Faraj Al Ali, 43, from the Babr Amr neighborhood of Homs, Syria, sits with his daughters Bushra, 11, and Ayesha, 6, in a tent in an informal refugee settlement near Tripoli, Lebanon, in 2015. (Photo by Sam Tarling for The Washington Post)

As the war in Syria rages on, Syrian refugees in neighboring countries face increasingly restrictive conditions. Alarming debates surrounding the return of Syrian refugees to their home country have reemerged in Lebanon, which hosts approximately 1.5 million Syrians. But who is designated as a refugee? This critical yet understudied issue of labels can impact lives. When Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri states that no Syrian refugees will be forcibly returned, who exactly is including and excluding?

In new research, we examine the many categorizations that shape the lives of Syrians in Lebanon today and how these labels have been constructed. We draw on our extensive fieldwork in Lebanon between 2013 and 2017, including interviews with United Nations, government and local officials as well as Syrian refugees and migrants.

Registration with U.N. Refugee Agency key to legal protection

Perhaps most importantly in the lives of Syrians in Lebanon is the question of whether or not they are registered by the U.N. Refugee Agency, UNHCR, as a “refugee.” If registered and provided a UNHCR certificate, Syrians can renew their residency in Lebanon without a local sponsor and without the prohibitively expensive $200 annual renewal fee required of Syrians who are not registered.

In May 2015, the Lebanese government suspended UNHCR’s registration of Syrian refugees, which reduced the share of officially “registered” refugees. Though they no longer receive a certificate, Syrians who have arrived at UNHCR offices since are still considered “recorded.” This categorization provides them access to similar humanitarian aid and support as registered refugees but leaves them in a complex legal gray zone. Despite often being counted in official numbers for the purposes of donor support, they are denied the limited legal protection granted to registered refugees.

“Unregistered” refugees, those who have not approached UNHCR at all, are yet further removed from international protection and face profound challenges to claiming their refugee status.

Syrian refugees are re-categorized as “economic migrants”

Lebanon’s lack of a consistent legal framework has made Syrians vulnerable to vacillating political interests. National authorities often have conflicting political interests — hosting such large numbers of refugees is strategically important when approaching international donors, but politicians also fear Syrians’ long-term presence and potential naturalization. Lebanese political actors have often disagreed with UNHCR’s approach in the country, and generally oppose the idea of Lebanon as a country of asylum. In fact, Lebanon lacks formal domestic refugee legislation and national leaders prefer to use the term “displaced.”

New border regulations enforced beginning January 2015 have resulted in two primary ways for a Syrian to lawfully stay in Lebanon: either registered as a refugee with UNHCR or as an economic migrant under the sponsorship system. Many Syrians have had to obtain residency through the latter category, especially since the suspension of UNHCR registration certificates. In many cases, even when they do have the certificate, they are still required to secure a national sponsor.

As a result, Syrians are increasingly being re-categorized from unregistered or recorded refugees to labor or economic migrants, which lack the same international protections.

Refugees face further restrictions at the local level

Syrians in Lebanon are also subject to a wide array of social categories in the localities where they reside. For local authorities, the visibility of Syrians has emerged as a central concern, particularly evident in curfews targeting Syrians. In many cases, banners announcing curfews refer to foreign workers, Syrian workers or displaced Syrians. Some even specify motorcycles, which have become a class marker, as they are much more affordable than cars.

In popular commentary, these distinctions are all broadly understood as targeting Syrian refugees.

The ambiguity of the distinction between refugees or displaced on one hand and Syrian laborers on the other came up repeatedly in our interviews with municipal and regional authorities. In one case, a district official told us that a municipality we were planning to visit — where over 2,000 Syrian refugees had been registered with UNHCR — “had no refugees.” By that, he meant that most Syrians there had previously been in the village as seasonal laborers and now had returned more permanently with their families. When discussing the presence of refugees within his district, the official referred us to areas that had informal tented settlements. There, he said, there were “real refugees.”

This idea of an idealized, often impoverished, “real” refugee was echoed by many Syrians themselves.

The set of social understandings attached to the label “refugee” has resulted in many Syrians — particularly those in the middle and upper-class — resisting it. In the early years of the crisis, when border regulations were weak and legal stay in Lebanon was easily accessible to all Syrians, many chose not to register with UNHCR, foregoing potential assistance to maintain some sense of personal identity. The costs of not being registered, however, grew over time, particularly as national regulations regarding legal stay changed.

The blurring of categories makes conditions for refugees precarious

Syrians in Lebanon depend on a fragile legal and social order, and current labels structure how individuals from the same refugee population can receive vastly different levels of protection, assistance and recognition. Discussions among states, donors and international humanitarian actors about development support for countries like Lebanon are incomplete without serious consideration of the conditions on the ground. Do refugees within these neighboring states enjoy the conditions of safe refuge they are presumed to be entitled to under international law?

The ongoing blurring of categories, coupled with a heightened security situation on the Syrian-Lebanese border and a growing consensus among Lebanese political elites, have made the conditions for Syrians even more precarious. Any vocal support of Syrian refugees in the country has become increasingly difficult.

Two unprecedented returns of hundreds of Syrian families last year went largely unchallenged. While UNHCR has declared that the current conditions in Syria do not allow for the assumption of a safe return, it has brought itself into the process by conducting return interviews with the second group of returnees in July 2017 and confirming that they were not “coerced to return.”

As the Lebanese government begins to discuss broader plans for a large-scale return, the issue of how and why the category of refugee is used for certain Syrians and not others will likely gain new importance.

Maja Janmyr is a professor of international migration law at the Norwegian Center for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Oslo. You can follow her @MYRMEK.

Lama Mourad is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. You can follow her @lamamourad.