DAMASCUS - Long the only welcoming country in the region for Iraqi refugees, Syria has closed its borders to all but a small group of Iraqis and imposed new visa rules that will legally require the 1.5 million Iraqis currently in Syria to return to Iraq.
The change quietly went into effect on Oct. 1. Syrian officials have often threatened to stem the flow of refugees over the past eight months, but until now have backed down after pleas from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
For more than a year, 2,000 to 4,000 Iraqis have fled into Syria every day, according to United Nations officials. On the last four days that the border remained open, the officials said, 25,000 Iraqis crossed into Syria.
"The door is now closed to Iraqis in every direction," said Sybella Wilkes, a spokeswoman here for the United Nations refugee agency.
It is unclear whether Syria will enforce the rules for the Iraqis already in the country. United Nations officials believe Syria is likely to continue its practice of not deporting citizens of other Arab countries whose immigration status is illegal.
Syria announced the new rules this summer and said they would take effect on Sept. 1. But it postponed their implementation and continued to accept refugees until Oct. 1. Under the old visa rules, Iraqis entered Syria without restriction and were allowed to remain for three months. Damascus has avoided any announcement about the policy since it took effect, leaving refugees and United Nations officials in a haze of uncertainty.
Under the new rules, Iraqis must apply for visas at the Syrian Embassy in Baghdad. Only academics, merchants with commercial interests requiring travel to Syria, and taxi and truck drivers qualify for visas.
The immediate effect has been to cut the flood of refugees to a trickle, no more than a hundred people a day, according to the United Nations. Over the long term, it means that Iraqi refugees who overstay their three-month visas to Syria may have to make the dangerous trip back to Baghdad and apply to return under the new visa requirement, which disqualifies all but a handful.
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Syrian officials have said they were responding to a longstanding request from the Iraqi government to close their border, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity, following government policy. They said the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, told Syrian leaders on a state visit in August that the constant flow of refugees undermined the Iraqi government's effort to bring greater security to the country.
That account was corroborated by diplomats based in Damascus and by United Nations officials. Attempts to reach officials in the Iraqi Foreign Ministry and prime minister's office were unsuccessful on Saturday.
Jordan is the only other neighbor of Iraq to take in a substantial number of refugees, housing an estimated 500,000 to 700,000 Iraqis. But Jordan limited admission to Iraqis more than a year ago.
The visa changes come as the Syrian government has tightened its control over its Iraqi refugee population. Kadhim Aydan, 42, originally from the Dora neighborhood of Baghdad, moved his wife and 13-year-old daughter to comparative safety in the Iraqi city of Iskandariya. He occasionally earns money in Syria writing articles for Arabic newspapers. Now, he said, it will be impossible to bring his family to join him because he cannot get them visas, and he is afraid he will not be readmitted to Syria if he goes to visit them.
"The situation here is degrading, and getting worse all the time for Iraqis," Mr. Aydan said as he played backgammon in a teahouse in Sayeda Zeinab.
Saif Jassem, 25, fled to Syria last November, after he was fired from his job in Baghdad. His gratitude is tempered by the fear that he will be forced to return to the war that claimed his father's life.
He described life for the Iraqis in Syria as "tragic," adding, "We need a solution for the entire Iraqi community."
© 2007 The New York Times