Jordan slaps visa restrictions on Iraqis

/ Source: The Associated Press

Jordan imposed visa restrictions Thursday on Iraqis to stem an influx of refugees across the border even as a top U.N. official called for host countries to help settle the refugees who cannot return home.

U.N High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, in Syria for a regional tour to address the issue of 2.5 million displaced Iraqis, said that while he supported the idea of refugees returning home, in many cases the conditions are not yet right.

"I wish that hosting countries would increase the opportunities of settling those people," Guterres said during a news conference in Damascus. He said more than 70,000 Iraqi refugees want to settle in the host countries.

Iraqis trying to go to Jordan, however, must now apply in their own country for a Jordanian visa before traveling, Jordanian Interior Minister Eid al-Fayez said Thursday. He said the applications will then be sent to Amman for processing.

Previously, visas could be obtained at the border, though in the last two years young men were turned back in droves.

Violence prompts restrictions
Jordan first imposed restrictions on Iraqi residents following triple hotel blasts carried out by Iraqi suicide bombers in November 2005, killing 63 people. The government is also concerned that Iraq's sectarian violence could spread to the expatriate community.

The Iraqi ambassador in Amman, Saad al-Hayyani, said his government "understands the Jordanian concerns and appreciates them."

Al-Hayyani said that two years ago the Iraqi government imposed visa restrictions on Arabs, including Jordanians, to stem the entry of foreign fighters seeking to join the insurgency.

Jordan says there are some 750,000 Iraqis living here and that they have cost the cash-strapped country about $2.2 billion over the past three years, exhausting its infrastructure and causing inflation.

Syria is home to twice as many Iraqis refugees as Jordan, and authorities there say the influx costs the government $1.6 billion a year.

Guterres met President Bashar Assad and discussed ways to support the refugees.

"We have stressed that Syria would not force the Iraqi refugees to go back home, and we have gotten similar assurances from the Jordanian monarch," he said.