UNHCR, along with the larger UN family, also considers that the conditions and guarantees that would allow for the sustainable return of refugees in safety and dignity to their home country should be met prior to the facilitation of return movements. UNHCR is therefore not facilitating or promoting return at this stage, while respecting the right of individuals to return to their country when they feel confident to do so.
The protection space for Syrian refugees in Lebanon has been substantially impacted by a number of measures put in place in Lebanon since 2015. Admission to Lebanon is currently restricted to those who can provide valid identity documents and proof that their stay in Lebanon fits into one of the approved reasons for entry. Seeking refuge in Lebanon is not among the valid reasons for entry, other than in exceptional circumstances approved by the Ministry of Social Affairs.
The registration of Syrian refugees by UNHCR in Lebanon was suspended by the Government in 2015. While UNHCR continues to update data on the previously registered population, UNHCR advocates for the resumption of registration activities so as to better manage needs and responses in Lebanon, as well as to prepare for safe and dignified return to Syria when conditions are ripe. Unregistered refugees may thus not benefit from return support when this is put in place, and UNHCR may not be able monitor their reintegration back in to their country, as per its mandated responsibilities, which may result in renewed displacement. Registration with UNHCR is also required for highly vulnerable refugees to be accepted for resettlement to third countries. For refugees from countries other than Syria, UNHCR continues to conduct refugee status determination (RSD) in order to identify international protection needs and durable solutions.
Following active discussions between the Government of Lebanon, UNHCR, and several countries, and in line with commitments expressed at the Supporting Syria and the Region Conference in London in February 2016, the General Security Office (GSO) published in March 2017 a decision by the Government to waive the overstay and residency renewal fees for Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR prior to 1 January 2015, who had not renewed their residency based on tourism, sponsorship, property owner or tenancy in 2015 or 2016. The fees of USD 200, which were unaffordable for many refugees, had resulted in growing numbers unable to maintain legal stay in the country, exposing them to heightened risks of arrest, detention and exploitation. To facilitate the implementation of this decision, UNHCR is providing institutional support to the GSO and has scaled up its capacity to issue documentation refugees require to obtain legal residency. Still, according to the 2017 Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon (VASyR), the percentage of displaced Syrians aged 15 and above without valid residency is 74 per cent, so concerted efforts need to continue to support an efficient and inclusive application of the fee waiver. The Government’s commitment to gradually expand the waiver to include other categories of refugees currently not covered, expressed in the outcome document of the 2017 Brussels Conference on Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region, is another step towards the aim of providing all Syrian refugees in Lebanon with the protection that temporary legal residency offers.
Whenever possible, UNHCR strives to fulfil its international protection and durable solutions responsibilities in a way that strengthens the capacity of national actors, including Ministries and public institutions, to provide the protection and services needed by the refugees in the country. In that way, the support provided by UNHCR also benefits the longer-term development of the national administration and civil society, and facilitates the preservation of social stability. In Lebanon, UNHCR thus provides much of its support to refugees in the areas of education, health and social services through the relevant ministries and public institutions. This helps to strengthen the capacity of the national social protection system to provide a predictable means of assistance and access to social services for both Lebanese and non-Lebanese in need, while community-based interventions that empower communities and build their resilience complement these efforts.
Refugees face several barriers to obtaining civil status documentation in Lebanon, especially birth registration, which jeopardizes children’s right to an identity and could create a heightened risk of statelessness. Since the beginning of the Syria crisis in 2011, and as of September 2017, almost 130,000 Syrian children were added to the files of Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR. Around two-thirds of the babies born to Syrian parents are without a birth certificate registered with the Lebanese authorities. UNHCR and partners continue to work with the Government to support refugee and vulnerable Lebanese communities to access birth registration procedures through awareness raising, counselling and legal assistance.
Thanks to these joint efforts, in 2016 there has been significant progress with respect to two important steps in the birth registration process compared to the previous year. Namely, according to UNHCR estimates, there has been a 15 per cent increase in refugee parents obtaining birth certificates from mukhtars (village leader) and a 20 per cent increase in parents filing applications with the Nofous (local registry office). To complement this, in September 2017, the Personal Status Department of the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities waived the requirement for Syrian parents to have valid legal stay to register the birth of their new-borns with the Foreigners’ Registry, which is the last step of the procedure to get a registration certificate and, prior to this decision, one of the main remaining challenges reported by refugees.
UNHCR and partners provide legal assistance and legal counselling to refugees, in particular regarding residency and civil documentation. At the end of September 2017, UNHCR and its partners provided legal assistance and counselling for 44,360 cases in 2017.
Refugee women and children
Protecting refugee children is a top priority for UNHCR and its partners. Syrian refugee children face heightened risk of exploitation and abuse, including early marriage and the worst forms of child labour. A range of services and activities are available to help children at risk of such harm. These include: (i) supporting the enhancement of national child protection systems to ensure emergency referral and provision of care for children at high risk, (ii) rapid identification and safe referral to appropriate services; and (iii) strengthening capacities of refugees and frontline workers to better prevent abuse and respond to needs.
Refugee women and children are disproportionately affected by sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Almost nine out of ten reported SGBV survivors are women and girls. Survivors are provided with emergency and life-saving services including medical services, as well as psychosocial, legal, shelter and livelihood support services. UNHCR is working to support local and institutional capacities to prevent and address SGBV-related issues by (i) providing safe environments for women and girls through community mobilization and the establishment of Women Resource Centres; (ii) improving outreach to refugees, including through mobile activities to ensure identification and safe referral of SGBV survivors and those at risk; (iii) strengthening existing specialized services for SGBV survivors, such as psychosocial, medical and legal services; and (iv) promoting engagement of men and boys in SGBV prevention and response.
To strengthen refugees’ resilience, UNHCR continues to advocate with the Government of Lebanon and other stakeholders on the benefits of investing in human capital and building capacities that enable the refugees to contribute to the local society, cover their basic expenses and develop transferable skills, so that when the conditions are conducive to return they will be able to use these skills to rebuild their future in Syria. This can be enabled by increasing access for refugees to vocational and technical education and livelihood programmes.
UNHCR and its partners support various projects that assist refugees and local communities to address their own concerns and reinforce their resilience. This includes support to 88 community development centres and social development centres, operated by non-governmental organizations and the Ministry of Social Affairs respectively, which offer various services and activities for refugees and Lebanese alike. These centres provide women, men, boys and girls with a safe space to receive information on services, conduct awareness sessions and offer various trainings in topics such as computer skills, cell phone maintenance, basic English, and literacy. In this area, UNHCR is also supporting MoSA to further strengthen the capacity of the national social protection system to efficiently and effectively respond to both Lebanese and non-Lebanese, including refugees, in need of social services and support. Specifically, UNHCR is supporting MoSA to establish an innovative online data and information management system that will strengthen the planning, design, monitoring, evaluation and overall management of the services offered by the social development centres around the country.
UNHCR also engages more than 580 outreach volunteers (OVs), mainly from the refugee communities, as well as from the Lebanese communities, who provide practical information to refugees, visit the most vulnerable, and refer those with specific needs to UNHCR and partners for help. OVs and community groups identify key issues affecting their communities to inform UNHCR and partners’ programmatic response. UNHCR is also supporting solidarity initiatives run by Syrian refugees and Lebanese community members that aim to foster peaceful co-existence, while addressing protection concerns.
Resettlement, as well as other pathways to third countries (such as scholarships and other regular and humanitarian visa schemes), remains an important protection tool and the main durable solution currently available for refugees in Lebanon. In 2016, UNHCR submitted close to 24,500 persons for resettlement consideration (mainly Syrians) to 20 resettlement countries. More than 19,500 departures took place during 2016. In 2017, as of the end of September, UNHCR has received confirmed pledges for some 11,500 refugees, and has submitted almost 9,000 refugees for resettlement. Alternative forms of resettlement to third countries, such as humanitarian visas, scholarships, family reunification and sponsorships, are increasingly be explored in addition to the regular programme.