Editor’s note: After more than half a decade of war in Syria and the ensuing Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon, The Legal Agenda is attempting to document the trends and positions that the Lebanese state has displayed or adopted while handling the crisis; whether by regulating the status of Syrians in Lebanon or dealing with Lebanese concerns. Hence, The Legal Agenda is publishing a series of interviews with the official stakeholders concerned with managing the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon.
The first is an interview with Khalil Gebara, advisor to the minister of interior and municipalities.

Gebara’s discussion focuses on the pressing need to produce policies on the “displacement crisis” in order to escape the current state of chaos. However, it also reveals that the central authorities, both at the state and municipal levels, are selective in their commitment to the laws and the Constitution when dealing with refugees. They intervene to stop municipalities imposing illegal fines on refugees because the measure is unconstitutional, but they refrain from intervening to end illegal curfews. Gebara justifies this discrepancy on the basis that the concerns lying behind these two kinds of measures are of a different nature.

Additionally, Gebara’s responses give the impression that the government is genuinely seeking demands such as the regulation of the status of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, granting them residence permits, and freeing them from selective powers; but, it is prevented from doing so by the stagnation of a regime awaiting the end of the Syrian war, and the gross political fragmentation between the parties that constitute this regime. At the London conference, Lebanon submitted a plan from which the country would derive sustainable economic benefit even after the refugees' return. The plan, according to Gebara, was well received globally, but it could not be implemented due to the State's paralysis; but even this was obstructed by the aforementioned condition of the state. The problem is therefore not just the Syrian refugee crisis, but also –and primarily– the system of governance in Lebanon.

Interview Transcript

No Official Policy for Managing Syrian Refugee Crisis

LA: What is your assessment of the Lebanese state’s general policy in handling the Syrian refugee crisis?

Gebara: The Lebanese state’s approach to the Syrian displacement is tied to its perspective on the Syrian crisis. That it has not developed policies on the displacement since the beginning in 2011 reflects two things: firstly, the lack of an organic balance in the composition of the previous government due to the absence of national consensus; and, secondly, that the political forces of all stances read the Syrian crisis as a short-term crisis. Consequently, the previous government adhered to a policy of dissociation and refraining from responding to the displacement crisis, with the exception of some action on the local level. The formation of Tammam Salam’s government was an indication that there is no clear timeline for the crisis. That is when change began occurring in the positions of the political forces as they stopped betting on the time factor in anticipation of the end of the Syrian crisis. Hence, we cannot look at Lebanese policies related to the Syrian displacement in isolation from a group of basic factors:

  • The difference in the political forces’ reading of the Syrian crisis as the Syrian displacement crisis is a consequence of the Syrian crisis.

  • The fact that it has become clear that there is no time constraint dictating the end of the Syrian crisis, and the return of the displaced persons. This makes it difficult to separate the humanitarian factors from the economic factors and factors related to stability, let alone all the other concerns. In this regard, we have to consider that our [different Lebanese communities] express a certain sentiment that must be respected. This sentiment includes concerns related to other crises, such as the Palestinian crisis, sectarian factors, and youth with weapons training. These issues should lead to one conclusion, namely, that we can no longer implement temporary policies. We can no longer tell the people to bear with us for two or three years while we produce policies on the displaced Syrians.

  • The institutional weakness in decision-making –especially now that the presidential vacuum has existed for two and a half years– and the subsequent problems related to government unproductivity, as well as the absence of legislation and of [an annual state] budget and so on. In short, the crisis of the Lebanese regime.

All of these factors have made it hard to produce policies related to the displacement crisis. Nevertheless, the government thus far still agrees on a minimum set of axioms. These axioms are negative in nature: no settlement, no permanent work… In other words, they are a set of “nos”. The government agrees on what it does not want, but not on what it wants. On the other hand, the government’s only concrete decision was issued at the beginning of 2015 and regulates Syrian’s entry into Lebanon.[1] The second decision halted the registration of Syrians with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) outside of exceptional cases. This year, the ministerial committee tried to develop this mechanism and the government presented a paper at the London conference.[2] But the paper did not turn into decisions. We can therefore say that the crisis is being handled on the basis of what is easiest. It is easiest for us to agree to say “no”. What currently exists is not a bad policy, but a minimum degree of political consensus that has produced the few policies related to the refugees. When international organizations criticize us for a bad policy that has negative effects, we have no justification because the issue is linked to politics. The Syrian displacement crisis has proven that the Lebanese regime does not adapt to major crises and becomes paralysed. It is a regime that does not fall and does not progress. The minimum [set of policies] adopted at the moment prevents the Syrian displacement crisis from exacerbating more political divisions.

Today, years into the Syrian displacement crisis, we can talk about two main factors that will influence the status of displaced Syrians in Lebanon. On one hand, everyone has realized that the Syrian crisis, and hence the displacement, is not temporary. We must stop treating it on the basis of exceptionalism. On the other hand, the Syrian displacement issue has begun to [appear in] the discourse of political rivalry in Lebanon. In other words, it has become part of the discourse of the parties, and this will increase as next year’s parliamentary elections approach. [They] will play on the negative consequences on Lebanese citizens, or charge the displaced with responsibility for the deterioration of the security or economic situation, or even play on a kind of existential or demographic fear. Consequently, we have reached a crossroads: either the state moves toward producing policies, or the crisis will promote political divisions and the issue of the displaced persons will become a cause of internal political division. Otherwise, the only option left is to stand at this crossroads and wait.

LA: You say that we are at a crossroads before clear policies are produced, but the facts show a clear trend towards imposing more and more restrictions on the Syrians and entrenching the instability of their situation.

Gebara: I do not think that the policies have gone in the direction of [placing] more restrictions on Syrians, but that the absence of policies has created a state of chaos because of varied standards and decisions. We see this in the various measures adopted by municipalities: one municipality makes a good decision while another makes a negative one; one municipality introduces a curfew while another registers them [i.e., the refugees] and imposes monetary payments; one municipality provides work opportunities for Syrians while another [treats them] as forced laborers; one municipality expels persons with an out-of-town sponsor while another markets itself and obtains funding from international organizations. Hence, we are seeing chaos, not restrictions. The issue relates not to instability, but to constant changes that reflect the inability to find centralized policies.

The Ministry of Interior as an Authority Overseeing the General Security

LA: Does the withdrawal of residence permits from 70% of the Syrians as a result of the instructions that the General Security issued in 2015 not constitute restriction, now that the refugees’ presence in Lebanon is a crime in and of itself?

Gebara: The number of displaced Syrians has become huge, and applying the Law of Foreigners to them is not useful any more. Nevertheless, we have not been able to produce anything specific to Syrians. We have arrived at a vacuum that leads to the pile-up of crises and problems, including children without personal status records, invalid residence permits, and the loss of identity papers that burned in their camps. If we detain someone without identity papers, what do we do then? We cannot open a special registry for Syrians because of settlement concerns, and the laws on foreigners are no longer applicable. The Law of Foreigners obligates us to deport persons in violation of residence regulations, but the Lebanese state cannot actually do so. This leads to an increasing number of people without residence permits, and as a state we would have done what is worse. We have therefore arrived at chaos and at the [aforementioned] crossroads, so we either wait, produce policies, or create a multitude of crises that will turn into a time bomb in all aspects.

Recently, during preparations for the London conference, we put forward the idea that the presence of Syrians is a reality, so if improving the terms of their residence corresponds to financial benefit, there is no harm in that. As a ministry of interior, we have no problem with granting courtesy residence to displaced persons in return for in-kind support for the security apparatuses, especially the General Security. We also have no problem with Syrians having temporary employment opportunities in the construction, agriculture, and manufacturing sectors provided that this is tied to securing the investments and infrastructures that will cause these opportunities to transfer to Lebanese people later on. But all of the optimism that existed in London does not exist any more because of the international objections to Lebanese policies.

LA: Do you believe that the presence of thousands of persons residing illegally serves Lebanon’s public interest?

Gebara: That 70% of the Syrians lack residence permits does not serve Lebanon’s public interest. Rather, it has dangerous humanitarian, security, and political repercussions on Lebanese and Syrian people alike. We cannot have more than 500,000 unregistered people who feel that they are in contravention of the law. Many Lebanese regions have lived through a state of historical marginalization that has produced outlaws [tuffar] and problems that we have not been able to address yet. We cannot add the Syrians to them. That would lead to many problems related to their movement, their dealings with the security apparatuses, their fear, and their use of illegal means of transportation. All of these problems would be alleviated if they had valid residence permits. Hence, from a security, humanitarian, and political perspective, Syrians with residence permits are much better than Syrians without residence permits.

The Ministry of Interior as an Authority Overseeing the Municipalities

LA: In the absence of central policies, the response to the refugee crisis has occurred on a decentralized, local level. What is your assessment of this response and its effectiveness?

Gebara: The state of chaos and instability and the lack of centralized policies caused the crisis to be handled at the micro level. In other words, it is being handled at a sectoral level by specific ministries or at the level of the smallest units, namely, the municipalities. For my part, I agree that the decentralization has been positive in the short-term. Had the municipalities not been handling the Syrian displacement crisis for six years, the situation would be different. Similarly, had the displacement crisis not been privatized and addressed by international and local organizations, the situation would certainly be worse, irrespective of the extent to which that fits into a framework of national strategies. Hence, the micro level filled a certain gap and alleviated the burdens. But the question is, can we build upon that for a long-term displacement crisis, or do we need to unify standards? In my opinion, we must work seriously to unify standards as we have a mass of people to manage. For example, where do we bury Syrians who die in Lebanon when we do not have enough graves?

LA: As the overseeing authority, what instructions has the Ministry of Interior issued to the municipalities with regard to Syrian refugees?

Gebara: The Ministry of Interior has issued limited circulars to the municipalities on how to respond to the displacement. They include some regulations pertaining to the makeshift camps and their distance from the road, as well as the circular issued on March 15, 2014,[3] on registering the displaced persons in the municipalities. Similarly, from the previous government we inherited the decision that established security cells at the district level. Today, some municipalities are collecting information about the displaced persons and issuing cards to them –each in its own area– as part of individual initiatives related to the security cells’ recommendations.

LA: Some municipalities have taken restrictive measures against Syrians, overstepping their legal powers. Such measures include night curfews, the collection of money without legal basis, prohibitions against frequenting public places, and expulsion from the municipal limits. It has become clear that these measures are related to a desire to keep the Syrians invisible to the Lebanese, and have no serious security justifications. How is the ministry dealing with these measures? Is it examining their legality, necessity, and proportionality?

Gebara: Generally, we currently deal with the measures taken by municipalities on a case-by-case basis –I mean on the basis of each individual municipality– because of the complexity of the issue and the existence of around 1,080 municipalities without central support. There are no clear standards, but we are handling the issue flexibly on the basis of two main criteria: security and stability, on one hand, and the municipality’s ability to tolerate and treat the problems, on the other. We reject collective punishment, but we adopt a particular stance if we deem there to be a serious effect on social stability.

Regarding the fees, no local authority may impose any fee on displaced persons unless stipulated by law. The ministry intervened in the case of one of the municipalities that imposed a fee for registering Syrians in 2015 having deemed the measure unconstitutional.

As for the expulsion and curfew decisions, even though they are a problem in and of themselves, we cannot intervene and prevent them like we prevent the imposition of fees. The Ministry of Interior does not currently intervene to stop curfews because they are related to concerns, not the municipality’s needs. In this sense, they aren’t like the issue of funds collection. If the municipality needs funds, we can secure them for it. But we alone –as a ministry– cannot address the concerns of local communities outside the scope of clear government policies on this matter.

From another angle, the Ministry has intervened in relation to the Amsheet municipal police. We assign great importance to the issue of municipal police, and we are working on a national project to develop their work by putting together a code of conduct and procedural standards, in cooperation with the Institute of the Internal Security Forces. This project goes beyond the handling of the Syrian refugee crisis, and it encompasses all the Lebanese regions as it relates to national security and stability in general.

LA: What are these concerns that the municipalities cite when they adopt restrictive measures against Syrians? Are there serious security concerns?

Gebara: The municipalities use various justifications for their decisions. In general, Lebanese communities express their concerns in three dimensions: the existential and demographic dimension, the social and economic dimension, and the security dimension. There is a positive point that I must shed light on: thus far, the Syrians do not seem to have been driven to organized crime or terrorism. There is no evidence that displaced Syrians or Syrians registered with the UN have been involved in terrorist operations. It turns out that the Syrians involved in these operations entered Lebanon from Syria for that purpose. Hence, the existing security concerns could have been addressed if the camps were organized, the displaced carried residence permits, and their places of residence and movements were clear.

Multiple Registration

LA: From the Ministry of Interior’s perspective, what is the difference between Syrians registered with the UNHCR and those not registered with regard to rights and obligations?

Gebara: The August 2014 decision that exempted Syrians from paying fines to regularize their residence status did not distinguish between registered and unregistered persons. Syrians are not distributed into two strict categories. In 2014, when discussions about sponsors and the pledge not to undertake paid work [that Syrians must make to [obtain] their residence] began, the idea was based on a certain policy of distinguishing “economic refugees” [i.e., economic migrants] from “displaced persons”. At the time, the whole issue was connected to the rapid increase of displaced persons registered with the UNHCR and the pressures that it created. The solution was to reduce the number of people registered with the UNHCR, not the number of Syrians in Lebanon. Here, I must point out that the UNHCR also took measures that limited registrations in accordance with its own criteria that were separate from the Lebanese state’s policies.

Hence, there were cooperation initiatives with the UNHCR aimed at producing policies based on identifying the displaced, and distinguishing them from the Syrians present in Lebanon for economic reasons, via a kind of link between the UNHCRs database and the state’s information on Syrians’ entry and exit. The aim was to distinguish between the two groups on the basis that the displaced would get more protection mechanisms. All of this work was an attempt to develop a strategy for fully addressing the displacement crisis, but many of the standards were not finished and were lost between political disagreements; so the plan went unfinished. Some of the measures therefore appear illogical or inconsistent with international standards. Ultimately, at the end of 2014 the Council of Ministers issued the two aforementioned decisions by themselves, so they seemed unclear. However, when they are connected to what was in the works the situation becomes clearer.

LA: What is the Ministry of Interior’s stance on the project to grant identification cards (attestations) to Syrian refugees that the Ministry of Social Affairs is preparing for? Will these attestations be a substitute for the residence permits and the registration cards issued by the municipalities, or will the mechanisms for registering refugees multiply?

Gebara: Reaching a consensus on grating Syrians residence permits has been difficult, so the temporary cards and identification cards address one of the main problems, namely, freedom of movement. This card is not a substitute for residence, but it is another option for solving one problem. In the future, if the Ministry of Social Affairs begins issuing its cards, the municipalities will presumably cease issuing their cards, and their work will then be to assist the ministry with registration. Some of the procedural matters related to this project remain unclear, but we are following up with the Ministry of [Social] Affairs and working with it to make this project a success. In any case, the Ministry of Interior will abide by all of the Council of Minister’s decisions in this regard.

LA: What is the Ministry of Interior’s position on registering the births of Syrians and granting them birth certificates, given the minister of foreign affairs’ objection to it?

Gebara: The ministry does not oppose registering the birth of Syrians so that they aren’t separated from their families, but it cannot break the laws that stipulate that residence is needed to obtain a birth certificate.

This interview is an edited translation from Arabic.

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[1] See: “New General Security Instructions to Regulate Syrians’ Entry and Residence in Lebanon”, The Legal Agenda, January 21, 2015.

[2] The paper that the Lebanese government submitted to the London conference in February 2016 can be viewed here.

[3] Circular No. 535/s.m., March 15, 2014.