A line of cars stood at this frigid mountain border crossing on Monday, waiting for families and friends arriving from neighboring Syria — if they came at all.
“It’s a tragic situation on the other side. We’re being treated like insects, like cockroaches,” grumbled Rabii Huthaifah, 42, as he waited for his 43-year-old cousin, who had been delayed for hours by new regulations that for the first time require Syrians traveling to Lebanon to have a sponsor or a visa.
Lebanon has been inundated with refugees from its war-torn neighbor. In a country with a population of about 4 million, the government estimates that there are about 1.5 million Syrians.
FOR THE RECORD:
Lebanese border: An article in the Jan. 6 Section A about new Lebanese visa rules aimed at deterring Syrian immigrants misspelled the name of a commodities trader. He is Toufic Hamzeh, not Toufic Manzeh. —
On Monday, Lebanese authorities took the unprecedented step of requiring Syrians wishing to enter the country to find a Lebanese sponsor or apply for one of six types of visas — a move that could prevent Syrians from reaching their jobs, strand people in need of medical aid and separate families who have moved freely between the countries for generations.
Ali Abdul Karim Ali, Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon, complained in a television interview Sunday that Damascus had not been informed in advance about the new requirements. He said that the measures were “not appropriate” and that coordination on the issue was needed.
But Lebanese Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk defended the move, saying the country had taken in “enough” Syrians. “Lebanon has no ability to receive more refugees,” he said.
Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, more than 3 million people have fled the country, most of them across the border to Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
About 1.1 million Syrians have registered with the United Nations refugee agency in Lebanon, which was already hosting a large Palestinian population that dates back to the creation of Israel in 1948. Many of the new arrivals are Sunni Muslims who make up more than half the population and dominate rebel ranks in their country.
Although Turkey has taken steps to integrate Syrian refugees, including in theory providing education and social services, Lebanon has been less welcoming, in part because of the political implications of absorbing so many Sunnis. The delicate balance of power among the tiny country’s Christian and Sunni and Shiite Muslim factions has been strained by the influx of Syrians and periodically flares into violence.
Last month, when a Lebanese policeman was kidnapped and killed by a rebel faction in Syria, tents belonging to Syrian refugees in northern Lebanon were shot at and burned, killing a child. At least one town issued a warning to refugees to evacuate.
In October, Lebanese authorities began limiting the number of Syrians allowed into the country, reducing by half the number seeking to register with the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Ron Redmond, a UNHCR spokesman in Beirut, remained hopeful Monday that Lebanese officials would continue to allow the neediest to enter.
“From what we’re hearing and seeing, it looks like they intend to continue with some humanitarian access for vulnerable people on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “It will be based on criteria … still in the works.”
Redmond said the number of Syrian refugees was straining the economic and social fabric in Lebanon.
“Countries are burdened across the region, and they deserve more international support. With all of these refugees, you see them everywhere, and it puts pressure on their infrastructure,” he said. “We fully understand the pressures Lebanon is under. The bottom line for us is just to ensure that people who are really in urgent need of access get it.”
Redmond said the new restrictions should signal to countries outside the region that it’s time to start accepting more Syrian refugees, “or we are going to lose what little asylum space we have in these countries.”
“Then you will see refugees resorting to desperate routes,” he said. Last week, smugglers abandoned two boats packed with hundreds of refugees, most of them Syrians, in the Mediterranean Sea.
Huthaifah, who was waiting for his cousin at the border Monday, said he too understands the strain caused by so many refugees, and accepts that some restrictions were inevitable.
“But you have to be able to distinguish between people, and you have to treat people properly,” he said. “They don’t even know how to implement their own policy.”
Huthaifah, a Syrian driver with permission to travel between the countries, said his cousin brought the $1,000 in disposable funds required to enter Lebanon on a tourist visa. But when his cousin told Lebanese border officials that he didn’t have a hotel reservation because he planned to stay with relatives, they pulled him out of the line, berated and struck him, Huthaifah said.
The family tried to provide the officials with more proof that he would be taken care of, but it seemed nothing would satisfy them, Huthaifah said.
Those who managed to cross Monday reported long lines, staff confusion and daylong waits, with many Syrians turned away — in some cases even when they had the required visas and supporting documents.
Officials on the Lebanese side of the border acknowledged that they were still trying to iron out some issues — for instance, whether those entering on tourist visas could stay with family or in rented apartments instead of at hotels.
“There are a lot of Syrians on the other side who they are not letting in, a lot of families waiting,” said Reed Shaban, 36, of Beirut, after walking through the crossing.
She said Lebanese border personnel had set up a new checkpoint and were stopping Syrians before they reached the main crossing, to ease the crowds.
Toufic Manzeh, 36, a Lebanese commodities trader who was traveling with Shaban, said he supports the new requirements because the economy cannot take so many refugees. In his village of 4,000 families, he said, there are 500 Syrian families.
“Rebuilding Syria will take ages. What are we going to do with those people?” he asked.
He complained that the refugees are snapping up entry-level jobs and flooding the tourist neighborhoods of Beirut with cheap labor.
“Now if you go to Hamra, you can’t find a waiter who is Lebanese. Even my dentist changed his secretary to a Syrian,” Manzeh said. “It’s too much for Lebanon.”
Still, he said, he sympathized with those turned away, including two Syrian women whom he saw trying to join their sons in Lebanon after attending a funeral in Syria. They didn’t have the necessary visas or documentation because they thought the new rules would take effect Tuesday.
Dr. Safwan Yusef, a 30-year-old Syrian neurosurgeon, was trying to get to the German Embassy in Beirut to pick up a work visa but said he was delayed five hours at the border, had to leave his two traveling companions behind and missed his appointment.
“The aim is to reduce the number of refugees, but this is not a solution. Where will people go?” he asked while waiting for a taxi on the Lebanese side. He didn’t think the new visa requirements would last.
Mohammed Share, 50, an unemployed Syrian construction worker, waited in a gray sedan with two children for a sick relative to be allowed through.
He said his sister-in-law had brought proof that she was due to be treated for a heart condition at a Beirut hospital and he had found a Lebanese friend to sponsor her. Still, they had been waiting all morning.
“They should look at this from a humanitarian point of view,” Share said.
Huthaifah, the Syrian driver, was still waiting nearby.
At 1:30 p.m., the driver’s cellphone rang. It was his cousin. After being repeatedly turned away from the border, he was giving up.
Huthaifah headed back into Syria to give him a ride home.
Bulos is a special correspondent.