Aysha turned 15 and stopped going to school. Her parents were afraid that, like her 15-year-old neighbor, she could be arrested traveling to or from classes because she could not get a residency permit.
Mariam faces the same problem and now barely leave her home in North Lebanon. In South Lebanon, Sama and her husband saw only one way to get residency permits so they could register their marriage: Sama’s husband traveled back to Syria, temporarily, to try and get the ID he needed to apply for legal residency in Lebanon. He was arrested there and has not been heard from since.Aysha, Mariam, and Sama’s* experiences are similar to those of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria living in Lebanon. When they arrived in Lebanon as children they were listed on their head of household’s documents, and never had IDs of their own.
When they turned 15 in Lebanon, they could no longer be covered under their parents’ residency permits, but could not get residency themselves because they did not have identification of their own. They have been made “illegal” through an administrative gap that is no fault of their own.
We at the Norwegian Refugee Council estimate that this affects more than 30,000 children of Syrian refugees per year.
Lebanon has been extremely generous in accommodating so many Syrian refugees and has recently made some changes to the residency requirements to address administrative challenges, but unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of young people are still stuck, and are “illegal” simply because they turned 15 years old.
NRC recently surveyed a number of Syrian refugees who have been affected by this issue and found that of the people we spoke to who had turned 15 in Lebanon or had a family member who had done so, none of them had been able to obtain legal stay documentation after their 15th birthday.
This problem is the result of administrative requirements that predate the Syrian crisis. When children of Syrian refugees turn 15 years old in Lebanon, they must apply for an individual residency permit.
However, the only identification that is accepted for this application is an ID issued by Syria’s Ministry of Interior.
The issue is that the Syrian Ministry only issues these IDs after a child turns 15. The official documents that most Syrian families do have are not accepted by the Lebanese Ministry of Interior and Municipalities.
This means that refugee children who turn 15 in Lebanon are stuck in a bureaucratic vacuum, with no way of getting the documents required to make their stay in Lebanon legal.
Refugees who lack residency permits face a host of challenges. For example, 72 percent of married respondents that NRC spoke with have not been able to register their marriage, citing their lack of legal residency as the reason. 78 percent were unable to register their children’s birth, which substantially increases the risk of statelessness.
Lacking a residency permit also heightens risks of arrest and detention at checkpoints or during raids, which prevents refugees from being able to move around to access basic services like health and education.
School dropout rates increase exponentially for children over 15, and none of the respondents we spoke to were attending school. While the Ministry of Education has done important work to ensure that refugees do not require legal residency in order to attend public schools, many refugees stop going to school for fear they will be arrested or detained at checkpoints.
It does not have to be this way. We at NRC believe that identification requirements could be modified to allow these children to obtain the legal stay in Lebanon using other official forms of identification.
NRC has suggested that additional acceptable forms of formal identification could include Syrian family books or civil extracts, which serve as children’s primary identification before their 15th birthdays.
Some progress has already been made on these issues. Syrian civil extracts, with certain conditions, have recently been accepted as valid identification for Palestinian refugees from Syria. In addition, changes to residency requirements for birth and marriage registration have been modified to make both more accessible to refugees from Syria.
Alternatives could allow for the use of UNHCR or UNRWA documentation, or the use of expired Syrian passports for those few families that may have them. In instances where forgery or verification is an issue, a combination of documents could be accepted to provide additional verification.
While these solutions are not perfect and might not provide a solution for every child, this would nonetheless solve a problem for thousands of children who have been trapped in an administrative void that has made hundreds of thousands of children seeking asylum with their families, illegal.
Kate Norton is country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Lebanon.
* Names have been changed for protection purposes.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 18, 2017, on page 2.