BEIRUT: The number of Syrians entering Lebanon has declined dramatically in recent weeks as the government inches closer toward drafting new policies for its borders.
According to comments made by the Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas, Lebanon is now denying access to Syrians unable to present an exigent “humanitarian” reason for entering the country.
“Lebanon has not totally closed its borders to refugees,” Derbas said in an interview with Voice of Lebanon Sunday. “We are still receiving humanitarian cases, but other reasons for refuge are not being accepted.”
“Anyone who passes the Syrian-Lebanese border will be questioned and should have a humanitarian reason for their entry. This will be decided by the Interior and Social Affairs Ministry,” Derbas said in separate remarks.
The government, however, has not yet established formal guidelines for what constitutes a humanitarian case.
“The criteria are on the table right now,” said a governmental source who wished to remain anonymous. “We do hope that sometime soon this will be clarified.” The source said that in the coming days the government would make “some concrete decisions and adopt some policies” regarding the entry of Syrian refugees.
Lebanon has been struggling to cope with more than 1.1 million Syrian refugees within its borders, who now comprise more than 20 percent of the national population. The government contends that many refugees in Lebanon are so-called economic migrants who are not fleeing violence but rather looking for work. Spurred to action when the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon surpassed 1 million, the government said in May that it would only accept Syrians fleeing active fighting, and that those commuting between Lebanon and Syria would lose their refugee status.
According to a security source, between 1,000 and 2,000 Syrian refugees enter Lebanon through the Massna border crossing each day. Previously, however, that number was as high as 15,000. Border police now turn away approximately 80 percent of Syrians trying to enter the country, he said.
A General Security official told The Daily Star that refugees must hail from areas in Syria witnessing fighting in order to be granted humanitarian access to Lebanon.
“If someone says he wants to seek refuge and he’s coming from Latakia [which is relatively peaceful], we will not let him in,” the source said.
“The measures are stricter now,” he added.
Previously, General Security officials merely asked Syrians where they would be staying in Lebanon before granting an entry visa.
“Now we ask him about his address in Lebanon, where he will be sleeping, who is responsible for him etc. ... If he says that he’s been working in Lebanon for 40 years, for example, we ask him to prove so.”
Moreover, most males between the ages of 16 are 30 are being denied entry to the country, according to a separate security source.
Derbas has expressed increasing alarm over the number of young male refugees in Lebanon who have received military training in Syria, where service in the army is mandatory. More than 100,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon have prior military training and pose a “real threat to internal security” Derbas said Sunday.
The UNHCR has acknowledged the steep decline in Syrians crossing into Lebanon. “Our understanding is that people who are coming to claim refugee status are not being permitted to enter in the way that they were previously,” said Ninette Kelley, the head of UNHCR in Lebanon, in remarks to AFP.
The government, Kelly said, has not explained the criteria it is using to determine if a refugee has a legitimate humanitarian reason to seek refuge in Lebanon.