Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Categorising Syrians in Lebanon as 'Vulnerable'

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Categorising Syrians in Lebanon as 'Vulnerable'

Article excerpt

M, a Syrian man in his mid-30s, living with two children, his wife and his mother, had not received food aid in over a year. He wondered what it was that made his family ineligible for assistance when neighbours had told him that if there was only one provider for five dependents then you were eligible. "I just don't understand why I was cut off [from assistance]", he said. "You're supposed to be a family of five, and we are five. And there's no one else to provide for the family. My neighbours, they are still [receiving assistance], and they have two males who can work." Meanwhile, M's brother, who had two children and a wife, continued to receive aid. Was it because his brother's wife was sick? Or was it that his own household had three adults? M did not know what made him and his family ineligible for food aid and, in many ways, such lack of clarity is intentional.

Access to food aid for Syrian refugees in Lebanon is, like many other humanitarian assistance programmes, determined by an assessment of a family's or individual's 'vulnerability'. Driven in large part by a scarcity of resources, this practice is inspired by the notion of 'triage' as used in emergency medicine to classify individuals based on priorities.1 While it has become widely used by humanitarian actors, the exact criteria used to determine eligibility is kept obscure intentionally, in part to prevent people making false claims based on the criteria and in part because these criteria, or 'cut-offs', change with each new round of donor and budgetary assessments.

UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) and other humanitarian actors employ vulnerability assessments as a means of screening to reduce the number of people eligible for protection and/or resettlement. The effect of these categorisations, however, goes well beyond determining access to humanitarian programmes and services. Our research with Syrian refugees in Lebanon, conducted over 24 months between 2013 and 2017, suggests that differentiating individuals based on these criteria has consequences well beyond questions of humanitarian access, even affecting how Syrian refugees perceive themselves.

Syrian refugees in Lebanon are generally in a deeply precarious social and legal situation. Lebanon has long refused to ratify the key refugee protection instruments, the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. It also lacks any meaningful legislation on asylum issues. While UNHCR has been able to operate in the country since 1963, in 2015 the Lebanese government suspended all UNHCR registration processes for Syrian refugees. UNHCR still considers most Syrians in Lebanon as refugees but has in practice come to differentiate between registered, unregistered and what it terms 'recorded' refugees, i.e. those who have approached UNHCR after the government's ban on new registrations. This means that of the approximately 1.5 million Syrian refugees, only roughly two thirds are actually registered with UNHCR. Importantly, these three groups have varying access to protection and assistance.

Only registered refugees receive a UNHCR registration certificate. Following the introduction of Lebanon's new residency policy for Syrian nationals in 2015, possession of this documentation became one of two means for Syrians to renew their residency in Lebanon, the other being to secure a sponsor under the kefala system as an economic migrant. This 2015 policy made the renewal or regularisation of stay so onerous and expensive a process that a considerable number of Syrians are unable to renew their permits and are consequently forced to reside irregularly in the country - that is, without legal permission or documentation. The Lebanon Crisis Response Plan 2017-2020 estimates that 60% of those over the age of 15 lack legal residency, an increase from 47% in January 2016.

Constructing vulnerability

The categorisation of certain individuals as 'vulnerable' has been critical to the broader humanitarian governance of Syrians in Lebanon, where targeted assistance was put in place as early as 2013. …

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