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Lebanon's New Border Controls Could Force More Syrian Refugees to Turn to Traffickers

One in five people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee, and the country has reached crisis point.
January 5, 2015, 6:50pm
Image via Reuters

Lebanon has introduced visa requirements and other restrictions for Syrians attempting to cross its border, in an effort to curb the flow of refugees entering its struggling system.

The country currently hosts more than 1.1 million registered Syrian refugees — while the government says the true figure is around 1.6 million. It has now said that it cannot cope with the influx, and from Monday, those who make the journey will be required to state the length and reason of their stay and apply for a visa.

"We have enough. There's no capacity anymore to host more displaced,'' Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk told reporters on Monday.

Previously Syrians could cross the border unimpeded, and were permitted to remain for six months without explanation. The new rules, published by Lebanon's General Security Agency, state that Syrians will now have to apply for one of six visa types: tourist, business, student, transit, medical or short stay.

Lebanon has a population of 4.5 million, meaning that Syrians now make up around one in five people. This has resulted in the highest concentration of refugees in the world.

Shopkeepers and taxi drivers at the Masnaa border told Reuters that thousands of Syrians made the crossing this weekend, aiming to arrive before the rules were implemented at midnight on Sunday.

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Enmity has been building in Lebanon between the country's citizens and those who have fled the ongoing war in its much larger neighbor. In a study released last year, Beirut academics Charles Harb and Rim Saab studied the relations between Syrian refugees and Lebanese nationals. They found that the "influx of over a million Syrian refugees has severely strained the socioeconomic fabric and infrastructure of Lebanon," and went on to say that "tensions between Syrian refugees and Lebanese nationals competing for the same resources and services are at a breaking point."

They found that in some of the poorer areas in Lebanon — such as Beeka Valley and Sahel Akkar — a majority of Lebanese workers were unhappy working in mixed groups with Syrians, and over 90 percent of Lebanese nationals perceived Syrians as representative of either a symbolic or economic threat.

Competition for jobs and resources has resulted in escalating antagonism, and there have been reports of Syrian refugees being assaulted or threatened with violence if they didn't leave certain areas. International organizations complain of chronic underfunding, and many refugees are currently facing desperate situations, housed in leaking tents during heavy rainfall and dropping temperatures.

Ariane Rummery, senior communications officer at the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), told VICE News that while the new restrictions aren't necessarily aimed at just refugees, those will be the people who are disproportionately affected.

She said that on first examination of the new restrictions, there did not seem to be any concrete provision for crossing due to humanitarian needs, something that was promised by the Lebanese government in an October policy paper.

"We are concerned that people may not be able to cross the border and go to safety," Rummery said, adding that this could force civilians fleeing the war to turn to people smugglers, making them "vulnerable to exploitation."

"People end up taking very big risks and spending lots of money."

Rummery also said that European states need to step up and begin relocation and resettlement programs. "They should realise that (the amount of refugees they would have to deal with) is still a very small fraction of those being hosted by neighbouring states." She added that one of the most pertinent concerns is that a greater number of desperate Syrians will now attempt to cross into Europe by sea, a journey that can be perilous, but could be seen as the only option for those caught in a conflict with no end in sight.

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