10 Mar 2015
he normally bustling border crossing in east Lebanon, the most popular for visitors from Syria, has largely been quiet since the beginning of the year. That was when Lebanon decided it could not take in any more Syrian refugees and started enforcing strict entry regulations, narrowing one of the few escape routes left from the 4-year-old conflict that has displaced a third of Syria’s population. Just a few Syrian cars were lined up at the Masnaa crossing, waiting for their turn to go through a General Security inspection, the last checkpoint prior to being allowed into the country. Before reaching that point, the Syrian passengers had already obtained their entry visa from immigration after providing a good reason supported by relevant documents for visiting Lebanon. Mohammad, a Syrian taxi driver, said he had been waiting for more than two hours for his passengers to get their visas. “A lot of papers are requested and it takes long hours of waiting at the border until the documents are verified and the visa is stamped,” he complained. He said one of the passengers was traveling through Beirut airport and had to show his flight booking, entry visa to the country of final destination and a certain amount of cash money. “Even so, we still waited until the Lebanese General Security checked with the airline that the man was flying out on the same day, before he was granted a transit pass,” Mohammad added. The new entry measures are unprecedented in the history of Lebanese-Syrian relations. For decades, citizens of the two countries had been able to travel freely across their shared border. A personal ID was enough for Syrians to enter Lebanon, get a six-month residency and work there without restrictions, financial charges or fees to be paid by their employers. But since Jan. 5, Syrians wishing to enter Lebanon must obtain one of six types of visa categories which include tourism, education, medical treatment and business. All require specified documents, including proof of hotel bookings for tourists, appointments for those seeking medical treatment or visas from foreign embassies, in order to meet the requirements and have their visa approved. While the measures succeeded in stemming the entry of would-be refugees, they have adversely affected businesses across the border. “I used to travel back and forth [between Damascus and Beirut] on a daily basis. Now I hardly do two trips a week. There are much fewer clients,” Mohammad remarked. “The hassle of going through the new regulations is discouraging many Syrians from traveling to Lebanon, unless they have to.” Small businesses which previously thrived on the large number of people using the Masnaa crossing in both directions have mostly suffered from the slowdown. Wael, the Lebanese owner of a shop that sells mobile phones, lines and top-up cards just a few meters from the crossing, complained that his work has slowed down by 90 percent since January. “Before, people were crossing in and out every day. They [Syrians] used to come to Lebanon to spend the weekend, and every time you had people buying mobile phones, or mobile lines, or just topping up. It was bustling, but now there is nothing,” Wael said, as he pointed to his small empty shop. He argued that businesses like his which are located close to the border catered mainly to Syrian visitors. “There are no foreign tourists who pass through here to rely on. And with the new entry regulations, not many Syrians are crossing either,” he said. “I used to get between 30 and 40 clients a day. Now I hardly sell to one or two clients. Like today, although it is a Friday, only one person came in so far to top up his line, and only for $3.” Friday, the beginning of the weekend in Syria, was particularly busy at the crossing. But it is no longer the case since the entry restrictions have been introduced, Wael added. Overwhelmed by more than 1.2 million Syrian refugees, equal to almost a third of its population before the Syrian crisis began, Lebanon insists that the new measures were aimed at regularizing and organizing Syrians’ presence in Lebanon and did not violate a treaty of brotherhood and friendship signed between the two countries in 1991, when Syria implicitly controlled its smaller neighbor. “These measures do not block the entry of Syrians … Any Syrian national can enter Lebanon, but according to a certain criteria,” stressed a high-ranking General Security officer who requested anonymity. Travelers through Beirut airport, for instance, get 24-hour transit visas automatically once they provide the required proofs. “If he is traveling tomorrow, why should I give him one-month sojourn?” the officer asked. “The sojourn will be granted for as long as it is needed.” “Patients seeking medical treatment in Lebanon would also get a permit to stay in the country for as long as it is needed to complete their treatment, and the permit can be renewed if need be,” the General Security officer added. Even if none of the visa criteria applied, Syrian nationals can still enter and stay in Lebanon if they have a Lebanese sponsor, he said. Under the new arrangement, some 1.2 million refugees already registered with the UNHCR are given six-month renewable permits. However, members of this category would lose their permit and would not be able to re-enter Lebanon if they go back to Syria. Humanitarian organizations working with Syrian refugees decried the new measure, maintaining that the Lebanese authorities should not close the doors on people who are desperate to leave. Although Lebanese security officials could not provide exact figures on the number of travelers since January, the flow of Syrians through the popular crossing is evidently much lower than normal. While it was widely welcomed in Lebanon, some Syrians said they did not mind the new measure, and even acknowledged Lebanon’s concerns arising from the influx of refugees. “The procedure at the border went on very smoothly, with no hassle at all. It was much better organized than before, less crowded and less chaotic,” said Abu Ahmad, who accompanied his daughter Jihan to Beirut for an appointment at a foreign embassy. “She showed a proof of her appointment, while I provided a hotel booking and we got our entry permits straight away. Very easy,” he added. Suheila Hamida, a resident of Damascus, and her daughter, Nahid, just provided papers showing that they owned property in Lebanon, and were given six-month visas. “I don’t blame the Lebanese authorities for being stricter. Lebanon is also suffering from the war in Syria,” she said. The influx of Syrian refugees in Lebanon has strained an already poor infrastructure, overwhelmed water and power supplies, pushed up rents and depressed the economy in rural areas, where Syrians compete with impoverished Lebanese for scarce jobs. In addition, the conflict in Syria posed major security challenges for Lebanon, exacerbating Sunni-Shiite tensions and undermining stability along the porous border where the Army clashed repeatedly with Islamist militant groups fighting against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. It is evident that the new regulations have succeeded in checking the increase in the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, but the solution to the refugee crisis remains largely unresolved, as the conflict starts its fifth year, with no signs of a possible settlement.