Lebanon began imposing unprecedented restrictions Monday on the entry of Syrians, as the tiny country with a fragile sectarian balance struggles to cope with well over a million refugees feeling the civil war next door.
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The new policy requiring Syrians to obtain visas that sharply limit the time they can remain in Lebanon effectively narrows one of the few escape routes left from a war that has displaced a third of Syria's pre-war population and shows no sign of ending.
Over three million people have fled Syria, mainly to neighbouring 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. The government estimates there are about 1.5 million Syrians in Lebanon, about one-quarter of the total population. Some 1.1 million are registered with the U.N.'s refugee agency.
"We have enough. There's no capacity anymore to host more displaced," Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk said in a press conference carried on local television.
Lebanese security officials said many Syrians were turned back at border crossings on Monday but they had no exact figures. The flow of Syrians through one popular crossing appeared lower than normal on Monday.
There are no plans to forcibly repatriate Syrians already in Lebanon.
The changes that went into effect 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.
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 Syrians compete with impoverished Lebanese for scarce jobs.
Tent cities have sprouted in rural areas — with many of the refugees confined to flimsy shelters now battered by winter rains and snow. Public opinion has sharply turned against the Syrians, who many see as threatening the sovereignty of Lebanon — long-dominated by its larger neighbour.
Lebanon has been hosting hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees since Israel's creation in 1948, and their presence was a central factor in the 1975-1990 civil war. 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.
Lebanese border officials began informally restricting the entry of Syrians in October, which has already caused a 50 per cent drop in people seeking to register with the U.N.'s refugee agency, the UNHCR.
"We are looking at these new procedures with some interest, because those procedures don't make mention of the agreement of the government to continue to allow the most vulnerable cases to come through," said UNHCR's regional spokesman Ron Redmond.
He said even after informal limitations were introduced last year, the Lebanese government was still allowing in Syrians they deemed "urgent cases" — single women fleeing with their children, those needing urgent medical care and children separated from their families.
"We didn't see any reference to that in these new regulations," Redmond said. "We want to get some kind of official documentation and description of how that's going to work."
A Lebanese security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to the press, said urgent humanitarian cases could still enter, and that Syrians could make use of a medical care category and a 48-hour visa that would allow them to apply for asylum at foreign embassies.
On Saturday, the Syrian Ambassador Ali Abdel-Karim called on Lebanon to "co-ordinate" its new measures with Damascus.
Amid wide approval in Lebanon for the restrictions, a prominent newspaper editorial urged Lebanese to act humanely.
"We know that the burden of the Syrian crisis, open to an abyss, is greater than what Lebanon can bear," Talal Salman wrote in As-Safir. "But it is able, certainly, to carry some of its weight." The refugees, he added, "left with their faces etched in worry, to the closest asylum they know."