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Syrian refugees in Lebanon, between hammer and anvil

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Story by Anouk Delafortrie, Regional Information Officer for Middle East, EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations.

The simplest of things – registering a birth or obtaining legal residency – represents an administrative imbroglio for most Syrian refugees in Lebanon. As a result, important life events – birth, marriage, death – go unregistered and 80% of refugees have no legal residency.

This creates barriers to access jobs and basic services such as education and healthcare. It also leaves refugees vulnerable to exploitation, eviction and deportation. The EU works with humanitarian partners to provide refugees with information, counselling, and legal assistance.

The last time Rami felt joy was a couple of months ago. He danced with his daughters Lamar and Naya after learning that, finally, after 7 years in Lebanon, he would start receiving cash assistance.

He has no idea why it took so long, but baby Salwa, the latest addition to the family, might be the reason. She was officially registered, and the UN refugee agency added her to the records of their family composition.

A ‘legal clinic’ run by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) with EU funding in Lebanon’s third-largest city, Saida, is where counsellors help refugees like Rami.

They help peel away the layers of bureaucracy that stand between refugees and more dignified life. Crucially, with many refugees now destitute in the wake of Lebanon’s economic free fall, services are free of charge.

‘Many refugees are “stuck” in a worsening climate. We see an increase in the threat of eviction of already vulnerable people who are blamed for just being here and for the unemployment,’ says NRC Project Manager, Sarah Ghanem. ‘There are reports of people that have gone back to Syria, only to return to Lebanon because the situation is even worse there.’

The clinic is a hive of activity. Information group sessions and one-on-one consultations take place simultaneously as a local sheikh pronounces and formalises marriages in quick succession.

Counsellors here helped Rami and his wife Amar to certify their marriage, a precondition for registering the birth of their 3 girls. In 2020, only 28% of refugees in Lebanon have been able to register the birth of their children.

Life after COVID-19 and the blast

For many, the coronavirus pandemic and Beirut port blast were the last straw, turning a bad situation into a disastrous one. Tensions are mounting as Lebanon sinks deeper into crisis.

‘These past two years, every trip to the supermarket spells trouble,’ says Amar. *‘They tell us: you took everything, our groceries, our jobs.’ *They try to avoid bumping into their landlord since he threatened to put them out on the street.

A back problem has incapacitated Rami, who would otherwise try to find work as a painter. They owe the landlord several months’ rent.

The stark reality is that 9 out of 10 Syrian refugees have fallen into extreme poverty and are accumulating debt, while the number of Lebanese living under the poverty line has also more than doubled.