MASNAA, Lebanon: A high-ranking General Security official denied Wednesday that the institution was imposing discriminatory entry and residency policies for Palestinians, insisting that it was merely reactivating precrisis regulations in light of improving conditions in Syria.
“Due to the Syria crisis, taking into account humanitarian considerations, General Security allowed Palestinians from Syria to enter Lebanon and extend their visas periodically for three months at a time,” the source explained.
Prior to the crisis, Palestinians from Syria were given a pre-authorized visa for seven days, often to visit relatives residing in camps scattered across Lebanon, according to the source.
“This was the regular policy,” the source emphasized, “it required permission prior to travel.”
After 2011, with the onset of the uprising in Syria, Palestinians from Syria were permitted to request a three-month residency permit with the ability to renew for up to a year for free. After the one-year mark, Palestinians from Syria were obliged to pay $200 to extend their residencies for another year, with renewals due every three months.
“For three years, Palestinians from Syria were allowed to enter Lebanon without previous authorization, in this way we facilitated their stay,” the source said.
In response to the arrest of some 49 Syrians and Palestinians previously living in Syria at Beirut airport last week on suspicion of possessing forged documents, the Interior Ministry set new regulations for Palestinian refugees from Syria.
While in a statement Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk said no decision had been taken to prevent Palestinians refugees in Syria from entering or transiting through Lebanon, “certain measures” had been put in place.
The measures permit entry for those who have preauthorization, hold a residency permit or are in transit, in which case the visa expires after 24 hours, according to the statement.
The government informed UNRWA that the measures would be “temporary.” The agency is in the midst of monitoring, and reported about 25 cases of Palestinians from Syria who attempted to enter Lebanon between Sunday and Thursday last week. Those who were successful were crossing for transit purposes.
“We have reached capacity,” the security source said, referring to the 1 million registered refugees from Syria who fled to Lebanon in the last three years, of which around 50,000 are Palestinian. “As the situation in Syria is improving, especially in Yarmouk, the exceptional circumstances cited as their reason for entry are no longer relevant,” he added. “The red alert has been switched to green.”
At the Masnaa border crossing with Syria, Palestinian refugees were incensed by what they felt to be the indiscriminate nature of the new regulations. Sisters Manar and Feryal were in tears a few meters away from the arrival gate, after their mother, 45, was denied entry to Lebanon. In line with the new regulations, the mother, who has been trapped under siege in Yarmouk for the past two years, was not allowed to enter.
Allowed to leave Yarmouk due to a critical medical condition, Feryal said her mother was sent back by Lebanese authorities.
“They told her you can’t come in,” she said. The sisters had come from Sidon to collect their mother at the border. “She’s been under siege in the camp and her medical condition worsened because of the lack of food ... she was coming to Lebanon to be treated, she is ill.”
Feryal tried to convince General Security to let her mother pass, but with no luck.
“They allowed us to sit together for a bit, but then told us to go our separate ways,” she said.
The plethora of taxi drivers at the crossing, who have managed to maintain their business of shuttling passengers to and from Damascus, concurred that few among their Palestinian passengers were permitted to cross. One driver, Majid, said he no longer takes Palestinians.
“There’s no point burdening them if they can’t go in,” he said, recounting one occasion when he was driving a Syrian woman who’s husband was Palestinian. “She wanted to go to the Swiss Embassy in Lebanon, they didn’t allow her to come in because she didn’t have residency,” he said.
For its part, General Security argued authorities have faced problems with a number of Palestinians from Syria who traveled under the false pretense of visiting relatives or in transit back home to Syria, “most ended up visiting and staying in Lebanon,” he said, further exacerbating the refugee crisis.
While the source stressed the borders were not closed, he said they were not open to Palestinians in the same way they have been in the past three years: “They need to meet a certain criteria now.”
Aid workers expressed concern about new regulations governing residency renewal for Palestinians from Syria already in Lebanon, as Machnouk’s circular stated automatic visas previously renewed cannot be extended.
In the Palestinian refugee camp of Shatila, the Najdeh organization told The Daily Star that five families had attempted to renew their residencies the previous day with General Security.
“Their applications were rejected and they were told they had 24 hours to leave the country,” said Hoda Abbas, an aid worker in the camp. The families have since “run away” fearing arrest, she added without providing further details.
News that residencies were being denied spread across the camp, with many families opting not to approach General Security, even if their legal stay permits expire, prompting criticism from aid workers that they were being forced into an illegal and potentially exploitative condition.
However, General Security maintains that their entry policies are still contingent upon the shifting dynamics in Syria and the criteria employed to approve visas for Palestinians from Syria was not “fixed” but varies according to the applicant. As of now, General Security receives 300-350 entry visa requests from Palestinians in Syria, the source was not willing to disclose how many are accepted on average.
“We are making exceptions, maybe 40 out of 100, but we have to keep an eye on them and control their stay ... because we’ve reached capacity,” he said.
For instance, a Palestinian applicant with an immediate Lebanese relative is allowed entry, as are certain humanitarian and medical cases. At any rate, the source was unwilling to provide generalized examples, saying this would undercut the complexity of individual cases. “There are many elements within each case,” he said.