Undocumented Syrians in Lebanon pushed into the shadows

Shatila camp (Lebanon) (AFP) - Many Syrian refugees in Lebanon say their lives have ground to a halt since new measures made it almost impossible for them to obtain or renew their residence permits.

More than half of Syrian refugees in Lebanon do not have valid permits, according to the United Nations, leading to a rising number of newborns going unregistered.

Men fearing arrest at checkpoints for living illegally in Lebanon cannot find work because they cannot leave their neighbourhoods. Even successful businessmen are finding it harder to move around freely.

Children like 14-year-old Hussein have dropped out of school to become the main breadwinners for families living in squalid camps like Beirut's notorious Shatila.

"I live in fear. If I leave the camp, I'm not sure I will come back," said Walid al-Adl, Hussein's 49-year-old father, whose residency permit has expired.

Every day, Adl sends his nearly illiterate son out to sell oven-baked sweets.

"There are fewer chances Hussein will get detained. You tell me, what else can we do to earn our daily bread?" said Adl, the lines on his tired face a testament to a life of anxiety.

Like other Palestinian camps across Lebanon, Shatila has grown over the years into a cramped district housing poor Lebanese families and thousands of Syrian refugees.

It is run by Palestinian factions and is a no-go zone for Lebanese security forces, making it a magnet for Syrians hiding out in fear of arrest.

- 'Prohibitive' costs -

With more than 1.1 million Syrians and 450,000 Palestinians registered as refugees in Lebanon, the tiny Mediterranean country is home to the world's highest refugee-to-resident ratio.

A similar number reached Europe's shores in 2015. But while the European Union is home to 500 million people, Lebanon's population is just four million.

Because Lebanon has not, however, signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, it treats Syrians as foreigners, not refugees.

Rules adopted in January 2015 require Syrians to either register for residency through the UN -- on condition that they pledge not to work -- or through a Lebanese sponsor.

To renew it every year, Syrians over the age of 15 must each pay $200.

Unlike other nationalities, Syrians also have to provide proof of their address.

"In light of dwindling personal resources, renewal fee costs are prohibitive for most refugees," UN refugee agency spokesman Matthew Saltmarsh told AFP.

"According to household surveys ... by the end of March 2016, 56 percent had no valid residency permit," he said.

Paying the renewal fee is nearly unimaginable for Syrians like Radiya Ahmad, a 23-year-old mother of two who lives in Shatila.

Her husband works in an orphanage, washing dishes and doing other simple tasks.

"He gets paid 500,000 Lebanese lira ($300) a month. That's barely enough to cover rent, and we have two children to feed," Ahmad said.

"No one would sponsor us anyway."

Some Lebanese are taking advantage of the Syrians' vulnerability, demanding hundreds of dollars in exchange for sponsorship, Ahmad said.

Because neither parent has valid residency, their infant daughter Fatima is at risk of being stateless.

"They want the family record book from Damascus, but I can't go to Damascus -- if I go, I won't be allowed back in," Ahmad said.

- 'Invisible' -

According to Layal Abou Daher of the Norwegian Refugee Council, every aspect of Syrians' lives is affected.

"It's like living in constant fear, and somehow they feel -- that's what they say -- that they are pushed into becoming invisible," Abou Daher told AFP.

Lebanon's General Security, which regulates all foreigners' residency, rejects criticism of its regulations.

"There are no obstacles. On the contrary, we have introduced several measures to make it easier for Syrians to obtain residence permits in Lebanon, considering their humanitarian situation," a spokesman told AFP.

But even for Fahed, a 30-year-old Syrian businessman living in a villa in the mountain town of Aley outside Beirut, life in Lebanon is becoming difficult.

"They aren't deporting anyone, but the prisons are filling up (with undocumented refugees). The authorities are making life very hard for everyone. What's the point?" said the construction materials trader, speaking to AFP at a trendy Beirut cafe.

Fahed used to meet with clients in Turkey, but has been unable to travel this year because his residency has expired.

Because he drives a Mercedes-Benz, he feels he is less likely to be stopped at a checkpoint than poorer Syrians on public transport.

"Still, if I can avoid a checkpoint, I will," he said.

Umm Mohammad, whose son-in-law was detained last week when he wandered out of Shatila, does not leave the camp at all.

"It's a big prison and we're living in it," the 58-year-old said as she wept quietly.