DAMASCUS, 2 October 2007 (IRIN)
- The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is continuing to push for "humanitarian visas" for Iraqi refugees after Syria once again closed its borders to the continuing influx of refugees fleeing Iraq.
UNHCR witnesses at the Syria-Iraqi Al-Tanf border crossing on 1 October reported that entry was closed to refugees, with "only commercial drivers receiving visas".
According to the new regulations only Iraqis with visas granted for education, business and scientific purposes will be granted access into Syria. The restrictions were first introduced on 10 September but Syria reopened the border to all Iraqis as a gesture of goodwill for the Muslim holy-month of Ramadan.
A Syrian Interior Ministry spokesperson told IRIN: "Syria began yesterday [1 October] applying the visa regime in order to organise the number of Iraqi refugees in the country."
The UNHCR has expressed its concern at the step and urged the Syrian government to initiate a humanitarian visa system.
"There have been negotiations about humanitarian visas for those in very dire situations and who cannot afford to stay in Iraq," said Dalia al-Achi, a UNHCR spokesperson in Syria, saying that they are still waiting for the government's response.
The new visa restrictions come in response to the more than 1.5 million Iraqis who have fled to Syria since the US-led war in 2003, according to UNHCR, swelling the Syrian population by 8 percent and placing a huge strain on domestic social services.
According to the government, the cost of hosting Iraqi refugees stands at US$1 billion per year, a figure which they complain the international community is not helping them meet.
The numbers of Iraqis crossing the border reached 20,000 per day prior to the beginning of Ramadan as Iraqis sought to escape into Syria before the introduction of the new visa restrictions. The previous average stood at about 2,000 per day.
The closure of the border about 10 days before the end of Ramadan has thrown many Iraqis into confusion after the government had initially said it would wait until the end of Ramadan to recommence the stricter visa regime.
Speaking to IRIN at the beginning of Ramadan one Iraqi family said they would be returning to Baghdad for financial reasons, but that they hoped to return to Syria before the end of Ramadan, when the restrictions where due to come into force. (See: http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=74350)
As of 2 October the family had not returned to Syria and with the new restrictions it seems unlikely they will be permitted re-entry.
"We never confirmed or denied we would do it by the end of Ramadan," said the Syrian government spokesperson, blaming the Ramadan speculation on unconfirmed rumours.