In Limbo: Protecting Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

September 12, 2018

All refugees are vulnerable, but those seeking asylum in countries without a refugee policy are particularly at risk of exploitation, unemployment, and poverty. This is exactly the case for Syrian refugees[1]in Lebanon. An agreement must be found to ensure the protection for this growing population.

Protection of refugees is secured through the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951 Convention) and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (1967 Protocol).[i]Countries which are not a party to them risk denying fundamental rights to refugees. Lebanon is one such country. Its attitude to accepting refugees on a temporary basis only has led to harmful policy maneuvers, threatening the rights of refugees and undermining security. To overcome this, Lebanon should reform its Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the UNHCR.

Current Lebanese Refugee Policy

The international community has often lauded Lebanon’s approach to refugees and commended its high intake. And yet, Lebanon is party to neither the 1951 Refugee Convention nor the 1967 Protocol, which outline the rights of individuals who are granted asylum and the responsibilities of nations that grant asylum. Whilst the Government of Lebanon is subject to significant pressure for having the largest per capita population of refugees in the world, this does not make it permissible for the deprivation of fundamental human rights.

Though Syrian nationals were previously granted unrestricted entry past Lebanese borders, the Lebanese government imposed border entry restrictions on Syrians on December 31, 2014. In May 2015, it ordered the UNHCR to stop registering Syrians as refugees.[ii]Those registered with the UNHCR must sign a pledge not to work, and those not registered are not eligible for support such as cash assistance, shelter, or education. In both instances, Syrian refugees cannot legally work in Lebanon, resulting in poverty and a resort to underground employment.

Syrians are also required to pay $200 to maintain their legal status in the country, provided via a residency visa.[iii]Whilst this was waived in February 2017 for those registered with the UNHCR, an estimated 500,000 remain faced with the fee as a result of not being registered, in addition to an unknown number who face the fee due to having a Lebanese sponsor.[2]This leaves many without legal status and increases the risk of abuse and exploitation.

Lebanese law does not define the word “refugee.” Further, the 2003 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the government of Lebanon and the UNHCR states, “the only durable solution for refugees is resettlement in a third country.”[iv]Lebanese authorities consider that any introduction of refugee policy would be too much of a strain on Lebanon and would threaten its “temporary” approach. As a result, “refugees enjoy few, if any, legal rights in Lebanon”. This denies Syrian refugees basic rights such as education, health care, and shelter and is a violation of the non-refoulement principle, which protects refugees against return to a country where they have reason to fear persecution. All states are bound to this principle through customary international law, and yet Lebanese President Michel Aoun has expressed that Syrians should begin returning to their homeland before peace is reached.[v]

Potential Solutions

Calls for Lebanon to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention have become louder in recent years.[vi]Still, Lebanon has remained staunch in its choice not to become party to the Convention since a signature would amount to an official commitment to be a “destination” country, as opposed to a “transit” country. With no signature of the convention in sight, the Lebanese government should update its existing understanding of refugee rights–the 2003 MoU with UNHCR– to protect Syrian refugees.

Lebanon must be at the center of discussions to achieve an updated MoU with the UNHCR. The international community should use its voice to encourage Lebanon to instigate such discourse and the UNHCR should facilitate the process. The new MoU should take into consideration the challenges presented by the Syrian crisis and stipulate the following:

  1. Issue temporary work permits to Syrian Refugees

In the same vein as the agreement between the International Labour Organization and the Jordanian government, the Lebanese government should issue temporary working permits for sectors which are open to non-nationals in Lebanon (e.g. construction and agriculture).[vii]The issuing of work permits would allow Syrians in Lebanon to rise out of poverty and live independent of humanitarian assistance. By introducing such temporary work permits, Lebanon would recognize the reality that Syrian refugees will be residing in Lebanon for the foreseeable future without necessarily becoming a final “destination” country.

  1. Waive the fee for residency permits of Syrian Refugees

Since many Syrian refugees in Lebanon are living under the poverty line, they cannot afford to pay the $200 fee and have lost their legal status in Lebanon as a result. The Lebanese government should be required to extend its fee waiver to cover all Syrian refugees. This would reverse the effects of the fee waiver, namely the need for refugees to work in the informal sector and thereby be at further risk of exploitation.

  1. Monitor and Review the MOU annually

The MoU between Lebanon and the UNHCR was originally written as a mechanism to deal with the Iraqi refugee crisis, which presented very different problems and a far smaller influx of refugees.[viii]Given this, it is unsurprising that the MoU is insufficient to protect the far greater Syrian refugee influx into Lebanon. To prevent the agreement from becoming outdated and inapplicable again, a clause must be added to the MoU which requires annual monitoring and evaluation. This would ensure that it remains relevant to any changes in the Lebanese population.

Overall, by updating the MoU to issue temporary work permits to Syrian refugees and to introduce a fee waiver for residency permits as well as ensuring its relevance by adding an annual review clause, Syrian refugees would benefit from greater protection. This is essential as the Syrian war surpasses its seventh year. As more people seek refuge overseas, it is imperative that Lebanon sets a precedent of recognizing the rights of those settled in their country and advance their approach from addressing Syrians as a burden to celebrating their benefit.

This article was awarded the 2nd place of our 2018 Policy Corner Essay Competition “Meeting Future Security Challenges“.


Picture: Mustafa Öztürk for IHH International Humanitarian Relief Foundation

[1]I use the word “refugee” as it is understood under the 1951 UN Convention as anyone who has been forced to flee their country because of persecution, war, or violence. This is not the definition that is used by the Government of Lebanon and extends beyond those registered under the UNHCR.


[2]A Lebanese sponsor is a Lebanese national, either a family member or employer, who agrees to take responsibility of a Syrian refugee.

[i][i]United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). 2011. “The 1951 Convention relating to the status ofrefugees and its 1967 protocol”.


[ii]“Observations And Recommendations On New Entry Restrictions For Syrians And Refugee Protection Principles In Lebanon”. 2015. Human Rights Watch.


[iii]“Lebanon: New Refugee Policy A Step Forward”. 2017. Human Rights Watch.


[iv]“Refugee Law And Policy: Lebanon”. 2016. The Law Library Of Congress.


[v]UNHCR. 2010. “Universal Periodic Review: The Republic Of Lebanon”.


[vi]Janmyr, Maja. 2017. “No Country Of Asylum: Legitimizing Lebanon’s Rejection Of The 1951 Refugee Convention”. International Journal Of Refugee Law 29 (3): 438-465. doi:10.1093/ijrl/eex026.


[vii]“Jordan Issues First-Of-Their-Kind Work Permits To Syria Refugees In The Arab Region”. 2017. Ilo.Org.–en/index.htm.


[viii]UNHCR. 2004. “Country Operation Plan: Lebanon.”

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