Access to Legal Residency for Refugees in the Middle East: Bureaucracy, Deterrence, and Prolonged Impermanence

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Access to legal residency is an important consideration for any non-citizen, and particularly so for refugees who by definition cannot return to their home country. In theory, residency status in a host state should be accompanied by legal safeguards, and may sometimes include access to state civil and social resources or the ability to obtain formal employment. But the ease with which refugees can access residency is often taken for granted in receiving countries in North America or Europe, as the process of receiving asylum generally also entails access to residence. Conversely, many Middle East and North Africa (MENA) host countries have delegated refugee status determination to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (U.N.H.C.R.), and the process for receiving asylum-seeker or refugee status is generally separate from receiving a residency permit.

The more than four million refugees presently residing in Middle East and North Africa host states often have difficulty accessing residency due to several factors, including bureaucratic barriers, prohibitive application costs, and policies designed to intentionally exclude them from the national residence system. This essay explores how states such as Egypt only issue permits for very limited periods of time, states such as Turkey make residency contingent upon remaining in one geographic region, and states such as Lebanon make the process so expensive and burdensome that refugees are effectively forced to remain in an irregular status. While sometimes these barriers only have mild implications because residency permits are not frequently checked by host state authorities, in many cases the consequences can be dire.


Egypt is host to at least 267,000 refugees, including between 140,000 to 240,000 Syrians. Egypt tends to turn a blind eye to its refugee population and generally refrains from providing state-funded services directly to individuals, aside from limited access to education and healthcare for certain refugee nationalities.[1] Given the many political and social challenges facing the country, refugees are often treated as “one more problem” that the government would rather not have to deal with. But ambivalence in terms of service provision does not mean that the Egyptian state is unaware of certain gains derived from hosting refugees. Primarily, international migration organizations like the U.N.H.C.R. and the International Organization for Migration (I.O.M.), in addition to smaller migrant-focused international NGOs, bring in international funding that also translates into development funding for the broader Egyptian populace. These entities also directly provide essential services for refugees that the Egyptian government might otherwise have to provide itself.

The perverse incentive to keep refugees reliant upon international aid is illustrated through the residency permit system. 

The perverse incentive to keep refugees reliant upon international aid is illustrated through the residency permit system. When conducting interviews in Egypt in 2014, refugees of all nationalities described the increasing difficulty of obtaining a residency permit in Egypt. After registering with the U.N.H.C.R. refugees are required to obtain a residence permit from the centrally located mogamma building in Cairo. One Eritrean refugee complained, ‘Before the revolution [the permit] was for one year or even more, but after the revolution it’s always for six months.’ In response to a question about whether the state would consider lengthening this time period, a government official explained, ‘Extending it toward one year or more means that the government may be responsible for normalizing the situation of refugees, without being equipped by international help in this regard.’[2] Egypt thus has little incentive to officially integrate refugees if doing so may mean less international aid channeled into the country. Like many ‘transit’ countries, Egypt is concerned about the permanence of refugee populations, even as Western countries are increasingly relying on countries such as Egypt to host them indefinitely. Many refugees will end up spending 5-10 years in a country like Egypt, yet the government is not willing to consider formal integration as a policy solution, continuing to insist that these individuals will be resettled to a third country. As a Ministry of Foreign Affairs representative affirmed, “It’s what governs us…that they stay here on a temporary basis with renewal until their situation has changed, over time.”[3]

Aside from needing a residence permit to protect against arbitrary arrest and possible deportation, service-provision in Egypt is now linked to having a residency permit. One difficulty complicating this arrangement is that processing times for obtaining a residency permit are unreliable. As a program officer with Catholic Relief Services in Cairo explained, obtaining a permit from the mogamma can take, “…forever and they keep saying, next week, next week.”[4] The education projects for refugees run by Catholic Relief Services are funded by the U.N.H.C.R., and as such, no refugee can obtain an education grant without both a refugee card and a residence permit issued by the government.


Turkey currently hosts more than three million Syrian refugees and approximately 500,000 refugees of other nationalities.[5] While neither Syrian nor non-Syrian refugees qualify for full refugee status in Turkey as a result of the geographical limitations Turkey holds to the 1951 Refugee Convention, non-Syrian refuges fall into a different legal category than Syrians.

Non-Syrian refugees are subject to a dual system for refugee recognition: one run by a Turkish governmental body called the Directorate General for Migration Management (DGMM) and another run by the U.N.H.C.R. Once refugees have registered for conditional protection status with Turkish authorities, they are then assigned to one of the approximately sixty ‘satellite cities’ that have been appointed by the Turkish government as temporary residences for refugees, most of which are located in Turkey’s internal provinces. The ability for refugees to move throughout the country is limited via a signature system: each week refugees are required to go to the registration point in the city to provide a signature, proving that they still reside in their assigned location. Refugees are given access to health care and schools while they reside in satellite cities, and, depending upon the province, they may be eligible for a modest stipend. Yet even for those who receive a stipend, it is not usually enough to cover the cost of living in the satellite city. There are also few work opportunities in these small cities and many refugees decide to leave their assigned location in search of informal employment in Istanbul or one of Turkey’s other metropolises. Yet by leaving the assigned city and failing to register their signature, they risk forfeiting their right to protection in Turkey. A U.N.H.C.R. official explained that failing to provide a signature means, “…their file is closed, and then they have to appeal for a decision, and that will take them down a very difficult path. If they miss the signature duty for a period of three times, their file will be closed.”[6]

The ability for refugees to move throughout the country is limited via a signature system ... even for those who receive a stipend, it is not usually enough to cover the cost of living ...

Unlike other refugee groups, Syrians in Turkey are not subject to the satellite city system and are allowed greater freedom of movement in Turkey. Their cases are handled solely by the Directorate General for Migration Management and its provincial offices, and refugee status determination for Syrians is conducted by the government rather than the U.N.H.C.R. Syrians are legally tied to their city of registration and are required to seek a travel permit before traveling or moving to another province, but the primary factor tying Syrians to a specific location is that they can only receive access to full health care services and education for children in their initial city of registration.[7] Prior to the outbreak of the Syrian conflict, Syrian nationals were able to enter Turkey without obtaining a visa; however, as of January 1, 2015, Syrians are able to remain in Turkey for a maximum of ninety days without a residence permit. Those wanting to stay longer must either obtain a temporary residence permit or register for temporary protection status.[8] If Syrians overstay their residence period in Turkey they can be fined up to 570 Turkish liras (US$250), though refugees who remain in Turkey and do not try to cross back to Syria are unaffected by this new legislation.

One of the effects of the promulgation of Turkey’s new foreigners law in 2014 was the elimination of a humanitarian residency permit that had regulated the residency of Syrians, and the introduction of a new identification document, yabancı tanıtma belgesi, specifically for Syrian nationals.[9] Yet a major deterrent for Syrians in registering with Turkish authorities and applying for an identification card is that many refugees still hope to go to Europe. If they are registered in Turkey and then travel to a European country, these individuals will most likely be refouled (returned) to Turkey because it is their initial country of application for protection. As such, many individuals remain unregistered and without access to services or state protection.


While Egypt is a full signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and Turkey is a signatory with limitations, Lebanon never signed the Convention. As such, the approximately 1.6 million Syrians in Lebanon, as well as other nationalities requiring protection,[10] do not technically qualify as refugees. Prior to January 2015 Lebanon maintained an open border policy toward Syrians, but this changed following a decision by the Council of Ministers in October 2014. The purpose of this change in policy was to halt the influx of Syrian refugees, to encourage Syrians who were already in Lebanon to return to Syria, and to limit the number of U.N.H.C.R. registered Syrians in Lebanon.[11] As a further means of deterrence the Government of Lebanon also requested on May 6, 2015 that the U.N.H.C.R. halt its registration of Syrians, whereas previously Syrian refugees who entered Lebanon could choose to register at the UNHCR for resettlement eligibility and UN protection. This decision left Syrians with few options for obtaining any kind of status in Lebanon.

In order to renew residency permits, Syrians have to provide cumbersome documentation including a valid passport or identification card, an entry slip, and a return card, in addition to paying approximately $200 for a one-time, six-month renewal.

According to Human Rights Watch, these new regulations sort Syrians seeking to renew residency permits into two categories: those registered with U.N.H.C.R., and those who are not, who must instead find a Lebanese sponsor to remain legally in the country.[12] In order to renew residency permits, Syrians have to provide cumbersome documentation including a valid passport or identification card, an entry slip, and a return card, in addition to paying approximately $200 for a one-time, six-month renewal.[13] For most Syrians, this is not a feasible or affordable option. However, remaining in Lebanon without a residency permit confines the ability for Syrians to move freely in the country and leaves them subject to arrest and ill treatment if detained.[14]

A lack of legal status may also prevent children from accessing primary education. Lebanon has taken important steps to include Syrian children in the public education system: in 2010 the Ministry of Education issued a memorandum to Lebanese public schools to enroll Syrian students regardless of their legal status and waived school enrollment fees.[15] However, Human Rights Watch found that this policy has failed in its implementation, with some school directors continuing to deny children without legal status the ability to enroll or imposing additional documentation requirements.[16] Long distances to state-run schools also prevent some Syrian parents without legal residency from sending their children across checkpoints that they themselves cannot safely cross without fear of arrest and detention.[17]


Access to legal residency is a critical aspect of seeking a livelihood or engaging in social and community activities, yet remains a challenge for many refugees in Middle East and North Africa host states. This article highlights some of the various difficulties refugees in the region face in obtaining legal status, including: bureaucratic barriers, residency that is tied to geographic immobility, prohibitive application costs, or policies designed to intentionally exclude them from the national residence system. With countries in Europe and North America failing to significantly increase refugee resettlement rates, and with some countries such as Australia taking even further measures to ensure that refugees will not successfully reach their territory,[18] the issue of long-term residence in Middle East and North Africa host countries will only become more pertinent going forward. To borrow from the recommendations developed at the workshop on forced migration at the LSE Middle East Centre in June 2016,[19] state authorities in MENA host countries should adopt regulations that recognize a uniform legal status for all persons unable to return to their home country for the time being. This status should allow access to an automatic and inexpensive residence permit. Where this is a burdensome responsibility for developing host states, international agencies should step in to facilitate and fund the process.

[1] Specifically, Sudanese and Syrian refugee children are entitled to access state-run primary education in Egypt.

[2] Author interview with official, Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Cairo, Egypt. November 11, 2014.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Author interview with Shady Ramadan, Catholic Relief Services. Cairo, Egypt. October 22, 2014.

[5] European Commission, “Turkey: Refugee Crisis,” ECHO Fact Sheet, accessed November 15, 2016,

[6] Author interview with Fatih Alkadah, U.N.H.C.R. Istanbul, Turkey. May 15, 2015.

[7] Syrians can receive emergency health services outside of their city of registration.

[8] Non-European refugees in Turkey are granted ‘conditional’ status, ‘temporary protection,’ or ‘humanitarian residence,’ but do not qualify as full refugees under the 1951 Convention.

[9] U.N.H.C.R., “Legal Framework for Syrian Refugees in Turkey,” January 2015, accessed November 27, 2016,

[10] U.N.H.C.R., Lebanon, last updated September 30, 2016, accessed November 15, 2016,

[11] Filippo Dionigi. “The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon: State Fragility and Social Resilience,” LSE Middle East Centre Paper Series 15, February 2016.

[12] “‘I Just Wanted to be Treated like a Person:’ How Lebanon’s Residency Rules Facilitate Abuse of Syrian Refugees,” Human Rights Watch, January 12, 2016, accessed November 15, 2016,

[13] “Formal Informality, Brokering Mechanisms, and Illegality. The Impact of the Lebanese State’s Policies on Syrian Refugees’ Daily Lives,” Lebanon Support 2016, accessed November 15, 2016,

[14] “‘I Just Wanted to be Treated like a Person:’ How Lebanon’s Residency Rules Facilitate Abuse of Syrian Refugees.”

[15] “‘Growing Up Without an Education:’ Barriers to Education for Syrian Refugees in Lebanon,” Human Rights Watch, July 19, 2016, accessed November 15, 2016,

[16] Ibid.

[17] “‘I Just Wanted to be Treated like a Person:’ How Lebanon’s Residency Rules Facilitate Abuse of Syrian Refugees.”

[18] See for example, Michelle Innis. “Australia’s Proposed Lifetime Ban on Refugees Draws Fire,” The New York Times, October 31, 2016, accessed November 15, 2016,

[19] “The Long-Term Challenges of Forced Migration: Perspectives from Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq: Key Recommendations,” LSE Middle East Centre Collected Papers Volume 6, September 2016, accessed November 15, 2016,