Lebanon restricts Syria refugee flow

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New restrictions on Syrians entering Lebanon come into force on Monday, further tightening the flow of asylum seekers trying to escape the war.

Previously, travel between the two countries was largely unrestricted, but now Syrians will have to obtain a visa.

It is the latest in a series of steps to stop the influx of refugees. Lebanon already hosts more than a million.

It is unclear what the rule will mean for the many Syrians already in the country and not registered as refugees.

Before now, Syrians could stay in Lebanon for up to six months automatically. Under the new measure, Syrians wanting to enter Lebanon will have to fulfil certain criteria in order to be granted a visa at the border.

Every Syrian wanting to enter the country will need to state a clear purpose for their visit, and, if approved, a visa will be issued for a certain duration.

Syrians coming to work in Lebanon will also have to be sponsored by a Lebanese individual or company.

A spokesman for the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Lebanon, Ron Redmond, said that over the past six to eight months a number of measures had already reduced the number of people seeking registration as refugees. But the UN had worked out a system with the government to enable the most vulnerable to still gain access.

However, Redmond expressed concern about the latest measures in an interview with the BBC’s Newsday.

“The government says that it will allow those extreme humanitarian cases access but it is not covered in these announcements that have come out the last few days,” he said.

“We just want something official from the government that outlines how the system works now… so that we can continue to ensure that the most vulnerable refugees can get through. The government says that will be forthcoming so we are just waiting for that – hoping we get it soon.”

Lebanon has long been struggling to cope with the number of refugees fleeing the war in Syria.

There are currently more than 1.1 million registered refugees in Lebanon putting a huge strain on the country’s infrastructure and resources.

The Lebanese government says the actual number of refugees in the country is about 1.6 million – equivalent to more than a third of the population.

Clearly the Lebanese government wants to reduce the flow, says Rami Khouri, Senior Fellow at the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut.

“The Lebanese are trying to figure out how to really remain helpful to Syrians in real need without destroying their own country,” he told the BBC.

The influx of Syrian refugees was putting strain on water, sanitation, health, and the environment and giving rise to political concerns, he said.

In October, Lebanon’s social affairs minister announced that the country would stop accepting all refugees except emergency cases, but would still allow Syrians to enter for other purposes, such as work and tourism.

The latest UNHCR figures show a total of 3.2m Syrians registered as refugees in Lebanon and elsewhere.

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