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Erbil allows some visas, sets ‘prohibitive’ requirements for Syrians’ residency renewals

The government of Iraqi Kurdistan is once more granting entry visas to Syrian passport holders, but limits them to those with interviews scheduled at foreign consulates and embassies. Meanwhile, it has set “prohibitive” conditions for renewing residency permits.

3 June 2024

HASAKAH — Kamal Noureddin (a pseudonym), a refugee in Germany, is one step closer to reuniting with his wife and five-year-old daughter, who currently live in the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli. On May 29, he applied for their entry visas to the neighboring autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI)—where they have a family reunification appointment at the German consulate in Erbil—after he was told by a tourism company that it was once again possible, despite the local government’s April 4 decision to stop issuing visas to most Syrians. 

Noureddin’s family members should receive their visas in several days, after he paid $250 per person to apply, he told Syria Direct. He had been one of many Syrians negatively impacted by Erbil’s decision to stop issuing visas to most Syrian passport holders two months ago.

Ali Haji, an employee at the Sky Frankfurt travel and tourism company in Erbil, confirmed to Syria Direct that he was able to obtain entry visas several days ago for four Syrians who have interview appointments at foreign consulates. 

In late May, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq began granting entry visas to Syrians once more, though it now limits them to those who have appointments at consulates and embassies in the autonomous region, lawyers and travel agencies told Syria Direct

Applicants must “attach proof of an appointment at an embassy or foreign consulate in the KRI, alongside a passport, to officially submit an application,” al-Haji said. The company he works for specializes in obtaining visas and residency renewals for Syrian nationals. 

Financial losses

In the confusion surrounding Erbil’s abrupt decision to stop issuing entry visas to Syrians, some living abroad worried the move would stop them from reuniting with their family members by preventing them from attending required interviews at embassies in Erbil. 

Because even Syrians who had already obtained visas were prevented from traveling to the KRI following the decision, those who already bought plane tickets and paid for visa fees also suffered financial losses. 

On March 6, the KRG granted Noureddin’s wife and daughter’s visas for $125 each. On that basis, they booked plane tickets, planning to leave Syria on April 28—two days before their appointment at the German consulate—and return on May 12. The April 4 decision meant they could not arrive on time, seemingly crushing the family’s dream of reuniting in Germany, where Noureddin has been since August 2022. 

“The company would not return the $250 in visa fees. They only refunded $308 of the cost of the plane tickets” out of $508 total, Noureddin said. He held the Erbil government responsible for his financial loss, as well as the confusion that spread among Syrians “because it did not issue statements clarifying the details of the decision, leaving the matter to rumors on social media.” 

In the absence of any clarification from the KRG, Noureddin contacted the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and asked to postpone his family’s interview at the German consulate once it became clear they would not be able to travel on their original visas. Their appointment was rescheduled for June 26, and last week he applied for visas again. 

This time, the visas cost twice as much. Still, “even if a single visa cost $1,000, I would have to pay it—we have no other options,” he said.

The family of 36-year-old Delshad Omar (a pseudonym) lost $210 under similar circumstances. The travel agency they worked with only refunded its own fees, not the visa fees, Omar, who is originally from Aleppo and lives in Germany, said. 

Omar’s parents and brother obtained entry visas to Erbil for $125 per person. The family was supposed to meet in Iraqi Kurdistan on April 25, but the April 4 decision prevented them from doing so. They sought out another country, “and the option available to us was Jordan, despite the additional payments as a result,” he said. 

Residency renewals

Although Erbil’s visa decision did not mention changes for Syrians already residing in Iraqi Kurdistan, they were also impacted. In practice, residency renewals were suspended at the same time, sources told Syria Direct

Coinciding with the conditional return of visas, a new set of conditions for residency renewals has circulated on social media. The Erbil government and its websites remain silent, exacerbating the confusion that has plagued Syrians since April. 

“There are internal directives within the Erbil Residency Directorate regarding the new conditions to renew residencies,” Omar Agha, a lawyer in Erbil, told Syria Direct

These directives, which so far have only been circulated online by the owners of tourism companies, include the condition that those wishing to renew their residency permits must register themselves with the Ministry of Labor and Social Security through their employers. 

Company owners must register employees with the Social Security Department, then renew their residencies at the Department of Residency through a lawyer. While residency renewals were generally obtained through tourism companies in the past, now this is “not possible,” Agha said. 

Once registered for social security in the KRI, five percent of a worker’s income and 12 percent of the employer’s income is deducted and deposited into a pension fund, which is paid out after workers reach retirement age. The KRI’s social security law has not been applied to Syrians before now. 

Men receive retirement benefits after working for 20 years and reaching the age of 60, while women receive them after working for the same amount of time and reaching the age of 55. 

The problem Syrian workers in the KRI now face is that for every foreign worker registered with social security, three local workers must be registered. A local law, issued in September 2022, requires companies to maintain a ratio of 75 percent local employees to 25 percent foreign workers, including Syrians. 

Tying residency renewals to social security comes as “a disappointment and a shock” to Syrian residents, as 23-year-old Samer Ali (a pseudonym), from Hama city, told Syria Direct. The number of foreign employees at his workplace is “multiple times the number of local citizens,” leaving him with little hope of renewing his residency, which expired on May 23. 

Before his residency expired, Ali—who has lived in Erbil for two years and works as a delivery driver—submitted his documents to a lawyer in the hope he could renew it, but was told at the time it was “impossible.” 

When the new renewal conditions began circulating online, Ali, who works as a delivery driver, asked his employer to register him with the Department of Social Security so he could renew his residency. “He told me nothing can be done right now, until a formal decision is issued,” Ali said. 

“The fines have started piling up,” he said in a voice message via Facebook Messenger. “The government is silent. It doesn’t release any details. What are we supposed to do?”

While Ali has not been able to renew his residency, Ahmad Mustafa (a pseudonym) said a lawyer managed to renew the residencies of two young Syrians at the cafeteria where he works in Erbil. This was despite his workplace not achieving the ratio required by law, as 15 Syrians and only a single Iraqi citizen work there, the young man from Damascus told Syria Direct

The lawyer was paid $200 per person, he said, with 68,000 Iraqi dinars ($50) to be deducted from the two workers’ salaries monthly for the pension fund. 

However, the successful renewal of these two workers’ residency permits likely cannot be generalized to Syrians more broadly. Mustafa believes it was done “through connections.” The owner and business partners of the cafeteria where he works “belong to a well-known clan, and they have a presence in the country,” he explained. Other sources contacted by Syria Direct all confirmed they had not been able to renew their residencies because they did not meet the social security requirement. 

Syria Direct reached out to the KRG and the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs for comment on the renewal conditions circulating online, as well as about the fate of Syrians who do not meet the conditions to renew, but received no response by the time of publication. 

Lawyer Agha called the current conditions for renewing residency “prohibitive,” especially since the number of foreign employees across all sectors far exceeds the number of local workers. With that, “it is impossible to implement the required ratio,” he said.” 

He estimated that 98 percent of Syrians in the KRI are not registered with social security because the local government has not previously required them to do so. Implementing the social security law now aims at “employing local labor and reducing the number of foreign workers,” in Agha’s view. “To that end, it has begun to oblige companies to attain the required ratio.” 

While Erbil remains silent, social media posts by owners of tourism companies have pointed to one possible way out for Syrians who are not eligible to renew their residencies under the new requirements. They suggest that an employee whose employer refuses or is unable to register them with social security could set up a company under their own name and register that way as an investor. If an individual is not financially able to set up a company, they could establish one with others, on condition that each person holds at least 20 percent of the shares, to renew residency. Haji, the employee at the Sky Frankfurt travel agency, also presented this as a possibility. 

However, Agha said this is not possible “This talk is not true,” he said. “The KRG prohibits the establishment of any company in the name of a foreign individual. The company must be in the name of an Iraqi Kurdish person.” 

Until the picture becomes clear and Syrians find a way out of the current crisis, workers told Syria Direct that they fear the social security requirement will drive employers to fire them in order to achieve the right percentage of local labor.

Worse still would be for the KRG to hold firm to its conditions, leading Syrians to not only lose their jobs, but be forced to “leave the region’s territory, especially since the fines will pile up,” Agha said. He noted that “the regional government has the right to deport people whose residency permits have expired, and who have overstayed.” 

While the Erbil government has now made an exception to allow Syrians with consulate appointments to be granted entry visas, those already living in the region are still waiting for any official word that will allow them to renew their residencies and continue their lives in Iraqi Kurdistan. 

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.

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