DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syria has imposed strict visa requirements on Iraqi nationals, officials said on Monday, cutting the only accessible escape route for thousands of refugees fleeing the upheaval in Iraq.
A government decree that takes effect on September 10 bars Iraqi passport holders from entering Syria except for businessmen and academics, a small minority of the 3,000-5,000 refugees who currently cross the border every day.
Jordan, the other main goal of Iraqi refugees, imposed its own visa requirements some two years ago.
“Syria has already received more than 1.5 million refugees and there could be no end in sight to what the Americans unleashed there. We simply can’t cope any more,” a Syrian official told Reuters.
The official gave no indication that Syria could force refugees already in the country to leave.
At Rawda cafe in the Syrian capital, a meeting point for refugees, Iraqis expressed frustration at the new regulations.
“All the roads in front of us are now blocked. Arab governments are making the lives of Iraqis even more miserable,” said Fadel Ahmad, who came from Baghdad.
“Escaping to Syria has kept me and my family alive. What are people facing death and eviction from there homes in Iraq supposed to do now?” asked Wafa Mahdi, a former school teacher.
Diplomats said Syrian officials informed Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of their intension to stop the influx during a visit by Maliki to Damascus last month.
Iraq’s Foreign Ministry said on its website that Syria has asked for Iraqi cooperation to implement the new visa system.
Iraqis could previously turn up at any Syrian border point and be automatically issued a three-month visa. Under the new decree visas can be issued only to businessmen and academics by Syrian embassies abroad.
“Iraqi nationals seeking a Syrian visa must show proof of residency in the country they are applying from,” the decree said.
Syria began receiving Iraqi refugees in large numbers after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that removed President Saddam Hussein from power and brought sectarian tensions to the surface. Syrian officials blame the influx for straining their infrastructure and public services.
Iraqi demand for housing in Syria has contributed to a property market boom and sharply higher consumer spending. Artists and intellectuals among the refugees are main players on the Syrian cultural scene.
A recent International Monetary Fund report said the influx of Iraqis had given the Syrian economy a boost.
The report said the refugees, who are not allowed to hold jobs legally, are believed to be living mainly off their savings. They constitute an estimated 8-10 percent of Syria’s population.