Syria is imposing strict visa requirements on Iraqis, cutting the only accessible escape route for thousands of refugees, officials said Monday.
A decree that takes effect Sept. 10 bars Iraqi passport holders from entering Syria except for businessmen and academics, a small minority of the 3,000 to 5,000 refugees who cross the border every day.
Jordan, the other main destination of Iraqi refugees, imposed visa requirements about two years ago.
“Syria has already received more than 1.5 million refugees, and there could be no end in sight to what the Americans unleashed there. We simply can’t cope anymore,” a Syrian official said. The official gave no indication that Syria could force those already in the country to leave.
At the Rawda cafe in the Syrian capital, a meeting point for refugees, Iraqis expressed frustration at the new regulations.
“All the roads in front of us are now blocked. Arab governments are making the lives of Iraqis even more miserable,” said Fadel Ahmad, who came from Baghdad.
“Escaping to Syria has kept me and my family alive. What are people facing death and eviction from their homes in Iraq supposed to do now?” said Wafa Mahdi, a former schoolteacher.
Iraqis could previously turn up at any Syrian border point and be automatically issued a three-month visa. Under the new decree, visas will be issued by Syrian embassies and only to businessmen and academics.
Syria began receiving Iraqi refugees in large numbers after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that removed Saddam Hussein from power and brought sectarian tensions to the surface. Syrian officials blame the influx for straining their infrastructure and public services. Iraqi refugees constitute an estimated 8% to 10% of Syria’s population.