Lebanon begins imposing visa restrictions on Syrians

The tiny country is struggling to cope with well over a million refugees fleeing the civil war next door.

Syrian refugees walk along a makeshift settlement in Bar Elias in the Bekaa valley on January 5, 2015. Mohamed Azakir/Reuters
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BEIRUT // Lebanon began imposing unprecedented restrictions on Monday on the entry of Syrians, as the tiny country with a fragile sectarian balance struggles to cope with well over a million refugees fleeing the civil war next door.

Syria’s war has displaced nearly half its pre-war population, sending over three million people across borders, mainly to Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. Western countries have only accepted small numbers of refugees, and hundreds of people have drowned attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea on rickety smuggler ships.

Lebanese officials say they simply can’t absorb any more. They estimate there are about 1.5 million Syrians in Lebanon, about one-quarter of the total population. Some 1.1 million are registered with the UN’s refugee agency.

“We have enough. There’s no capacity anymore to host more displaced,” interior minister Nohad Machnouk said.

The war in Syria has already escalated tensions between Lebanon’s Shiites and Sunnis, and many fear the influx of the mainly Sunni refugees could again aggravate the tiny country’s delicate multi-sectarian balance.

The changes that went into effect on Monday establish new categories of entry visas for Syrians — including tourism, business, education and medical care — and sharply limit the period of time they may stay in Lebanon. But the restrictions, which were announced last week on Lebanon’s General Security Directorate website, seemingly make no provisions for asylum seekers.

For decades, Syrians were freely given six-month visas and many simply crossed the porous border without any paperwork at all.

But when Syria’s 2011 uprising collapsed into a civil war, hundreds of thousands poured into Lebanon, overwhelming the country’s water and power supplies, pushing up rents and depressing the economy in rural areas, where they compete with impoverished Lebanese for scarce jobs.

* Associated Press