Non-registration and blurred categorization: playing the ‘numbers game’

Knowing who is who and who is where, in other words rendering legible a population, is usually assumed to be the basis for formulating policy. With regard to Syrian refugees, indeed, the Lebanese government, in the ‘Lebanon Partnership Paper' that was published after the Brussels II conference, ‘acknowledges the importance of having accurate data and statistics on the refugees present on its territory.' In practice, however, state authorities seem to have gone out of their way to avoid such legibility by abstaining from refugee registration. No official records of refugees are kept (Menciitek, 2019: 136). This is not simply due to a lack of capacity, but also reflects political will.

As described earlier, in 2011 there was a joint registration of Syrian refugees by the Ministry of Social Affairs and the UNHCR under the auspices of the High Relief Council. This process, however, was short-lived and only regarded North Lebanon. According to an advisor working for a Lebanese ministry, the Ministry of Social Affairs abandoned this because it was found to be too sensitive considering that registration was seen as acknowledging the potentially long-term stay of refugees.19 Apparently, there was another attempt at centralized registration of refugees by the same ministry in 2015, but this initiative was never actually implemented. While the relevant office in the ministry was created, a civil society representative who closely followed this initiative explained, it was never seriously supported or capacitated.20 Since 2017, there has been persistent talk of a national census of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, to be implemented by the Ministry of Interior, but so far this has not occurred either.

Thus, the General Security has monitored the entrance of Syrians at official border crossings and keeps track of Syrians' residency status, but the many people who entered ‘illegally’ elude these ‘registrations.’ Since 2014 municipalities are supposed to register the Syrian refugees present in their area, but, as the next chapter will show, such local registration is neither systematically controlled nor formally accumulated in a central database or overview. Central and official registration, instead, was left to the UNHCR. When, in 2015, UN-registered refugees counted more than the symbolic threshold of one million refugees, however, the government ordered the UNHCR to stop registration?1 The fact that the Lebanese state has not only refrained from registration itself, but has also barred other organizations from doing so shows once more that Lebanon's non-registration of Syrian refugees is not merely due to resource problems, but reflects a choice for inaction.

Non-registration means that the Lebanese state does not have formal knowledge on the Syrian refugee population on its territory: ‘Hundreds of thousands of people have become invisible to the authorities, absent from the state’s registers, and outside of the state’s purview’ (Frangieh, 2017). The UNHCR states that in early 2018 there were 995,512 Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Yet this number does not include refugees that arrived after the UNHCR was ordered to stop its registration.22 According to the 2017 LCRP, the country has ‘welcomed around 1.5 million refugees’ from Syria. Considering that the LCRP is coproduced by the UN and the Lebanese government, the Lebanese state thus admits the existence of some 500,000 non-registered refugees (Janmyr and Mourad, 2018a: 556).

The lack of definite and reliable statistics when it comes to the presence of Syrian refugees in Lebanon was a constant in my interviews. A Lebanese consultant working on Lebanon’s engagement with Syrian refugees lamented:

Everyone from the officials [is] saying different numbers about the number of refugees. If you go to hear the ministers or to hear the President or even the Prime Minister, you will listen to different numbers. There is no one number that you can present about the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.23

Officially, then, no one knows how many Syrian refugees there are in Lebanon. The crux here, however, is the word ‘officially.’ My interlocutors were confident that an official central database was no prerequisite for state (security) agencies to be able to know what they needed to know about refugees. They stressed that regardless of the lack of official registration, information on refugees is gathered in various ways - ranging from registration at the border, status renewal procedures with the General Security, surveillance at checkpoints and through raids by the State Security and police, and municipal registers. A former representative of the Minister of State for Displaced Affairs described this simultaneous formal ignorance and informal awareness as 'it’s like what we know and what we don’t know at the same time; so it’s not officially said, but it’s known.’24

This shows that registration is not about generating information but about allocating entitlement. State authorities avoid formal registration not because they have no interest in information about refugees, but because they have an interest in being able to formally deny such information in order to shirk responsibility. Non-registration has helped to avoid any impression of the government bestowing formal refugee rights and status on Syrians.

As noted before, Syrian refugees in Lebanon are not recognized as official refugees by the government, but they face intricate alternative classification and labeling dynamics. The ‘complexities and uncertainties' involved in these dynamics, Menciitek (2019: 151) notes, 'itself serve as a means of restrictive governance in Lebanon. ' The multiplicity of these different labels and the overlap between the various categorizations means that the legal, institutional, and political status of refugees becomes conditional and often arbitrary. Janmyr and Mourad (2018b) conclude: ‘The blurring of categories makes conditions for refugees precarious.’ The latest LCRP, for instance, includes a statement that 'Lebanon reserves its sovereign right to determine their [Syrians’] status according to Lebanese laws and regulations.’ As Janmyr (2018: 397) notes, however, considering the absence of laws and regulations for refugees in Lebanon, 'it is unclear exactly on what basis ... the government seeks to assert status determination.’Authorities can thus shift between the different readings and interpretations as they please.

The political 'utility' of non-registration goes beyond shirking responsibility (Janmyr and Mourad, 2018a: 556). Not having an undisputed number of refugees also generates leeway for state authorities to pursue different interests vis-à-vis different audiences. The fact that the Lebanese government does not formally register refugees and does not provide stable and legally valid categories for Syrian refugees allows Lebanese authorities to play a 'numbers game.' One former advisor to the Ministry of Social Affairs voiced his surprise regarding the fact that:

During all these meetings that all these ministries and agencies had [on how to deal with the refugee crisis] at no moment the central administration of statistics was invited. They were absolutely never invited to attend any of these meetings. And [they] never asked or any donor provided them any kind of money so that they can do the survey.

When I asked him why, his simple conclusion was that 'they want to keep [things] fluid, for political reasons.’25 An advisor to the Prime Minister's Office explained how the registration stop since 2015 and the withdrawal of UNHCR registration of refugees that he claimed were 'commuting' between Syria and Lebanon meant that 'for the first time the number dropped to below one million. Registered.’26 Only to add that: 'We still believe there are a few hundred thousand not registered and unofficially present in the country.’ Such ambiguity allows state representatives to point towards the official UNHCR registration when it suits them and disregard these same registered numbers in favour of a much higher ‘unknown’ number of ‘actual’ refugees at other times.

For internal Lebanese consumption, numbers on the lower spectrum of the estimate are routinely used to testify to the impact of the government's more tough response since 2014. The October policy of that year, after all, made it a priority to decrease the number of Syrian refugees in the country by all possible means, and the subsequent entry and residency regimes have clearly sought to realize this goal. Thus, as several humanitarian experts have explained, Lebanese state officials use the minimal UNHCR-registered number to insist that there are fewer than a million refugees in the country in their public political discourse. A former representative of the office of the Minister of State for Displaced Affairs explained that the Minister, as well as other state agencies, is aware of the fact that there are many non-registered refugees. She said:

The reality is that there are plenty of non-registered Syrian refugees that entered based on a tourist visa or medical visa or any other kind of visa and are now either, like, without residency or illegally across the borders. So they are there. Yeah. We don’t see them on paper, but they are there.27

This, however, she reflected, does not stop some politicians from claiming that ‘their policy of halting registration to decrease the number . . . showed a good result.’

In engagements with humanitarian agencies and donors, state officials stress high numbers of refugees to illustrate the need for continued aid. The same officials that claim there are fewer than a million Syrians in Lebanon when addressing domestic media, acknowledge that there are de facto some 1.5 million refugees in the closed-door planning meetings they have with the humanitarian community. A protection officer working for a Lebanese human rights organization explained that when she confronted state officials that she engaged with in inter-agency coordination meetings with the unlikeliness of their claim that there were as many as three million Syrian refugees residing in the country, they told her outright: ‘You can’t know that.’28 Lack of solid numbers problematizes the development of a solid rationale for allocating aid and thus enhance the discretionary power of state officials (Atallah and Mahdi, 2017: 39). At a conference on ‘refugees and social cohesion,’ a ministerial advisor admitted that ‘yes, we exaggerate the numbers to get more aid as well as for politics reasons.’29

In practice, then, the government accepts the number of 1.5 million refugees mentioned in the latest LCRP when it comes to emphasizing the burden Syrian refugees constitute to Lebanon's society and infrastructure, but denies it when it comes to identifying those in need of refugee protection (Janmyr, 2018). The utilization of such discrepancy, a development expert offered, was enabled by the creation of what she called an ‘ambiguous space’ in which ‘different claims could be made also by the government in terms of how many refugees are actually in the country' that could not actually be disputed despite their contradictory and often unlikely nature.30 In response to my question of why no inclusive, central registration system was in place, a policy advisor to the Minister of State of Displaced Affairs explained that there was no political will to work towards such undisputed registration:

Now, let me tell you frankly. Not having one figure will open the door to more manipulation. At all levels. To minimize or to maximize. That’s it. It’s very clear. . . . It's a game of minimization and maximization. And this is a manipulation. And now we're near the election. Maybe they want this to manipulate more?1

Such ‘minimization and maximization' and the strategically ambiguous numbers game it reflects allows the government to shirk responsibility and enables the vulnerability that makes refugees controllable, exploitable, and deportable.

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