New Syrian visa requirement halts most Iraqi arrivals
DAMASCUS, Syria, 11 September (UNHCR) - UN refugee agency staff visiting the Syrian-Iraq border have found the crossing point virtually empty following the introduction of new visa restrictions that the Syrian government is imposing on almost all Iraqis wishing to enter Syria.
The visit to the border on Monday was the first time in months, if not years, that UNHCR staff have found almost no one waiting. Iraqis, with the exception of certain professional categories, are now required to apply for a visa at the Syrian Embassy in Baghdad.
"The regulations effectively mean there is no longer a safe place outside for Iraqis fleeing persecution and violence. An estimated 2,000 Iraqis flee their homes daily inside the country, so we are increasingly concerned about their fate as their options for safety are reduced," said UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond.
The exact details of the new visa regime still have to be published by the Syrian government. UNHCR is actively advocating for a 'humanitarian' visa for people who are fleeing violence and persecution.
Briefings from the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration Department indicate that at present, visas are given for reasons of commerce (with the support of the Chamber of Commerce), science (with the support of the Chamber of Industry), transport and education. Discussions with the Ministry of Education indicate that families of children attending school may be issued a one-year visa, but this has not yet been confirmed.
UNHCR has received assurances from various government authorities that Syria will not forcibly return Iraqi refugees currently residing in the country. Syria, of course, has been extremely generous in accepting some 1.4 million Iraqis with only limited international support.
It is too early to evaluate whether Syria is making exceptions to this visa policy on humanitarian grounds for people fleeing violence and persecution.
The Syrian Embassy in Baghdad is located in the district of Al Mansour, an area which continues to see frequent sectarian violence. Iraqis have told UNHCR that their lives will be at risk if they are obliged to visit this district to obtain a visa.
Meanwhile, UNHCR's Goodwill Ambassador Adel Imam has arrived in Syria for a two-day mission to see first-hand the plight of hundreds of thousands of families uprooted by the ongoing conflict in Iraq.
Imam was to hold meetings on Tuesday with the Syrian First Lady, the Syrian ministers for education, culture and Information, the deputy minister of foreign affairs and the chairman of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.
Imam was meeting with Iraqi refugees at the UNHCR registration centre in Douma and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent health clinics. Imam's mission coincides with the start of the school year in Syria, where a sharply increased number of Iraqi children are enrolling in public schools. Imam will participate in UNHCR's back to school campaign to encourage Iraqi refugees to enrol their children.
In late July, UNHCR and UNICEF launched a joint $129 million education appeal aimed at getting 155,000 young Iraqi refugees throughout the Middle East back into school. The UN Refugee Agency estimates more than 4.2 million Iraqis have left their homes - 2 million to neighbouring states and another 2.2 million displaced inside Iraq.
By Sybella Wilkes in Damascus, Syria