BEIRUT – Syria's ambassador to Lebanon called on Saturday for coordination with Lebanese authorities after Beirut announced plans to impose unprecedented restrictions on Syrians trying to enter Lebanon.
Beginning Jan. 5, Syrians will require a visa to enter Lebanon, according to new regulations posted online by Lebanon's General Directorate of General Security. The move marks the most significant attempt by Lebanese authorities to stem the influx of some 1.5 million Syrians who have sought refuge in Lebanon from the civil war raging in their homeland.
For Lebanon, a country of 4.5 million, the flood of Syrian refugees has placed a tremendous strain on the country's economy, resources, infrastructure and delicate sectarian balance.
On Saturday, Syrian Ambassador Ali Abdel-Karim Ali said Damascus understands the new measures but that "the issue of Syrians entering and leaving needs coordination and integration between the concerned parties in the two countries," according to Lebanon's state news agency.
The United Nations refugee agency is seeking clarification on several aspects of the rules, including how they will impact refugees already in Lebanon and whether people in immediate need of protection will still be allowed in, said Ron Redmond, a regional spokesman for UNHCR.
Lebanon began imposing tighter restrictions on a more informal basis last summer. Since then, the number of refugee registrations in Lebanon has dropped by more than 50 percent, Redmond said.
"That's an indication that a lot of people aren't getting in here," Redmond said. "But still, people are getting through, and we want to ensure that the most vulnerable do get through."
More than 3 million people have fled Syrian since the country's conflict began in March 2011. The vast majority of them have ended up in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq.
"These governments have been so stressed, and these countries put under such pressure with these huge numbers of refugees coming across, that we can understand why they feel it's necessary to take action," Redmond said. "We just want to ensure that nobody is being sent back to danger."
Associated Press writer Maamoun Youssef contributed from Cairo.