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Featured Analysis

Nayla Geagea, Lawyer and LCPS research associate

May 2015
Asylum Crisis or Migrant Labor Crisis?

In an attempt to limit the repercussions of Syrian migration to Lebanon, the Lebanese government drafted a policy paper in late 2014 covering key issues relating both to the entry of Syrian refugees and their residency status in the country. The actions and practical measures taken over recent months by various agencies and ministries to implement this policy demonstrate that a Syrian refugee in Lebanon endures hardships stemming from deficiencies in the provision of rigorous, comprehensive, and legal methods to handle this crisis at several levels. First, refugees have no hope of benefiting from the principle of legal protection that refugees normally enjoy because a policy of asylum does not exist in Lebanon and because the international community is unable (or unwilling) to offer it. Second, refugees have become prisoners of the sponsorship regime which serves the interests first and foremost of employers without guaranteeing even the most minimal rights of migrant labor.
On 23 October 2014, the Council of Ministers announced that it had approved a policy paper on the movement of displaced Syrians to Lebanon that was drawn up by a ministerial team earlier in the year.[1] The resulting paper focused on three key objectives: “To reduce the number of arrivals by stopping displaced persons at the border, apart from exceptional cases; to bolster security by deploying the Internal Security Force and municipality units to keep displaced persons under control;[2] and to ease the burden by the strict enforcement of laws governing displaced persons to protect the Lebanese in their places of work and employment as a whole.” In accordance with this program, the current minister of labor issued a decision redefining professions exclusively open to Lebanese and reducing the categories of work that foreigners could take up in Lebanon on 16 December 2014. This was after the former minister had made exceptions for some Syrians on humanitarian grounds in February 2013.[3] In the same vein, an announcement from the General Directorate of General Security at the start of this year tightened the conditions under which Syrians who entered Lebanon before 2015 could secure legal residency and imposed an entry visa regime at the border for new arrivals, with certain exceptions.[4]
What are the implications of these new procedures on the legal status of Syrian refugees? What are the most important consequences for the framework of legal protection for those on Lebanese soil? To answer these questions it would be helpful to clarify, if only briefly, some of the concepts and go back a few months to the period before this latest announcement was made. Since May 2014, the General Security has been operating in a discretionary manner by requiring some Syrian refugees to obtain a work permit before renewing their residence cards. Should they fail to obtain the permit, the refugee in question would be required to leave the country. Syrian workers before the current crisis began, in accordance with bilateral agreements between the two countries, could arrive in Lebanon without an entry visa and were entitled to temporary residence for a period of six months.[5]
While this did not in theory exempt them from the obligation to obtain a work permit, in practice neither Lebanese employers nor Syrian laborers adhered to the proper procedures because the relevant authorities, the Ministry of Labor and General Security, among others, turned a blind eye.[6] A number of Syrians went to the Ministry of Labor, but their applications were refused under the pretext that approval would contravene Lebanon’s labor protection strategy. In the face of these conflicting policies a portion of Syrians in Lebanon are, of necessity, in breach of the regulations governing residency on Lebanese territory as a result of the refusal of the ministries concerned to provide consistent mechanisms to enable them to regularize their status. The truth is that this ‘mix-up’ and inconsistency on the part of officials in sorting out regulations during this period highlights the inadequacy of national laws governing Syrian refugees to Lebanon in particular, and foreigners in general. This is reflected in the range of terms that are in use today: Displaced person, refugee, foreign worker, migrant worker, tourist, and so on.
Returning to the subject of the General Security’s latest announcement, we find seven different classifications on the basis of which a Syrian can enter Lebanon: Tourism, work visit, trade, owning or leasing property, study, travel, health treatment, or embassy consultation. If a Syrian fails to meet one of the conditions in addition to a number of other conditions (having a bank account, specific quantity of cash, hotel booking, date of departure or scheduled medical treatment, etc) then they can only enter the country if they have a Lebanese sponsor on the basis of a “prior pledge of responsibility.” It is striking that the announcement retains the ‘displaced person’ categorization[7], but in a negative and meaningless manner. Under this categorization we read that there is a ban “on the entry of any displaced Syrian other than in exceptional circumstances, the procedures for which must be coordinated with the Ministry for Social Affairs.” The truth is that, at the time of writing this article, the measures to handle this category have not been put in place and the Ministry of Social Affairs has not sent its representatives to the border. As for the Syrians who were residing in Lebanon before the latest decision was made, they either must promise not to work and renew their residency on the basis of a document registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) (renewal according to the period remaining from the validity date of the registration document) or renew under the category of ‘worker’ underwritten by a Lebanese sponsor (more often than not the employer). A sponsor must pledge to General Security that they will “obtain a work permit according to regulations and assume responsibility for [them (the worker)] and [their] activities and work that might cause harm to others or have security implications, as well as guaranteeing to take the necessary measures for [their] medical treatment and accommodation.” It is not clear yet whether the Ministry of Labor will respond to such requirements and what standards and conditions it will implement in this respect.
Facing this reality a Syrian is presented with the choice either of not seeking work in Lebanon, which means foregoing the security of income for them and their family, or accepting the sponsorship system that the Ministry of Interior has recently restored. In both cases the legal protection framework became very limited and fragile. For a start, the UNHCR registration document for Syrians does not accord them any status or legal protection. They do not even enjoy the status of asylum seekers and the number of resettlement cases is miniscule compared to the huge numbers who have fled from Syria. Second, the current sponsorship system violates the Lebanese Foreigners Law and Labor Law, and the shortcomings of the foreign labor regime in Lebanon are well known to everyone (in particular for workers in the third category of the Ministry of Labor’s classification)[8]. Foreign workers enjoy minimal legal rights and guarantees, and the working conditions are such that a Syrian worker becomes a prisoner of improper and illegal practices on the part of employers in order to keep their residency.[9]
The real problem today goes beyond the debate over the extent of Lebanon’s commitment to the right of asylum and the principles of avoiding forced repatriation. For at the end of the day the problem of foreign migrant labor affects thousands of Syrians. The General Security’s decision stems from the realization of the extent to which Lebanon’s economic sector needs Syrian labor. Even though the Lebanese state over the past four years shouldered its responsibilities to provide minimal legal protection by guaranteeing safe passage for Syrian refugees, rather than deporting them or arbitrarily detaining them—in contrast to the way refugees of other nationalities were and still are treated—the policy approved today will likely lead to the exploitation of Syrians under the cover of the sponsorship system. Far from officials rushing to scrap this system which breaches both the constitution and a range of human rights covenants to which Lebanon has committed itself, they are wasting no time in implementing it. Perhaps this genuine humanitarian crisis will force the relevant authorities to face up to their responsibilities and take a serious and profound second look at the foreign labor regime in operation today, for this is a problem that is not going to go away.

[1] On 23 May 2014, the Council of Ministers, in Resolution No. 72, agreed to form a ministerial team to follow up on the effects of Syrian migration to Lebanon. The team comprised the prime minister, minister of foreign affairs, minister of interior and municipalities, and minister of social affairs. Their primary task was to make the necessary recommendations to deal with the influx of displaced persons in coordination with relevant departments.
[2] Before this range of measures was announced, municipality councils concerned with Syrian refugees residing within their jurisdictions barred the public movement of the latter after a designated hour. In the event they did not comply with these regulations refugees could be detained in a municipality building for several hours. Also, most municipality councils were assiduous not only in registering the names of Syrian refugees, but also in seizing their identity cards and entry visas at the same time. Then they would issue temporary identification cards for refugees, in place of their original ones, stating that the latter were in the hands of the municipality. In addition, municipal leaders took other measures, including but not limited to the imposition of annual taxes, the imposition of fines for breaching municipality regulations, a ban on renting residence to more than one family, and a ban on Syrian families receiving visitors after a certain hour, as well as denying refugees access to public places (parks) in some areas. Furthermore, on 5 September 2014, a meeting of mayors and heads of municipal unions was held at the Biel complex in Beirut, where security service chiefs were also in attendance, which focused on the improvement of municipality police forces. One of the meeting’s main recommendations was to “impose restrictions on Syrian migrants in every town and follow up on the subject of aid and resources, with the municipality directly overseeing the moves.”
[3] On 2 February 2013, the Council of Ministers, in Resolution No. 1/19, excluded some professions from the list of those available only to Lebanese (on a full-time or part-time basis) and allowed Syrians to work in the following fields and jobs: Technical professions in the construction sector, commercial representative, marketing representative, warehouse supervisor, mechanics and maintenance personnel, gatekeeper and guard, tailor, works supervisor, and metal work and upholstery. Then on 16 December 2014, came Resolution 1/197, which annulled these exceptions and stated that the following professions and positions were exclusively open only to Lebanese: Administrative positions; banking; insurance and educational work of all kinds; chairman; director; manager; deputy manager; employees’ manager; treasurer; accountant; secretary; typist; public notary; archive keeper; computer operator; commercial representative; marketing representative; works supervisor; warehouse supervisor; vendor; jeweler; tailor; fabric mender with the exception of carpet repair; electrical wiring specialist; mechanic and maintenance worker; painter; glass fitter, gatekeeper; guard; driver; waiter; barber; electronic works; chef (Oriental food); technical professions in the construction sector and related fields such as tiling, the securing and installation of various metals including aluminum and iron, as well as wood and similar décor materials; teaching at primary, intermediary and secondary levels, with the exception of teaching foreign languages where necessary; engineering work in its various fields; metal work and upholstery; nursing; work of any kind in pharmacies and medical storerooms or laboratories; weights and measure work; cosmetics – and in general all work and professions, and teaching work, that could be done by Lebanese.
[4] See the 31 December 2014 announcement from the General Directorate of General Security, which was amended on 3 February 2015, at the following website: http://www.general-security.gov.lb/news_det.aspx?d=194
[5] See the study entitled “The National Plan For Human Rights: The Rights Of Migrant Workers”, Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights, National Assembly, in cooperation with the United Nations Development Program, 2008, pages 15 and 30, available at:           
[6] “According to official figures released by the Department of Syrian Workers in the Ministry of Labor, there were 650 people officially registered in 2012-2013, including 200 workers who have renewed their work permits.” Legal Status of Individuals fleeing Syria, Syria Needs Analysis Project, June 2013.
[7] The use of the words ‘displaced person’ instead of ‘refugee’ fails to reflect the true legal description of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. A displaced person is someone made homeless within a region inside a country, whereas a refugee flees across international borders for fear of persecution.
[8] Passed on 2 February 1971, Resolution 2/42 and its subsequent amendments divide foreigners working in Lebanon into four groups according to the nature of their work and their salaries. The third group includes laborers working in institutions whose salaries do not exceed twice the minimum wage.
[9] See “The National Plan For Human Rights: The Rights Of Migrant Workers” referred to in Footnote 5 above, pp 31-38.

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