Lebanon imposes visa restrictions on Syrians for first time

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Umm Ali's children who fled the violence in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, play at the entrance of their tent at an unofficial refugee camp in Jabaa, a village in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon on December 20, 2014. AFP/Anwar Amro

Published Monday, January 5, 2015

Overwhelmed by a massive influx of desperate refugees, Lebanon began imposing unprecedented visa restrictions on Syrians on Monday.

"Today we began implementing the new entry measures and Syrians at the borders have begun presenting their documents to enter," a source at Lebanon's general security agency said.

Lebanon’s population has grown by nearly 25 percent since the war in Syria began in 2011, with over 1.5 million Syrian refugees sheltered in a country with a population of 4 million, making it the highest per capita concentration of refugees in the world.

This is the first time that Lebanon has required Syrians to apply for visas.

Citizens of both countries have been able to travel freely across their shared border since Lebanon gained independence in 1943.

The refugee influx has put huge pressure on the country's already scarce resources and poor infrastructure, education and health systems, and has also contributed to rising tensions in a nation vulnerable to security breaches and instability.

For months, Lebanon's government has sounded the alarm, warning the international community that it could no longer deal with the influx.

The new rule is the latest in a series of measures taken by Lebanon to stem the influx of Syrians fleeing their country's brutal war.

In October, Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas said Lebanon was effectively no longer receiving Syrian refugees, with limited exceptions for "humanitarian reasons.”

'High time' for restrictions

Khalil Jebara, adviser to Lebanon's interior minister, said the country would continue to provide humanitarian exceptions, but that restrictions were needed.

"We respect our international obligations... we will not expel anyone and there will be humanitarian exceptions," he said.

"But it's high time to regulate the issue of Syrians entering Lebanon," he added.

"Their presence imposes a great security, economic and social burden on Lebanon, and pressure that the infrastructure can no longer take."

Unlike Jordan and Turkey, Lebanon declined to create refugee camps, meaning refugees are dispersed throughout the country.

The country has seen its already fragile security situation deteriorate, with jihadists from Syria briefly overrunning Ersal, a border town in eastern Lebanon hosting tens of thousands of refugees, in August and kidnapping 29 Lebanese police and soldiers.

UN refugee agency UNHCR has registered 1.1 million arrivals, but many more are thought to be in the country unregistered, and thousands have entered Lebanon through illegal crossings.

Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre think-tank, said the visa measures were a result of Lebanon's failure to implement a refugee policy early in the Syrian conflict.

Politicians have been forced to act now by the increasing economic and social pressure the influx has caused, she said.

"It was simply taken by politicians in order to reach out to constituents who have grown unhappy with the impact of the refugees on the country."

Palestinian refugees

Khatib said Lebanese concern about the refugee influx was "both real and exaggerated."

Wages have gone down and rents have increased, but Lebanese employers have exploited Syrians willing to work for lower wages, she said.

Lebanon is also marked by its experience with Palestinian refugees who were forced out of their land by the Israeli occupation in 1948.

More than 400,000 Palestinians, mostly descendants of the original refugees, remain in squalid and largely lawless camps in Lebanon.

Syria's ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdul Karim Ali, said his country understood the new rules, but urged "coordination" with Damascus, in a statement quoted by Lebanon's National News Agency.

UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond said new refugee registrations had already dropped after Lebanon imposed restrictions last year.

He said the agency understood the government's reasons for the rules but would work with Lebanon to ensure "refugees aren't being pushed back into situations where their lives are in danger."

(AFP, Al-Akhbar)


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