More than a million Syrians live in neighboring Lebanon. But the government in Beirut wants to restrict the number of refugees admitted to the country and put tougher conditions on how long they are allowed to stay.
Rim Abboud (name changed) is very worried. More than one year ago, the 45-year-old woman fled with her family to Lebanon to escape the Syrian civil war. She registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Beirut. Her former apartment in the Syrian capital, Damascus, was in a neighborhood bitterly fought over by rebels and government soldiers.
She and the rest of her family lost all of their identification documents and don't know how they will be able to move on when Syria remains torn apart by civil war.
"We can live here for free for only one year," she said. "For each additional six months, I would have to pay $200. And there are five of us - each one of us would have to pay that amount."
Abboud doesn't have the money to make such payments. It would have been cheaper for her to go back to Syria and then return to Lebanon. Such a move would allow her to stay in Lebanon for free for another six months. But at the end of May, the Lebanese Interior Ministry informed all Syrian refugees registered with the UNHCR that by re-entering Syria they would lose their registration.
Security concerns connected to the Syrian presidential election were given to justify the change in policy. Thousands of Syrian refugees went to vote at the Syrian embassy in Beirut. Syrian authorities, however, called on them to vote in polling stations along the border, which created the false impression among politicians that the refugees could return to their home country without difficulty.
But this change was not the first time the Lebanese government sought to introduce stricter limits on the rights of Syrian refugees. Without giving concrete details, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk announced measures to restrict the flow of Syrian refugees at a press conference in early May.
An overstrained country
Lebanon has borne the brunt of Syrian refugees crisis, and the 1 million Syrian refugees living in Lebanon make up 20 percent of the total population. The chronically unstable country's capacities are reaching their limit, and Beirut sees itself as no longer being able to cope with the numerous labor market, water and electricity supply problems it faces. As a result, Lebanon wants to restrict the number of Syrian refugees it admits.
Dana Sleiman of the UNHCR in Beirut said she had some understanding for the Lebanese government. In her view, the government has been trying to defuse the refugee crisis. The UNHCR has tried to make clear to the Lebanese government that many refugees re-enter Syria for very different reasons.
"For example, a mother may risk her life to travel to Syria with a child for cancer treatment, which is cheaper there," Sleiman said. "The UNHCR does not pay for cancer treatment."
Fatal consequences for the refugees
Omar Ghannoum estimated that within a few months, the majority of Syrian refugees registered with the UNHCR will live in Lebanon without residence permits. Ghannoum works for an international aid organization that offers legal advice to Syrian refugees. He said life without valid documents is difficult.
"People cannot move around freely any more," he added. "They live in permanent fear of being caught by the police. They tend to stay at home which means that they cannot go to work, and cannot pay their rent. It's a vicious circle."
Palestinians from Syria who have fled to Lebanon are also being confronted with stricter regulations. One of them is Muhamed Ali (name changed) who fled from Yarmouk, a camp for Palestinians near Damascus. Since his residence permit expired, he said he has hardly dared to leave his home.
"If I get caught by the security forces, they will ask me to leave the country," he said. "That's a first warning shot. If they catch me for the second time, it's possible that I get deported."
The border is almost impassable
According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), some 53,000 Palestinians from Syria now call Lebanon their home. The Interior Ministry has called on them to legalize their status by mid-June. Many of them have reported that they were asked to leave the country although they had paid the outstanding fees. The UNRWA has confirmed these reports. Human Rights Watch criticized the Lebanese government at the beginning of May for having deported more than 30 Palestinians from Syria back to their home country. The Lebanese authorities had accused them of falsifying documents.
UNRWA has also expressed concern about the hurdles Palestinians need to clear when attempting to enter Lebanon.
"Only very few of them manage to enter Lebanon," said Ann Dismorr, director of UNRWA in Beirut. "Entry is only permitted to students enrolled at a Lebanese university, people in transit to other countries, people who have an appointment at the embassy, or a doctor's appointment. For everyone else it is almost impossible to enter the country."
Dismorr said she hopes Lebanon will reverse these restrictions, adding that Palestinian refugees from Syria should not be seen as a burden since the UNRWA pays for their education and medical treatment.