Syrians worried over Lebanon’s new visa rules

Restrictions come into effect as Lebanese authorities seek to stem influx of people trying to escape the conflict.

Beirut, Lebanon – Confusion and fear have gripped the Syrian population residing in Lebanon following an announcement made by the country’s General Security authorities regarding new visa measures.

Syrians living in Lebanon for the past several years are pondering the same question: “What does this mean for us?”

The move by the Lebanese government is unprecedented.

Starting from Monday, Syrians trying to enter Lebanon have to provide documentation identifying their reason for being in Lebanon, as part of stricter entry procedures for people who, since Lebanon gained its independence in 1943, had been able to move freely across the border.

The categories of visas Syrians can apply for include tourism, business, medical treatment and work. Applicants who own property in Lebanon will also be granted visas.

While the registered refugee population in Lebanon, now 1.1 million, is said to be largely unaffected by the new measures, at least 300,000 unregistered refugees – many of whom move back and forth between the two countries – are expected to suffer, as the new procedures are aimed specifically at those attempting to enter as refugees.

One Syrian refugee, who wished to remain anonymous, said he was afraid that his family would be forced to split up.

“My wife is currently in Turkey, and we are panicking that she won’t be able to come back to Lebanon,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Will these new measures mean she gets stuck trying to get back in? I don’t know. Nobody seems to know.”

Lack of clarity

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has voiced concern over the lack of clarity regarding the restrictions.

“We want official clarification from the government on some points, specifically what this means for those seeking extreme humanitarian entry,” Ron Redmond, UNHCR’s senior regional spokesperson, told Al Jazeera.

The Lebanese government introduced initial strict measures in October 2014 to limit the flow of refugees into the country, whereby all but extreme humanitarian cases are refused entry.

Lebanon restricts entry for Syrians

This led to a significant drop in the number of refugees fleeing Syria into Lebanon.

According to Redmond, the UNHCR has witnessed a 50 percent reduction in the number of refugees coming across, with some months witnessing a drop of 75 percent.

“This could be because they’ve been turned back, or it could be because they’ve heard how difficult it is to try and cross,” Redmond said.

“We’ve been warning for months that the governments here need international assistance as they don’t have the resources to take care of the increasing demands.

“Our concern is if the international community doesn’t show support, the protection space will shrink.”

Ali Abdul Karim Ali, Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon, said in a television interview on Sunday that Damascus had not been informed in advance of the decision, adding that the measure “is not appropriate”.

He also said there needed to be coordination between the two countries on the issue.

One group of Syrians expected to be affected by the new measures are the hundreds of thousands of Syrian labourers who have been working for years in Lebanon and who travel between the two countries on a regular basis.

Concern over future

Obaida Kasabry, a Syrian worker from Deraa who has been living in Lebanon since 2006, told Al Jazeera that the lack of clarity over the new measures has left many concerned about their future in Lebanon.

“I live and I work here in Beirut, but go back to Deraa every two months to take care of my family,” he said.

“With these new measures, I don’t know if I’ll be able to allowed to keep going back and forth, and if I need some kind of sponsor to stay in Lebanon. If I’m not going to be able to come back, how can I support my family?”

“Before I wasn’t afraid, but now I am. What am I supposed to do? I can’t go back and live in Syria; there is no work there.”

For the last 15 years Ahmad has been working as a driver in Lebanon, coming back and forth from his home in Aleppo province. Today, he is scared of the potential implications of the new visa measures.

“I’m scared, I don’t know if I’ll be able to continue working here. I either have to get my employer to sponsor me or I’ll have to be here illegally, or I’ll have to stay in Syria,” he said. “No one really understands what’s going on.”

Government’s attitude

For its part, the Lebanese government is trying to play down the issue, with Rashid Derbas, minister of social affairs, telling Al Jazeera that “there is an overreaction to the new procedures”.

“The government has not issued visas for Syrians. The Syrians still enter all legal crossings directly, what the government has done now is limit the number of refugees,” he said.

Derbas said the procedures are simply to allow General Security to know if the individual crossing is a refugee or not.

“I want to be clear that there was a panic for no reason,” he said. “These new procedures don’t target refugees in Lebanon.”

However, Syrians already living in Lebanon are not easily reassured, concerned as they are that the new procedures might make their lives harder than what they already are.

“I’ve been here since the 1990s, and I’ve been okay, I can take care of my family,” Zakaria, a Syrian labourer told Al Jazeera.

“But with these new measures, do I have to look for a sponsor for my family, who also live here with me? Would someone be willing to pay for that?”

Source: Al Jazeera