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Under Strain From Syrian Refugees, Lebanon Enacts Stricter Visa Policy

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Lebanon has no ability to receive more refugees.

Those, the words today of the Lebanese interior minister. He was defending the country's decision to introduce a new visa policy for Syrian refugees, a policy which went into effect today. Lebanon has taken in an estimated 1.5 million refugees fleeing Syria's civil war over the past four years. And for a country the size of Massachusetts with a population of about 4.5 million, Lebanese officials are now saying, enough. For more on what this means, we have reached Lama Fakih in Beirut. She is the Syria and Lebanon researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Welcome to the program.

LAMA FAKIH: Thanks for having me, Robert.

SIEGEL: First of all, explain the new policy. What does it require of Syrians now that it didn't require of them before?

FAKIH: What the Lebanese government has done is introduce six new categories of individuals that can enter the country. This means that Syrians can only access Lebanon in very limited cases - if they're students, if they're coming for tourism, for work, if they own property in the country, if they're coming for medical treatment or if they're transiting. These very limited criteria, however, do not extend to refugees.

SIEGEL: Does that mean that a Syrian family fleeing the war in Syria and trying to get into Lebanon would be turned back at the border?

FAKIH: We are looking to general security to make clear what exactly this means for Syrians. We are hoping that the government will continue to extend refuge for families that are trying to access the territory. But we are very concerned that these new categories will actually close out a range of people that are fleeing the violence in Syria.

SIEGEL: I'd read that the Lebanese are often upset at how many Syrians are finding work in Lebanon, driving down wages, driving up rents for lodging. And they simply resent the economic impact of this refugee population. Is that accurate?

FAKIH: There is no doubt that the growing refugee population has put a strain on some local communities. We have seen an increase in the cost of rent, decrease in wages, badly-strained infrastructure all the more strained. We're talking here about health care, about schools. And the Lebanese government, you know, cannot manage the refugee burden alone. There is also responsibility on donor states to be providing assistance to the Lebanese government so that they can continue to maintain an open border policy and so that they can ensure that basic standards of living are not being reduced for the most vulnerable Lebanese.

SIEGEL: If in fact Syrians were to be convinced that Lebanon is not a welcoming country for refugees anymore, what options do they have? Could they cross into Turkey or Jordan instead?

FAKIH: We have seen that the Lebanese government recent directives in - actually happening within a context, within neighboring countries trying to restrict access. The Jordanian government has taken a number of steps to try to restrict access for Syrians trying to enter the country. And we've seen similarly the Turkish government and Iraqi government have taken steps to limit the numbers of Syrians entering their territory, as well.

SIEGEL: So all the exits are a lot harder to get through at this point?

FAKIH: We are looking at an overall context in which options for Syrians fleeing the violence are dwindling. And this is at a time when active fighting continues across the country.

SIEGEL: Lama Fakih, thank you very much for talking with us today.

FAKIH: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Lama Fakih. She's the Syria and Lebanon researcher for Human Rights Watch. She spoke to us from Beirut about Lebanon's new visa policy for Syrians. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.