[Published here December 16, 2021]
Lebanon has for the first time eased restrictions on thousands of undocumented workers – but advocates say the long-awaited move fails to protect a community that struggles to survive even on the outer margins of life.
Last week, Lebanese labour minister Mustafa Bayram issued a decision allowing Palestinian refugees, stateless Lebanese, and children born to Lebanese mothers and foreign fathers, to work in some sectors previously reserved for holders of Lebanese IDs.
While similar “exemption” memos have been issued in the past, they only mention Palestinians, who number about 170,000 in Lebanon and mostly live in cramped camps.
Bayram’s decision introduces exemptions for Lebanese who lack IDs – often because they were born out of wedlock or never had their births registered with the state – and children born to foreign fathers and Lebanese mothers, still barred from passing nationality onto their offspring.
By definition, it is difficult to tally Lebanon’s undocumented. Advocacy group Frontiers Rights has built a database of some 2,400 names, but there could be thousands more.
A relaxation on rules governing their ability to work marks a long-overdue step to equality and greater self-sufficiency, though advocates say it still only a tiny first step, especially given the gargantuan scale of Lebanon’s economic collapse.
Since the economic tailspin began in 2019, tens of thousands have lost their jobs and three-quarters of the population has been pushed into poverty.
“This is the first time such a decision brings up stateless people in Lebanon – but the right to work is a basic right, and it should have been available to them anyway,” said Karim Nammour, a researcher at Lebanese advocacy group Legal Agenda.
“Lebanon is going through one of the biggest crises in our history – we need something much more serious than this,” Nammour told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
A VICIOUS CYCLE
Lebanon is not party to the 1954 or 1961 United Nations conventions on the rights of the stateless, nor has it ever issued legislation of its own in this sphere.
Since their births were never registered, stateless Lebanese lack ID papers – an omission with a lifelong knock-on effect, curtailing everything from school to work to banking.
While undocumented children can attend public schools, ‘the undocumented’ need special permission from the education ministry to sit state exams and so graduate.
Half of the undocumented Lebanese in Frontiers Rights’ database have had no formal education.
“Many say they don’t bother getting educated because they can’t get a job – so what’s the incentive to get educated?” Frontiers Rights member Berna Habib said.
Stateless Lebanese don’t have an employee number at the finance ministry and can’t produce a clean criminal record, which most employers require.
They can’t open bank accounts and don’t have access to the National Social Security Fund, to which Palestinians in Lebanon are granted partial access.
That pushes them into the margins of the labour force, with access mostly to low-paying, informal work without a contract or social safety net, said Habib.
There is a path to papers, but it involves a labyrinth of bureaucracy and tests that can be prohibitively expensive.
“Being poor means they stay stateless. It’s a vicious cycle, and it needs to be broken,” said Habib.
Bayram admits his decision may not be enough to do that.
In an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, he said the undocumented would still have to get work permits.
“Everything else would need a new law. I did what I could in my prerogatives as minister. Their right to work is a basic right – I took this decision for humanitarian reasons,” he said.
When asked if he would issue more decrees on labour access for stateless Lebanese in 2022, Bayram said Lebanon’s tumultuous political and economic situation made such ambitions unlikely.
“We need a comprehensive labour policy, but what we can do now are piecemeal efforts,” he said.
Tariq Haq, senior employment policy specialist at the International Labour Organization’s Arab regional office, said the move effectively gives legal cover to employers seeking to hire an undocumented person in certain sectors only.
As a ministerial memo, it carries less weight than legislation passed by parliament and can be amended or cancelled by another memo at any time.
“There is a fragility here. It’s necessary, but not sufficient,” said Haq.
Many of the sectors mentioned in the decision, including high-status medicine and engineering, are regulated by laws that mean jobs are all ring-fenced for Lebanese ID-holders.
Bayram’s memo won’t change engrained bias.
“But what it does do is draw attention to the issue and highlight the need for further legal and institutional reform to address these barriers,” said Haq.
That would mean broadening access to education and training, and establishing a clear, inclusive policy for employment.
“We want to see a situation where opportunity is there for all people resident in the territory to be able to earn a decent living, where the conditions of work are fair and equal, and equal pay and value for workers,” Haq said.