Syrians forced into clandestinity in Lebanon

Abu (not his real name) wets his tanned face under the trickle of water at the sink in the toilets at the school he has spent five months building. He is washed and ready to go.

The school building is gleaming: 20,000 m² put together from A to Z by around a dozen Syrian workers, in a district of Beirut they have had no time to see.

Having completed the job, Abu, a toothless and emaciated man in his forties, is getting ready to go and see his Lebanese employer for work on a new construction site.

He has been leading this frugal existence for twenty years: working and living six months a year on Lebanese construction sites, for US$400 a month.

He used to go back to Daraa, in Syria, the rest of the time, to be with his wife and seven children.

That is no longer possible since a popular uprising, which started in his home town in March 2011, turned into an endless civil war, pushing over a million Syrians to take refuge in Lebanon.

Many of them were already going to work there in the fields during harvest times, or on construction sites.

Between 1969 and 1973, there were already over a million Syrian seasonal workers entering the Land of the Cedars. Back then, an ordinary ID card was all they needed to show at the Lebanon-Syria border to be able to take on the hardest tasks in the development of the “Switzerland of the Middle East”.

Hiring a Syrian meant not having to pay social security, which had been obligatory for Lebanese workers since 1963, and avoiding the ever-growing social movements that had been rising up during those years to defend their rights.

After the civil war (1975-1990), extra labour was once again needed to assist with Lebanon’s reconstruction.

Bilateral cooperation agreements signed between Syria and Lebanon in 1994 allowed Syrians to work in Lebanon with no more than a residence permit, issued for three months at the border.

The situation suited both the Syrian regime, providing it with a solution to its endemic unemployment, and Lebanese employers.

Estimates of the number of Syrian migrant workers prior to the Syrian conflict range between 400,000 and 1.4 million.

“It wasn’t ideal. We would come to work and then go home. But since the start of the revolution in Syria, we are exposed to legal, social and psychological pressure here,” says Ahed, a worker from Salamiyah, as he gives a final coat of paint to the school wall.

On arriving in a country where the cost of living is much higher than in Syria, the refugees who have lost everything set about finding themselves a survival job, working as a taxi driver or a caretaker, a building labourer or a farmhand.

Repeatedly referred to as a “burden” by the Lebanese government during the donors’ meetings for Syrian refugees, their presence is nonetheless a godsend for Lebanese employers.

They hire them for a day or a month, for a miserable wage and without all the paperwork. Just 650 work permits were issued to Syrians in 2012-2013.


A controversial directive

It all came to a halt in 2014, when the government introduced a policy of closing its borders to Syrian asylum seekers, except in cases of exceptional humanitarian need.

Then, at the end of December, a somewhat vague directive issued by the General Security Directorate prohibited Syrians registered as refugees with the UNHCR from working.

And those coming to work must, as of now on, be sponsored by a Lebanese employer, who has to arrange a work permit for them. It’s the kafala system.

The General Security Directorate gave no response to our request for further details.

For Ghida Frangieh, a lawyer with the NGO Legal Agenda, “the directive is aimed at only keeping the Syrians that serve Lebanon’s economic interests: the rich, and those who serve the rich, in other words, manual and seasonal workers. The others have become undesirable, as the Labour Ministry only allows Syrians to work in construction, cleaning services and agriculture,” she tells Equal Times.

For Frangieh, this formalisation of Syrian workers with the introduction of a work permit holds very few real advantages.

“It is true that with a permit, if they were unfairly dismissed they would be able to contest it. But I can’t see a Syrian lodging a complaint against a Lebanese employer. As for social security, even if they pay contributions, they have no right to benefit from it as foreigners,” adds the lawyer.

And then they have to obtain the permit. Employers in the construction sector, who have been hiring Syrians without formalities for decades, are dragging their feet.

“The procedures required present numerous problems. For example, the worker has to be domiciled at an address certified by a notary. But most of them live on the constructions sites they are working on!” explains Nadim Asmar, head of the Lebanese public works employers’ association.

Employers also have to stand as the workers’ guarantors for six months, but they often hire them as day labourers. The association has called on Labour Minister Sejean Azzi for more flexibility.

“Lebanese constructors declare the cement and concrete, but they don’t declare the cost of work permits,” denounces the Minister.

“I have told them that if they obtain a work permit for all their Syrian employees, I will be lenient,” he adds.

“Yet, since then, only two companies have come forward. One to declare 17 workers out of a total of 3000, and the other 70.”

With its 11 labour inspectors, the Ministry has not yet penalised a single company for employing undeclared workers.

Employers in Lebanon’s agricultural sector are also opposed to the new system. “Syrians are not managing to find a sponsor to come to Lebanon.

As a result, 70 per cent of the seasonal workers are undeclared,” warns Antoine Hoyek, president of the Lebanese agriculturers’ association.

“Some of them manage, but they are more expensive,” he adds.

In Rayak, a small town in the valley of Bekaa, covered in potato and wheat fields, women are busy pulling up the weeds growing around the lettuces, for LBP 6000 (US$4) for a five hour day.

Despite it being illegal, these women who fled from Salamiyah have no alternative but to work. Here too, the employers haven’t deemed it necessary to declare their Syrian workers.

“The commitment not to work is hard to keep, even for those receiving humanitarian aid,” admits Dana Sleiman, UNHCR spokesperson. “These measures ultimately risk forcing Syrians into clandestinity.”

This is the case for Moussa and his family, who pick potatoes nearby.

“I haven’t renewed my residence permit for three months, as I don’t have the US$200 the General Security Directorate is asking for. The World Food Program gives us US$19 a month to live on. And with my wage of LBP 1,500 (US$1) an hour, I don’t have enough to pay the notary fees to declare a sponsor,” says the forty-something-year-old, from Idlib,a father of seven children who have been working since the age of six.

“There is still a great deal of uncertainty over how this directive will be applied,” admits Ghida Frangieh. “Are employers going to apply for work permits or carry on without? Will Syrians be penalised for working without a permit? Will it be possible to control over a million of them?”

“One thing is certain, this directive is illegal. The General Security Directorate has exceeded its powers, and these measures go against the right of asylum and the principle of non-refoulement.”


This story has been translated from French.