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‘I wasn’t afraid, but now I am’: Syrians fear Lebanon’s visa rules

The new restrictions come into effect on Monday to stem the influx of Syrians fleeing civil war

BEIRUT — A mixture of confusion and fear have struck the Syrian population currently in Lebanon after a recent announcement made by General Security over new visa measures.

Huddled under the pouring rain in a rundown neighborhood in Beirut, a number of Syrians who have been living in Lebanon for several years kept repeating the same question, "What does this mean for us?"

The move by the Lebanese government is unprecedented. As of Monday, Syrians entering Lebanon must provide documentation identifying their reason for being in the country, highlighting stricter entry procedures for people who, since Lebanon gained its independence in 1943, had been able to move freely across the border.

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 these new measures, there are at least 300,000 unregistered refugees — many of whom move back and forth between the two countries — who are expected to suffer, as the procedures are aimed 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."

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," said Ron Redmond, senior regional spokesman for the UNHCR.

The Lebanese government introduced strict measures in October 2014 to limit the flow of refugees into the country, with all but extreme humanitarian cases refused entry. This led to a significant drop in the number of refugees fleeing from Syria to Lebanon.

According to Redmond, the UNHCR has witnessed a 50 percent reduction in the number of refugees crossing the border, 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," he 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," he continued. "Our concern is if the international community doesn’t show support, the protection space will shrink."

Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdul Karim Ali, said in a television interview on Sunday that Damascus was not 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.

Workers’ dilemma

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

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, going back and forth from his home in Aleppo province. Today he is petrified of what these new measures will entail. "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."

Meanwhile, the Lebanese government is trying to downplay the issue, with the Minister of Social Affairs Rashid Derbas 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 went on to say that 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. These new procedures don’t target refugees in Lebanon."

Yet Syrians already living in Lebanon are less convinced and are concerned over whether such procedures will make their living situations much harder than what they are currently facing.

"I’ve been here since the 1990s, and I’ve been OK. I can take care of my family," said Zakaria, a Syrian laborer. "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?"

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