of my children work menial jobs just to support us. I feel like their future is now completely lost and out of our control.”

Familial ties between Homs and Tripoli have always been strong. Lebanese families in Homs during the independence era retained their Lebanese passports.

They built lives, worked hard, and purchased property, only to see it all blown away by the civil war.

“We live a difficult life here. Even though we are Lebanese, our hearts and memories remain amid the rubble of our houses in Syria,” said Ola, who preferred not to give her last name.

“I have suffered through war, siege and deprivation, but nothing compares to the heartache I felt during the long humiliating wait at the checkpoint as we left my [neighborhood] in Syria, and made our way toward our home.”

Ola says that although she wishes to be buried in Tripoli, it is her dying request that she return one day to her home in Homs.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 10, 2015, on page 4.

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