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Syria assures UN it will not forcibly deport Iraqi refugees under new visa system

Syria assures UN it will not forcibly deport Iraqi refugees under new visa system

The Syrian Government has assured the United Nations refugee agency that it does not intend to forcibly return Iraqi refugees, estimated at some 1.4 million, when it introduces new visa requirements.

In talks at the Foreign Ministry in Damascus, the Syrian capital, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) top protection official Erika Feller was told that the new visa restrictions arose from the fact that Syria’s ability to handle the influx is close to the breaking point.

Ms. Feller, on a mission to Syria to see first-hand the situation of Iraqi refugees, acknowledged the enormous pressure on Syrian society – its infrastructure, economy, security and energy resources – and reiterated the agency’s appreciation for the generosity shown by the Syrian people, UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told a news briefing in Geneva today.

“So far, she has received assurances that the Government does not intend to forcibly return Iraqi refugees currently living in Syria, estimated at some 1.4 million,” he said, noting that Ms. Feller had expressed hope that the most vulnerable will continue to have access to the safe environment offered by Syria and that there be no forcible return.

She has also highlighted the need for sustained international support to Syria in its efforts to cope with the huge number of Iraqis.

Over the weekend, press reports about the new visa requirements caused great concern among Iraqis in Syria, with a UNHCR hotline for refugees being inundated with calls from people asking how this would affect their situation.

In her discussions, Ms. Feller is seeking to clarify the reports. Although all the officials she has met so far confirmed that there would be a new visa regime, no formal policy has yet been made available to UNHCR. According to Government sources, all Iraqis wishing to enter Syria will have to apply for a visa from the Syrian Embassy in Baghdad.

Syria is the only country not to have imposed strict regulations on the entry of Iraqi refugees. Jordan, which hosts an estimated 500,000 to 750,000 Iraqis, has largely limited access for new arrivals, while other regional countries have tough visa regulations in place.

Ms. Feller, who oversees UNHCR’s protection work for nearly 33 million refugees and other people of concern worldwide, is continuing her efforts to obtain more information on how the visa rules may affect Iraqi refugees, Mr. Redmond said.

Since the beginning of the year, UNHCR has issued two appeals aimed at helping countries in the region to cope with the humanitarian crisis of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fleeing the violence in their homeland. The first commits $41 million to Syria for humanitarian assistance. The second, launched jointly with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), seeks over $63 million to support the education sector.

UNHCR has so far registered a total of 118,000 Iraqis in Syria and expects that figure to reach 200,000 by the end of the year. Many of them are seriously ill and victims of extreme violence and torture. Ms. Feller noted at least 2,000 people continue to flee their homes in Iraq daily. Tomorrow she is due to continue her mission in Lebanon.