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BEIRUT (Reuters) - New rules in Lebanon, which has the highest per capita concentration of refugees in the world, have left many thousands of them at risk of abuse from landlords and detention at any time, aid workers and a rights group say.
Four years of civil war across the border in Syria means that one in every four people now in Lebanon is a refugee. Many live in extreme poverty and face hostility and resentment in the fragile Mediterranean state, which has long dominated by its bigger neighbor and suffered civil war itself from 1975-90.
The new policy, implemented this year, requires Syrians entering Lebanon to obtain visas -- before they could come and go with ease -- and the process for renewing residency permits for those already here is impassable for many, aid workers and Syrians warn.
Unless they are sponsored by a company, Syrians now have to provide several documents, including a signed pledge not to work and a rental agreement from their landlord. Without these, they can be arrested and detained in prison for, refugees say, weeks at a time.
"This legislation has the potential to create abuse," says Dana Sleiman, a Beirut-based spokeswoman for the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.
"We have received reports of alleged abuse by landlords such as bribes and labor in exchange for signing the housing commitment."
This happened to Amer, a 31-year-old Syrian who works in restaurants in the capital. He lives in a two bedroom apartment with four others and has been unregistered for three months.
"When we asked the landlord to sign a rental contract, he said: 'I can't do it, if I sign a rental contract, I will have to pay the municipality and taxes, it will cost me. Or you can pay me double the rent'.”
Now Amer tries not to move around much and fears arrest every time he sees a policeman or a soldier.
Aid workers, speaking on condition of anonymity to allow them to talk about a sensitive subject, say that unregistered Syrians are afraid to contact the police if they are evicted or abused by their landlords or employers.
Lebanon is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and has not allowed the United Nations to set up formal camps.
Refugees rent or live in abandoned buildings, or rent farmland collectively and pitch tents in unofficial camps. The United Nations and other aid organizations have praised Beirut for its efforts, especially for educating Syrian children in Lebanese schools.
The government says the new rules were introduced because it cannot cope with the number of Syrians flooding across the border and has asked for funds to help look after them.
The pledge not to work is meant to separate genuine refugees from economic migrants, it said. But UNHCR's Sleiman said it can end up taking away Syrians' earning potential.
"Thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Syrians are living in Lebanon without a legal permit and they just try to avoid checkpoints," says lawyer Diala Chehade, Deputy Director of the Center for Defending Civil Rights and Liberties.
"Many Syrians cannot acquire this legal status," she said, arguing that many do not have valid identification, another requirement under the new rules.
She says poorer refugees in particular will not be able to sign a rental contract: "Many Syrians stay in camps. How can they provide the documents?"
Her Syrian clients try to not go out at night, she says. Others stay indoors for days to avoid the police. Many, she says, paid hundreds of dollars for forged passports. She estimates between 100 and 150 are arrested each month.
Khalil Gebara, an advisor to the minister of interior, acknowledged some difficulties with the new rules of which he said the most limiting is a $200 residency renewal fee that many Syrians are unable to pay.
To combat this, the ministry waived the fee for a few months last year and 27,000 Syrians renewed their residency. "We are also trying to find a way to facilitate the rental contract," he told Reuters.
Gebara said that illegal Syrians who are detained are given a deadline to renew their residency. He did not say how long the average detention time was. Asked what happens if they miss this deadline and are stopped at a checkpoint, he said: "the same," adding there is no deportation policy for Syrians.
The Lebanese government has struggled to provide for the refugees during a period of economic slowdown.
Politicians also fret about the mainly Sunni Muslim refugees' impact on Lebanon's delicate sectarian balance, in which power is carefully divided between Christians, Shi'ite Muslims, Sunnis, and other, smaller groups.
More than 60 years ago, it took in tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees from the war of Israel's creation. They have now grown to hundreds of thousands, their camps turned into permanent, squalid slums.
The militarization of Palestinian camps is also widely seen as a catalyst of Lebanon's own 15-year civil war.
Lebanon's media and some political figures frame the current refugee crisis as a similar security issue and not a humanitarian one. These fears were heightened after militants invaded a town where many of the displaced live in August and battled the army for several days. Now many Lebanese accuse refugees of harboring militants.
Others say they are taking jobs, driving down wages, overloading hospitals and even the power grid despite long-standing infrastructure problems that predate the Syrian conflict.
At the same time, some municipalities have imposed nighttime curfews on refugees.
Nearly four million Syrians have fled a civil war that has destroyed much of the country and all sides have been accused of rights abuses and attacks on civilians. Hundreds have drowned trying to reach Europe.
But Syrians who reach Lebanon are barely coping. One of the young beggars who now walk the streets of Beirut, Ahmed, told Reuters his father was dead and he had fled Aleppo in northern Syria with his mother.
He begs until dawn when he returns to a southern suburb.
His clothes hard with dirt and grease, he was unable to keep his eyes open as drunk bar-goers stuffed small change into his hand. Exhausted, he let some of the money slip and it fell down a gutter. He was seven, he muttered.
Additional reporting by Issam Abdallah; Editing by Philippa Fletcher