The move is yet another ripple effect of the war that has displaced nearly half Syria’s population – more than three million people have fled to neighbouring countries, primarily Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq.
Lebanon is particularly vulnerable – the country of just 4.5 million people now also has an estimated 1.5 million Syrians within its borders. About 1.1 million of those are registered with the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR. The flood of refugees has placed a tremendous strain on Lebanon’s economy, resources, infrastructure and delicate sectarian balance.
Lebanese officials have said the country simply cannot absorb more refugees. Interior minister Nohad Machnouk said: “We have enough. There’s no capacity any more to host more displaced [people].”
The changes that went into effect yesterday establish new categories of entry visas for Syrians – including tourism, business, education and medical care – and sharply limit the period of time they may stay in Lebanon.
But the new restrictions, which were announced last week on Lebanon’s General Security Directorate website, seemingly make no provisions for asylum seekers.
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For decades, Syrians were freely given six-month visas and many simply crossed the porous border into Lebanon without any paperwork at all.
But after the Syrian uprising four years ago collapsed into an entrenched civil war, hundreds of thousands of people poured into Lebanon, overwhelming the country’s water and power supplies, pushing up rents and depressing the economy.
Tent cities have sprouted in rural areas, which are now muddy, miserable and freezing slums in winter. Public opinion has sharply turned against the Syrians, who many see as threatening the sovereignty of Lebanon, which has long been dominated by its larger neighbour.
The published restrictions came months after Lebanese border officials began informally restricting the entry to Syrians in October, which has already caused a 50 per cent drop in people seeking to register with the UNHCR officials in Lebanon.
Ron Redmond, regional spokesman for the UNHCR, said: “We are looking at these new procedures with some interest, because those procedures don’t make mention of the agreement of the government to continue to allow the most vulnerable cases to come through.”
He said that even after informal limitations were introduced last year, the Lebanese government was still allowing in Syrians deemed to be “urgent cases”, such as lone women fleeing with their children, those needing urgent medical care and children separated from their families.
“We didn’t see any reference to that in these new regulations,” Mr Redmond said. “We want to get some kind of official documentation and description of how that’s going to work.”
A Lebanese security official said urgent humanitarian cases could still enter. He said the medical care category and a 48-hour visa to submit asylum applications to foreign embassies would allow coverage for asylum seekers to enter.
On Saturday, the Syrian ambassador Ali Abdel-Karim called on Lebanon to “co- ordinate” its new measures with Damascus.
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