BEIRUT: Hassan Achour runs a tourism business in Tyre, taking visitors on cruises on his boat.
He is an avid tourist himself, having visited countries including Moldova, Morocco, Russia, Tunisia and Ukraine. But for years, he was thwarted in his attempts to travel to Europe’s Schengen zone.
Two years ago, Achour said, he applied for a visa to visit Spain and was denied. He said officials told him they were not convinced that he would return to Lebanon. The following year, he applied for a visa to Greece and was again rejected. Infuriated, he reapplied for a visa to Spain and was denied once more.
With a friend’s help, he wrote a letter appealing the rejection and submitted it to the embassy.
“I’m a captain, and I have work, and I have a bank account and money in the bank, and I work also in a company, and they give me a salary,” Achour told The Daily Star. “I’m also a medic in the Red Cross. I’ve been a volunteer for 17 years. There’s nothing about me that you could say, ‘This is a terrorist’ or ‘There’s something not right.’ And also my son is here, he lives with my mom and is in school. It would be difficult for me to leave and not come back.”
His persistence paid off: He was granted a Spanish visa in December and spent New Year’s in Barcelona, traveling to France and Germany before returning to Lebanon.
Achour’s frustration is common among Lebanese citizens, who see Europeans and North Americans enter their country without visa applications or entry fees while many of them struggle to travel abroad for tourism, to study or to visit relatives.
The experience of rejection is so common that Lebanese-Iraqi comedian Karl Sharro joked on Twitter: “While Khalil Gibran is famous in the West for his writing, in Lebanon he is famous for getting an American visa on the first attempt.”
The Henley Passport Index, which ranks passports around the world in terms of their power for visa-free travel, places Lebanon far down the list, tied for 97th place with Bangladesh, Libya and South Sudan.
And unsuccessful visa applications come at a cost: Apart from visa fees - for example, 60 euros ($68) for a Schengen visa, $160 for one to the United States - other expenses can include the translation of documents, as well as hotel reservations and airplane tickets that may be required to apply for the visa but may not be fully refundable.
Inas Assaf, the owner of Lebanon-based travel agency Madafly, said the lack of reciprocity between Lebanon and other countries, and the government’s failure to insist on it, frustrated her.
“I don’t know why all Lebanese people have to apply for a Schengen visa, but anyone [from Europe] ... can come [to Lebanon] without paying any fee, and he just stays for 30 days or 90 days,” she said.
MP Yassine Jaber, who heads Parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Expatriates Committee, said Lebanon’s Cabinet decided to waive visas for citizens from a number of countries, including those from North America, Europe and the Gulf, in the 1990s, in the wake of the Civil War, when Lebanon’s reputation and economy were suffering from the prolonged conflict.
“It’s a way of making it more easy to access Lebanon,” he said. “Lebanon needs as much as possible to attract people from abroad.”
Jaber said he believed the policy had worked. “We attracted a lot of business, and the policy continued because it does make life easier for people intending to visit Lebanon, and it doesn’t actually affect us negatively,” he added.
In fact, many other countries are worse off than Lebanon when it comes to visa applications.
For instance, nonimmigrant visa applications to the U.S. had a 25 percent refusal rate for Lebanese citizens in 2018, according to statistics from the U.S. State Department.
Citizens from a number of other Middle Eastern countries had higher refusal rates: 32 percent for Egyptians, 43 percent for Jordanians, 57 percent for Iraqis, 77 percent for Syrians.
But Lebanon’s refusal rate is much higher than that of citizens from European countries like Germany, at 7 percent, and France, at 10 percent. It is also considerably higher than the refusal rates for those from some other Middle Eastern countries with closer business and political ties to America: 7 percent for Saudi Arabia, 4 percent for the UAE, 5 percent for Israel.
In the Schengen region, applications originating from Lebanon had a 9 percent “not-issued” rate in 2017, according to statistics provided by the European Union. That was slightly higher than the zone’s overall not-issued rate of 8 percent.
In the U.K., for the fourth quarter of 2017, 13 percent of visa applications from Lebanon were refused, compared with 14 percent overall.
For those who are refused, the process can be a major setback.
Ayah Habli, a fashion design student at the Lebanese American University, applied for a visa to the U.K. this winter so she could intern with a company in London.
“London is, like, the fashion capital, so we all wanted to go there and learn from the best,” she said.
Habli said she had difficulty even determining what category of visa she needed to apply for, as embassy employees would not answer her questions by phone or in person.
The embassy in Beirut does not have a visa section, and applications go through TLSContact, a private company providing visa services. Habli said she applied twice, once on her own and once through a travel agency, and was rejected both times.
“It was completely depressing,” Habli said. “I just stopped moving, I stopped doing everything for a whole month.” (In the end, she added, she found two internships in Lebanon.)
Representatives of the U.K. Embassy were unable to provide comment Wednesday.
In some cases, obtaining a visa may be getting more difficult.
Statistics show a slight but steady increase in the refusal rate in the Schengen region over the past few years, from 5 percent in 2014 to 8 percent in 2017. A spokeswoman for the EU delegation in Lebanon said she could not comment on visa policies, which are responsibility of the member state embassies.
Significantly fewer people are entering the U.S. as well. From a high of 10.9 million nonimmigrant visas issued in 2015, the number dropped to just over 9 million in 2018. For Lebanese applicants, from a high of 28,983 admitted on nonimmigrant visas in 2014, the numbers dropped each year, landing at 21,911 in 2018.
Katie Buoymaster, former managing director of the Hale Education Group in Lebanon, which helps Lebanese students apply to U.S. educational institutions, said obtaining an educational visa had become progressively more challenging, for reasons she deemed related to the political situation.
Every year since the election of President Donald Trump, she said, “things are getting more difficult. ... Even if families ultimately received visas, the amount of paperwork they had to produce for reasons that were never made entirely clear just skyrocketed.”
A U.S. State Department official said the visa application requirements “have not changed significantly over the last 27 months,” but noted that “a small subset of visa applicants worldwide” deemed by consular officers to require additional screening must now complete a supplemental form with the past 15 years of their travel history, employment history, past and current social media handles, email accounts and addresses.
The process may soon become still more difficult.
The official added that under a yet-to-be-implemented proposal, nearly all applicants will be required to provide more extensive information as part of “our ongoing efforts to improve our screening processes and support legitimate travel and immigration to the United States while protecting U.S. citizens.”