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Iraqis prevented from entering Syria by new visa rules, UN refugee agency says

Iraqis prevented from entering Syria by new visa rules, UN refugee agency says

Iraqi refugees at border crossing into Syria in 2004
Many Iraqis fleeing violence in their home country have found their entry into Syria cut off because of new visa restrictions which went into effect yesterday, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

With the exception of certain professional categories – for commerce, science, transport and education – Iraqi refugees must apply for visas at the Syrian Embassy in Baghdad’s Al Mansour district, the scene of frequent sectarian violence. UNHCR has been told by Iraqis that travelling to the district to apply for visa poses great danger to them.

“The regulations effectively mean there is no longer a safe place outside for Iraqis fleeing persecutions and violence,” the agency’s spokesperson Ron Redmond told reporters in Geneva. “An estimated 2,000 Iraqis flee their homes daily inside the country, so we are increasingly concerned about their fate as their options for safety are reduced.”

The Government has not released the exact details of the new visa rules. Although UNHCR is appealing for Iraqi refugees to be granted a visa on humanitarian grounds, Mr. Redmond noted that it is too early to ascertain whether Syria is making exceptions to the new policy for people escaping violence and persecution.

The spokesman acknowledged that Syria “of course has been extremely generous in accepting some 1.4 million Iraqis with only limited international support,” adding that UNHCR has received assurances from Government sources that the country will not deport Iraqi refugees residing in Syria.

According to the agency, over 4.2 Iraqis have fled their homes, with 2 million in neighbouring countries and 2.2 million displaced within Iraq.

Meanwhile, UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador and Egyptian film star Adel Imam arrived today for a two-day mission in Syria to see first-hand the difficulties faced by the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi families uprooted by conflict.

He is scheduled to hold meetings today with the Syrian First Lady, Government officials and the head of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. Mr. Imam will also meet with Iraqi refugees at the UNHCR registration in Douma and at health clinics.

The Goodwill Ambassador’s visit is taking place just as the school year is kicking off in Syria, where the Government recently announced that it will allow Iraqi children to enrol in public schools.

In another development, UNHCR today welcomed Chile’s decision to receive 100 Palestinian refugees living in destitute conditions on Iraq’s border with Syria and Jordan for several years.

The agency has repeatedly called for a human solution for Palestinian refugees – some received preferential treatment under Saddam Hussein and have become targets for attack since his overthrow in 2003 – who fled to Iraq after the creation of Israel in 1948. Nearly 20,000 of them have already fled but an estimated 15,000 still remain in the country, mostly in Baghdad.

In July, Brazil announced it would resettle 117 Palestinian refugees, and this process will begin shortly. Nearly two dozen Latin American nations signed an agreement to resettle refugees, and the Palestinians are the first from outside the region to benefit from the programme.