BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon turned back Syrians trying to cross the border Monday under strict new visa regulations, saying it simply cannot handle any more people displaced by the ongoing civil war.
The policy, requiring Syrians to obtain visas that sharply limit the time they can stay in Lebanon, effectively narrows one of the few escape routes left from a conflict that has displaced a third of Syria's pre-war population and shows no sign of ending.
Humanitarian groups dealing with Syrian refugees say authorities should not close the doors on people who are desperate to leave.
Leading politician Walid Jumblatt said there should be difference in dealing with "refugees who are fleeing death and destruction in Syria after they lost their homes," and those who come to Lebanon for political activities.
"The vast majority of them left Syria because of fear of war, and they are innocent," Jumblatt said in comments published Monday in his party's weekly Al-Anbaa.
The violence in Syria between forces loyal to President Bashar Assad and those opposed to his rule have caused more than 3 million people to flee the country, mainly to neighboring Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. Western countries have only accepted small numbers of refugees, and hundreds of people have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea on rickety smuggler ships. More than 200,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in 2011.
Lebanese officials say they can't absorb any more, estimating there are about 1.5 million Syrians in Lebanon, about one-quarter of the total population. Some 1.1 million are registered with the U.N.'s refugee agency.
"We have enough. There's no capacity anymore to host more displaced," Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk said at a televised news conference.
The United States warned against creating more challenges for Syrian refugees and urged Lebanon to work with U.N. officials to ensure that those fleeing violence and persecution would still be able to enter the country.
"We will continue to strongly encourage the governments of the region to provide for a refuge for asylum seekers," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Lebanese security officials had no exact numbers on how many Syrians were turned back Monday at the border. The flow of Syrians through one popular crossing appeared to be lower than normal.
In recent months, several thousand Syrians had been crossing into Lebanon every day, the officials said.
There are no plans to forcibly repatriate those Syrians already in Lebanon.
The changes establish new categories of entry visas for Syrians — including tourism, business, education and medical care — and sharply limit the time they can stay in Lebanon.
For decades, Syrians were freely given six-month visas, and many simply crossed the porous border without any paperwork.
When the Syrian uprising turned into a civil war, hundreds of thousands poured into Lebanon. The influx overwhelmed water and power supplies, pushed up rents and depressed the economy in rural areas, where Syrians compete with impoverished Lebanese for scarce jobs.
Tent cities have sprouted in the countryside, with many of the refugees confined to flimsy shelters that are being buffeted by winter rains and snow. Public opinion has sharply turned against the Syrians, and many see them as threats to the sovereignty of Lebanon, which has long been dominated by its larger neighbor.
Patricia Mouamar, communications manager at World Vision Lebanon, said the country "cannot close the door in the face of Syrian refugees."
"It is the right of every person to seek refuge in a country that protects him from violence," she said.
Lebanon has been hosting hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees since Israel's creation in 1948, and their presence was a central factor in the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war. The conflict in Syria has already escalated tensions between Lebanon's Shiites and Sunnis, and many fear the influx of the mainly Sunni refugees could again aggravate its delicate sectarian balance.
Lebanese border officials began informally restricting the entry of Syrians in October, causing a 50 percent drop in people seeking to register with the U.N.'s refugee agency, the UNHCR.
"We are looking at these new procedures with some interest, because those procedures don't make mention of the agreement of the government to continue to allow the most vulnerable cases to come through," said UNHCR's regional spokesman Ron Redmond.
Even after last year's informal limitations were introduced, he said the Lebanese government was still allowing in Syrians they deemed "urgent cases" — single women fleeing with their children, those needing urgent medical care, and children separated from their families.
"We didn't see any reference to that in these new regulations," Redmond said. "We want to get some kind of official documentation and description of how that's going to work."
A Lebanese security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to the press, said urgent humanitarian cases could still enter, and that Syrians could make use of a medical care category and a 48-hour visa that would allow them to apply for asylum at foreign embassies.
On Saturday, Syrian Ambassador Ali Abdel-Karim urged Lebanon to coordinate its new measures with Damascus.
Amid wide approval in Lebanon for the restrictions, a prominent newspaper editorial urged the country to act humanely.
"We know that the burden of the Syrian crisis, open to an abyss, is greater than what Lebanon can bear," Talal Salman wrote in As-Safir. "But it is able, certainly, to carry some of its weight."
The refugees, he added, "left with their faces etched in worry, to the closest asylum they know."