Iraqis Flood Refugee Center as Syria Changes Policy

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Syria has been the only country to accept Iraqi refugees without visas. i

Syria has been the only country in the region to accept Iraqi refugees without visas. A new policy to require visas goes into effect next week, and Iraqis are anxious to meet the deadline. Hayder Daffar for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Hayder Daffar for NPR
Syria has been the only country to accept Iraqi refugees without visas.

Syria has been the only country in the region to accept Iraqi refugees without visas. A new policy to require visas goes into effect next week, and Iraqis are anxious to meet the deadline.

Hayder Daffar for NPR
More than 600 people a day are processed at this U.N. refugee center east of Damascus in Syria. i

More than 600 people a day are processed at this U.N. refugee center east of Damascus in Syria. Hayder Daffar for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Hayder Daffar for NPR
More than 600 people a day are processed at this U.N. refugee center east of Damascus in Syria.

More than 600 people a day are processed at this U.N. refugee center east of Damascus in Syria.

Hayder Daffar for NPR

Syria has long offered an open door to its neighbors in Iraq who want to flee the war. It's the only country to allow Iraqis in without a visa, and more than 1.5 million refugees have taken advantage of that. But the numbers have placed huge burdens on Syria's economy and social structure, so Syria is about to change the policy.

Iraqis will now have to apply for visas at the Syrian embassy in Baghdad. But the embassy is in a violent neighborhood, making it almost impossible to get the necessary permissions, so the new measures effectively shut the last open door.

At the U.N.'s refugee processing center in Damascus — the largest such U.N. operation in the world — many Iraqis arrive straight from the border to register, hoping for protection in the face of uncertain status in Syria. The new policy is a source of anxiety for them, as they face persistent high levels of violence in Iraq.

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