Is Lebanon closing its door to Syrian refugees?

Lebanon says the influx of refugees from Syria's civil war has boosted its population by a third and strained resources. On Monday, it imposed new visa rules for Syrians.

Mohamed Azakir/Reuters
Syrian refugees walk along a makeshift settlement in Bar Elias in the Bekaa valley January 5, 2015. Lebanon enforced new immigration controls at the Syrian border on Monday in a move to gain control of the steady stream of refugees from its much larger neighbor.

Lebanon, struggling to cope with a massive influx of Syrian refugees, began implementing new entry measures along its border Monday in a bid to restrict the flow of people escaping Syria’s grueling civil war.

The influx is believed to have increased Lebanon’s population by as much as a third, straining its resources, while international efforts to assist countries hosting Syrian refugees have fallen far short of their stated fundraising goals. Aid agencies, however, are voicing concern that the unprecedented border restrictions will prevent endangered Syrians from escaping the war-torn country.

“Governments are perfectly entitled to manage their borders – that’s their responsibility and their right – and we just want to make sure that refugees in urgent need of assistance can still get entry on a case-by-case basis,” says Ron Redmond, spokesman for the United Nations Higher Commission on Refugees (UNHCR).

Traditionally, Syrians only required an identification card to enter Lebanon. But as of Monday, all Syrian visitors will have to apply for one of six different visas – tourist, business, student, transit, short stay, or medical. Visa applicants will have to provide a valid passport and accompanying material proving that they have valid reasons for entering Lebanon, such as sponsorship by employers, hotel reservations, or admission letters from schools and universities.

Lebanon, a country of 4.5 million, hosts just under 1.1 million refugees who have registered with the UNHCR, although the true figure is believed to be closer to 1.5 million. That would mean Lebanon has the highest per capita refugee population in the world, the equivalent of the United States absorbing almost the entire population of Mexico in under four years.

The refugees, who are scattered across the country, have placed a huge burden on Lebanon’s already frail infrastructure, and tensions between the refugees and host communities are on the rise. Many Lebanese fear the Syrians will become a permanent presence like the Palestinians who fled their homes in 1948 during the creation of Israel and have stayed, along with their descendants, in Lebanon ever since.

Furthermore, the vast majority of the refugees are Sunnis, placing additional strains on Lebanon’s delicate sectarian balance.

In October, the Lebanese government tightened restrictions on allowing refugees into the country, limiting them to humanitarian cases only.

“There are 1.5 million Syrians in Lebanon, among them 1,070,000 are registered as refugees,” said Nohad Mashnouq, the Lebanese Interior minister, in a press conference Monday. “That is enough, and Lebanon has no ability to receive more refugees.”

The Lebanese government has insisted that the new measures will not affect those Syrians who classify as urgent humanitarian cases, nor will existing refugees be deported from the country. However, the list of requirements for visas and the fact that customs officials cannot make on-the-spot decisions as to who can be classified as a humanitarian exception suggests that the new measures are intended to obstruct entry as much as possible.

Still, Beirut says it has little choice but to take matters into its own hands given the sluggish international response to assisting host nations, such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. An international donor conference a year ago in Kuwait raised $2.4 billion to help host countries, far short of the target figure of $6.5 billion.

“We are urging again the international community to support Lebanon, support Jordan, support these host countries, because they are absolutely overwhelmed and we recognize that,” says Mr. Redmond of the UNHCR. “If they don’t get even more assistance from the international community, this is going to be an even bigger problem.”

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