Mariam* rarely leaves her house, and never ventures out alone. Her fear of going out without the company of her parents or older brothers has forced her to quick school.
Mariam lives in a crowded neighbourhood in the Al Badawi area of Tripoli. She and her family fled to Lebanon in 2012 to escape the war in Syria. A year ago Mariam turned 15 years old. Since then, life has been particularly difficult for her.
Mariam cannot obtain a residency permit in Lebanon without the identification papers required to apply for a visa. According to Lebanese authorities, Syrian refugees in the country must hold a legal residency permit if they are aged 15 years or older.
This prevents Mariam from going outdoors, socialising and attending school. For a short while, she attended the Norwegian Refugee Council’s (NRC) vocational training classes, but only when her brothers could accompany her. “I only completed the fifth grade and I’m sad I can’t continue studying. I wish I could complete my education,” says Mariam.
After six years of conflict, these are common elements to stories told by millions of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and throughout the region. Mariam is only one of a thousand young girls and boys who can’t move freely in Lebanon because of an administrative gap. For a Syrian refugee who has turned 15 years old while displaced in Lebanon, obtaining this residency is almost impossible under current regulations and practice. There is no way for Syrian children to obtain the formal identification currently accepted, as it must be issued by the Syrian government.
Refugees risk their lives
“It disrupted our whole life,” says 15-year-old, Sama*, with tears in her eyes. After repeatedly facing difficulties of harassment, arrest, detention, and not being able to find a job without a valid residency visa, Sama’s husband decided to take the tremendous risk of returning to Syria. He wanted to secure an ID card after he turned 15 years old last year, which would then allow him to get legal Lebanese residency. That would alleviate the threat of arrest and detention, and allow him to cross checkpoints to find work.
His decision to return to Syria had severe consequences for the family, as he was arrested in Syria a few months ago. “Going back to Syria was the only way he could renew his residency but it was not worth it. But what could he have done otherwise?” Sama asks.
“Even trying to reach the Syrian embassy is a hazard because of the checkpoints – you can’t pass without formal identification documents. Now he is gone and we have no idea about his whereabouts,” says Sama, her voice shaking. “Our whole life is determined by a paper.”
Life over death, a conscious choice?
Ghada* tells a similar story to those of Mariam and Sama.
“We are stuck,” says Ghada. “We are strangers in a foreign country and without legal papers we don’t have rights. Lebanon doesn’t formally recognise us as refugees but rather as ‘displaced,’ which is a major challenge to us.” Without refugee status, the difficulties just don’t lay with the residency permit. It means they are not allowed to work. They can’t properly file for civil documentation. And they’re susceptible to child labour and early marriage.
Ghada’s daughter, Aysha*, who turned 15 three years ago, constantly fears being arrested or detained because of the lack of valid residency permits. As women, she and her daughter are increasingly being exposed to exploitation and abuse. They have no power to report harassments to authorities.
While humanitarian assistance isn’t enough, refugees compete with marginalised Lebanese over scarce resources and livelihood opportunities to make ends meet.
“We know we aren’t wanted in Lebanon and we Syrians are blamed for everything negative that happens,” Ghada explains. She says they are blamed for taking jobs and aid from Lebanese people, and sending children to work. “No one seems to understand that we had a life before and we didn’t want to leave our country,” she says. “But we had no choice. It was either leave Syria or death. I chose life.”