UNHCR urges “humanitarian component” in new Syrian visa regime

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has expressed hope that the Syrian government's decision to implement a visa regime to limit the number of Iraqi refugees pouring into the country at up to 2,000 per day, will not harm the plight of Iraqis fleeing danger.

Speaking on a trip to Syria on 3 September, the UNHCR’s Erika Feller, assistant high commissioner for protection, said she had urged the Syrian government in a series of ministerial meetings not to close the door to Iraqis feeling life-threatening situations.

"I expressed the strong hope with the authorities that any new visa regime will not lead to people who have very serious protection needs - who are fleeing circumstances that are a threat to their lives - being turned back at the border," said Feller.

Syria is home to an estimated 1.5 million Iraqi refugees and the Syrian government says that with anything from 30,000-60,000 continuing to enter the country each month the numbers have imposed a huge burden upon the country's economic and social structure. The government recently estimated the associated cost at US$1 billion per year, and the new visa regime is seen as a means to limit the influx and control the burden.

Syrian government sources have said the country cannot cope with more refugees, particularly while the international community fails to provide financial assistance.

Details of the new system remain vague, however: Reports suggest that from 10 September Syrian visas will only be granted to Iraqis with an educational, business or scientific purpose of travel. Additionally visas will only be granted from the Syrian embassy in Baghdad, an added barrier in a country where violence prevents easy movement.

According to Feller, "the details are still in the process of fine tuning" and the UNHCR will continue to push for "a humanitarian component" to be built into the system.

No forced returns

As well as potentially closing the door to fleeing Iraqi refugees, the new regulations have struck fear into many Iraqis living in Syria who worry they will be forced to return to Iraq once their current visas expire.

At present Iraqis are granted three-month, easily renewable visas. Many fear the new system will force them to return to Baghdad to attempt to renew their residency.

"They are trying to kick us out," said one Iraqi refugee. "But I can't, I won't go back - it's too dangerous."

The UNHCR has, however, been assured by the Syrian government that no forcible returns will take place.

"We have been assured by the authorities that as they move to develop the details of this further it will not lead to forcible return of people who don't want to go back," said Feller.