BEIRUT: For decades, Syrian and Lebanese citizens have enjoyed free movement across their shared border, but now they fear this is a thing of the past.
For the first time ever, Syrians wishing to cross into Lebanon need a visa, regardless if they are fleeing a civil war.
Wael Arbiley has been living in Lebanon for two years, but his family is still in Eastern Ghouta, near Damascus. Like many, Wael lives between the haven of Lebanon and the rubble of war-torn Syria. “My wife will give birth in a month. Her mother wants to visit us in Lebanon,” he said. “We are afraid that she will have difficulties at the border but we heard of a three-day visa that she could get.”
This controversial measure, introduced earlier this year, is part of an effort by Beirut to restrain the influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon. Syrians now need to obtain one of six types of visas: Tourist, transit, business, student, short stay or medical.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says there has been a 50 per cent decrease in Syrians coming to register as refugees since the new measures were imposed.
“It is still unclear how this problem will affect refugees who are already inside the country,” said Dana Sleiman, a UNHCR public information associate. “It’s mostly currently affecting refugees wishing to enter Lebanon. And we continue to discuss … with the government to see how these humanitarian exceptions will be implemented at the border.”
Lebanon’s infrastructure has almost reached the point of collapse. The refugee influx has tested the limited resources of the country, as well as the patience of its citizens.
But activists feel that is no reason to turn Syrians away in their time of need. “They should not impose a visa,” said Lebanese taxi driver Kamal Raqqa. “Refugees don’t have money. They are homeless. If they don’t have visas, they will go back to Syria and to their death.”
It is a controversial policy that could endanger not only the lives of fleeing Syrians, but the special relationship between the two countries. But the Beirut says it has no choice.
For months, the Lebanese government has warned the international community that it can no longer deal with the influx of Syrian refugees. This newly-imposed visa on Syrians seems to be the latest in a series of cries for help from Lebanon to contain the spill over of the Syrian crisis.