BEIRUT — Lebanon introduced unprecedented entry restrictions for Syrians on Monday, imposing visa-like requirements in an apparent effort to curb inflows of refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war in massive numbers.
The new procedures signal mounting concern in Lebanon, which had a population of more than 4 million before the Syrian war, over hosting more than 1.1 million Syrian refugees registered with the United Nations. The new rules also highlight how the almost four-year-old Syrian conflict appears to have diminished the influence of Damascus in Lebanon, which France split off from Syria after World War I.
The entry requirements, announced New Year’s Eve by Lebanon’s General Security Directorate, have unsettled Syrian refugees and aid groups as well as officials in Damascus, who have asked their counterparts in Beirut for more coordination on the issue.
“These measures are bad for us. They mean that Lebanon is telling us that Syrians should get out,” said Ahmed, 39, a Syrian refugee who fled his home town of Homs eight months ago. He lives in the Lebanese city of Tripoli with his wife and six children. Ahmed declined to give his last name, citing concern for his family.
A spokesman for the General Security Directorate, Joseph Obeid, said in a phone interview that the new procedures differ from those for visas. Passports would be marked only with dates of entry and exit, he said, describing the rules as enhanced measures to exert “control over Syrian refugee activities in Lebanon.”
More than 3 million Syrians have fled their country since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011, and Syria’s neighbors have struggled to cope with the economic, political and security burden of absorbing large influxes of refugees. Lebanon and Jordan have tightened restrictions on Syrians in recent months in apparent concern that the prolongation of Syria’s civil war could leave the refugee issue unresolved for the foreseeable future.
Still, Lebanon’s new requirements for entry resemble the visa regimen for foreign nationals. Syrians are now grouped into six categories, including tourism, business and study. They must have valid passports and meet certain criteria, which can include having minimum amounts of cash on hand and a hotel booking.
Before, Syrians could breeze into Lebanon without a passport, stay for an automatic six months and then renew their stay for another six months with little hassle.
Lebanese do not face such restrictions when entering Syria. Lebanese officials appeared to refrain from using the term “visas” when describing the new policy for fear of upsetting the Syrian government.
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has sought clarification from Lebanon about the procedures because they do not explicitly address the status of refugees, said Ron Redmond, a UNHCR spokesman.
“Governments have every right, of course, to implement their own border procedures and policy,” he said.
“As far as these new procedures go, the main concern we have is that they continue to provide entry to the most vulnerable refugee cases. We’re awaiting official verification of that.”
Lebanon’s social affairs minister, Rashid Derbas, has clarified that the country has not closed its borders to Syrians. Nor do the new measures mean that Syrians already in Lebanon will be deported, he said in comments published over the weekend in Arabic media, which quoted him as describing the restrictions as being part of a “new security strategy.”
The entry rules appear to have alarmed Damascus, which has long maintained a big-brother relationship with Beirut. On Saturday, Ali Abdul Karim Ali, the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, asked the Beirut government for “coordination” on the new procedures.
Syria views Lebanon as an artificial construction of the European colonial era. During Lebanon’s civil war, which ended in 1990, Syrian troops entered the country. They remained there until they were forced to withdraw a decade ago. Only in 2008 did Damascus establish diplomatic ties with Beirut.
The Syrian refugees registered with the UNHCR in Lebanon live in more than 1,700 areas across the country, according to the agency. Hundreds of thousands of unregistered Syrians also are thought to reside in Lebanon.