BEIRUT: Palestinians fleeing the violence in Syria must pay LL25,000 to enter Lebanon, a fee that is preventing some refugees from making it across the border.
That visa fee is standard for many Arab tourists, but Syria and Lebanon have a longstanding agreement that allows their citizens to cross the border without a visa.
UNRWA spokesperson Hoda Samra told The Daily Star that some families – especially larger ones – find the cost of entry prohibitive. She said UNRWA has been advocating for the elimination of the visa fee, but so far has been unsuccessful.
“For humanitarian reasons we are asking that Palestinian refugees coming from Syria be treated equally with Syrian refugees. Both of them are displaced because of the conflict,” she said.
As of the end of last year, there were approximately 17,000 Palestinians from Syria in UNRWA Lebanon’s database, a number that Samra said is always growing. Recently, fighting in Damascus forced thousands of residents of the Yarmouk refugee camp to flee across the border. Some made it to the border but not into Lebanon, for lack of proper papers or funds.
Ghassan Said Abdallah, general director of the Palestinian Human Rights Organization, said he is aware of refugees who have been turned away at the border because they cannot pay. He thought a change in policy unlikely given the current political climate.
Abdallah mentioned a recent call by Energy Minister Gebran Bassil for the government to discuss expelling all refugees from Syria: “He wants the government to close the door.”
“[Politicians] are not looking at this from a human rights perspective ... they are looking at it from a political or security angle,” Abdallah said, pointing to another monetary obstacle for Palestinians: the fine they have traditionally been asked to pay when leaving the country.
The LL25,000 visa buys seven days in the country. It is renewable at no cost for one more week, but after that Palestinians must pay LL50,000 for a one-month extension. Few Palestinians take this step because of the expense.
This means refugees are confined to the camps where they have taken shelter, fearful of arrest. However, a high-ranking General Security official who spoke on condition of anonymity said security bodies were not actively arresting or expelling Palestinians who overstay their visas.
In addition, in mid-September General Security temporarily suspended the LL50,000 fine, usually payable at the border, for Palestinians returning to Syria after overstaying their visas. The agency has renewed this exemption on a monthly basis.
PHRO’s Abdallah is concerned about the temporary nature of this change. While security bodies say they will not expel Palestinians and the exit penalty has been suspended, he says that “if things change, there is nothing to protect this agreement.”
The status of the Palestinian refugees from Syria is still not technically legal, and he believes “the Lebanese are not willing to legalize anything [like this]. They are scared refugees will stay for a long time or will not go back.”
Khaldoun Sharif, the president of the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee, said permanently altering the exit penalty is not on the table: “We will deal with it on a daily basis.”
A member of the media office at the Palestinian Embassy in Lebanon, Wissam Abu Zeid, said the PLO was working with the government, General Security and the LPDC on the issue of Palestinian refugees from Syria, and is “trying to solve all obstacles.” He added that General Security had been helpful.
“Right now we are all calling on the international community to help Lebanon. This is our main task.”