Lebanese Municipalities: Regulating Refugee Presence is “Our Jurisdiction”
Before closing his vegetables shop located in Beirut’s southern suburb [Dahieh], Syrian refugee Mahmoud, 33 years of age and father of two, depended on his income to secure a living for himself and his family. The municipality sent Mahmoud two warnings to close down his shop, but he ignored them since there is no other way for him to support his family. Finally, a police patrol sealed off the shop with red wax. Since then, Mahmoud has been unemployed and living off of some assistance he receives from his family. Mahmoud knows very little about the Lebanese Labor Law. He does not know the main reason why his shop was closed. Now, six months later, Mahmoud is trying to find a Lebanese sponsor, hoping to secure legal work in Lebanon. He says that, “a sponsor costs at least US$500, not to mention residency fees of LL300,000 [US$198]”.
Mahmoud’s case is not an exception. It is part of the campaign conducted by municipalities to close down Syrian-owned institutions, and force other establishments to dismiss Syrian workers. For example, after a similar campaign in al-Hadath area of Baabda district (Mount Lebanon), it became obvious that all the Syrian workers of one famous cake bakery have been replaced with Lebanese workers. The media circulated the municipalities’ decisions to initiate a campaign to close businesses that are managed by Syrians. These municipalities include Aley in Mount Lebanon, Baysarieh in Saida, Dekwaneh in Metn, Ashqout in Keserwan, and Naameh in Chouf district.
What Legal Authorization?
Since the beginning of 2017, several municipalities in Lebanon have taken action against Syrian refugees working in certain professions restricted to Lebanese citizens. The municipalities either evict them, or close the shops they run. These actions are based on Decision 1/41 issued by the Minister of Labor on January 28, 2017, concerning the definition of professions restricted to Lebanese citizens. Upon contacting these municipalities, they confirmed their jurisdiction in this regard. However, the Municipalities Law does not have any reference as to whether this body has powers to regulate the labor market, or restrict the right of any individual to work. The matter of fact is this falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Labor, exercised through its inspectors. However, Lebanese authorities were content with pitting municipalities against Syrian workers without putting in place a plan to confront the crisis.
Did the Ministry of Labor delegate its powers to the municipalities? And based on what power does the latter act? The Legal Agenda sought clarification about this issue over and over again from Minister of Labor Mohamed Kabara. He kept delaying his response, now weeks into inquiry. It is noteworthy that the decision invoked by the municipalities as a legal instrument for these measures, is one issued annually by the minister of labor to define the professions restricted to Lebanese citizens. The decision issued by Minister Kabara was consistent with Decision No. 1/179 which was issued by former minister Sajaan Azzi in 2016, where Syrians were prohibited from working in all trades and crafts restricted to Lebanese citizens; except for three: agriculture, construction, and environment. Ministry of Labor statistics obtained by The Legal Agenda indicate that the Ministry issued 1,567 work permits for Syrian citizens in 2016 (206 new permits and 1,361 renewed). It also issued 2,150 permits in 2015, and 1,558 in 2014.
For his part, lawyer Nabil Halabi, director of the Lebanese Democratic Human Rights Organization, said that restricting professions to Lebanese citizens is futile. The Lebanese authority does not develop plans that would benefit from the Syrian labor force in these professions. Halabi recalls the European Union’s initiative in the past years to establish waste sorting plants in several areas in Lebanon. He states: “Had these factories been established, they would have created a large number of job opportunities for Syrians, as they depend on manual sorting, especially since the Ministry limited their work to the environment sector.”
In a related context, Halabi believes that the Turkish experience has been successful in dealing with the crisis, where the “Turkish government separated Syrian refugees into two categories. The first one is the most vulnerable and the most in need for protection and assistance. The government provided regular camps and food assistance to this group. As for the second category, Halabi says, “It is the well-to-do class. The Turkish government allowed them to invest in the country and that resulted in creating new job opportunities on the one hand, and contributing to the recovery of the economy on the other”. “Unfortunately the Lebanese government did not adopt this approach; rather, it compared the Syrian situation with that of the [very different] experience of Palestinian camps in Lebanon”, Halabi adds. He then goes on to say that “the Lebanese government could have allowed Syrian investment in Lebanon. They would pay much higher taxes, and the government would require them to employ three Lebanese for every foreign employee”.
Municipalities Carrying Out Their “Duties”
In this context, despite the lack of clarity on the part of the Ministry with regard to the delegation of legal powers authorizing municipalities to play this role, Mayor of Dekwana in the district of Metn (Mount Lebanon) Antoine Shakhtoura says it is the duty of the municipality to comply with all the decisions of the Ministry of Labor. He goes on to say that “these procedures are our prerogative even without a circular from the Ministry of Interior”. He adds that “the Ministry of Interior has asked them by mail to take the necessary measures” pursuant to the professions restriction decision issued by the Ministry of Labor, after publication in the Official Gazette. Shakhtoura goes on to say that, “some 70 businesses hiring Syrians have been questioned, and around 20 Syrian-run businesses have been closed in Dekwana”. Shakhtoura then says that “some Lebanese resort to trickery by renting their shops to Syrians, claiming that the latter work for them, while the reality is that these Syrians are the ones who run the shops. In this case, we close down the institution”.
Nazih Ali Abed, head of the Baysarieh municipality in Saida district (South Governorate) says: “The Lebanese population of the town is 4,500 while the number of Syrians is up to 8,000”, adding that “there is a state of confusion between the residents and the Syrians”. Ali Abed appeals to the Lebanese state for help, suggesting that it “take a step with the Syrian government to secure a safe refuge for them in Syria”. He goes on to say that “some 33 shops run by Syrians have been closed, including shops selling butter, chicken, household items, and others.” He points out that this measure is to protect Syrians as they make up the largest number of foreigners in the village, adding that the municipality has warded off a street clash between Baysarieh residents and Syrians; especially since locals had smashed Syrian-run shops in other municipalities. Obviously, these measures are exclusively towards the refugees, not Syrians who lived in Lebanon before the crisis, as his statements indicate. On that, Ali Abed says: “There are Syrians that have been running shops in the town since before the crisis, and they have not been attacked…The main problem is regarding those who do not have work permits.”
Children and Husbands of Lebanese Women
The Ministry of Labor’s circular has even affected the children of Lebanese mothers and their [foreign] husbands. According to the “My Nationality is a Right for Me and My Family” campaign, there have been several cases of dismissal of employees from this category based on the decision of the Ministry of Labor. On April 5, 2017, the campaign organizers carried out a sit-in in front of the Ministry of Labor.
In this context, campaign leader Karima Chebbo stressed that “inspectors of the Ministry of Labor are directing warnings to workers born to Lebanese mothers or married to a Lebanese wife, and these measures amount to expulsion from work”. “Before the sit-in, the campaign had already met with the minister of labor who promised that the ministry would work on organizing and facilitating the work of children and husbands of Lebanese women, considering Lebanese give preference for work to this category”, she reiterates. Chebbo emphasizes that “the minister of labor was positive and decided to instruct the ministry’s inspectors to make an exception for those born of Lebanese mothers and their husbands”.
The irony is that after the campaign’s meeting with the minister, they still received complaints from citizens. Chebbo states that the campaign documented several cases in which the municipalities and the ministry’s inspectors directed warnings to employees from these categories, even reaching to the point of expelling them from work. She speaks of a Lebanese woman married to a foreigner. The woman owns a shop where she works with her husband and son. The latter two have been recently arrested by the ministry of labor which considered them foreign workers. Another case documented by the campaign is about a young man born to a Lebanese mother. He has worked for an organization in Beirut for years, yet the Furn El Chebbak municipality gave him a warning to regularize his status; otherwise he would be subject to expulsion from work. The municipality’s police officer signed the warning which included the phrase: “at the request of the minister of labor”. Chebbo stresses that the complaints received are by citizens of different nationalities, including British, Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian, noting that the ministry’s decision is “not exclusive to Syrians, as the media circulates”.
On this matter, lawyer Ghida Frangieh of The Legal Agenda sees that current labor laws do not do justice to Lebanese women whose [foreign] husbands and children are still treated as foreigners. They are still required to obtain a work permit from the Ministry of Labor as well as a courtesy residency from the public security. Article 3 of the minister of labor’s decision which is issued every year allows the minister to exclude Lebanese children from professions restricted to Lebanese citizens. However, they must obtain a work permit to benefit from this exception.
 See: Laure Ayoub’s, “Baladiyyat al-Hadath Tolzim Bitard “Lajiʾin Suriyyin” Min ʿmalihim: “Notabbiq Qarar al-Wazir”, The Legal Agenda, March 1, 2017.
 Law No. 1/41 issued by the Minister of Labor on January 1, 2017 concerning professions restricted to Lebanese citizens, published in the Official Gazette, Issue No. 7, February 9, 2017.
 Ministry of Labor, Minister Kabara received ILO Regional Director, January 8, 2017, see: https://goo.gl/qG6Uva.