US Visa Restrictions on Syrians and Visitors to Syria
US President Barack Obama recently signed into law the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015, which will have wide ramifications for the ability of certain Syrians who are dual nationals to travel to the United States. The law also restricts the ability of certain foreign nationals who have visited Syria since March 1, 2011 to travel to the United States. Additionally, the law imposes similar restrictions on nationals from Iraq, Iran and Sudan and visitors to those countries. Officially, one of the justifications for the passage of this piece of legislation by the US Congress was the terrorist attacks in Paris last month.
The enactment of this law adds to the considerable number of measures passed by several countries that have had a detrimental effect on the Syrian population in general. Syrians are subject to a harsh international regime that hinders both their freedom of movement from one country to another and their right to engage in international commerce. Faced with these realities, they also have to withstand the severe destruction that has been visited upon their country.
It is firstly important to explain what the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) is since the new law applies to its member states. It allows citizens of 38 countries, including much of Europe, to visit the United States without a visa. Some of the major countries in the VWP include Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom. Canada on the other hand is not a member and has its own special agreement with the United States. A complete list of countries in the VWP is set out below.
Accordingly, if a Syrian national holds any one of those 38 nationalities as well, they will no longer be entitled to visa-free travel to the United States and will have to obtain a visa to do so. Therefore, this law includes situations where a British person born and raised in the United Kingdom for example to a Syrian father will have to apply for a visa to visit the United States even if that person has never been to Syria. Under Syrian law, the Syrian nationality is conferred on an individual by his or her father and the Syrian state is the ultimate decider of when or if that nationality may be maintained or forfeited. In practice, this law will affect many innocent Syrians who travel back home for personal reasons, not to mention those who might not have any real links to Syria.
As for the nationals of any of those 38 countries that participate in the VWP, they will also have to obtain a visa to travel to the United States if they have visited Syria since March 1, 2011. Therefore, any Australian, British, French, German, Italian or Spanish nationals for example who were in Syria on or after March 1, 2011 will have to obtain a visa to enter the United States. It is worth pointing out that March 1, 2011 was two weeks before unrest started to grip the country.
As a result of these changes, the European Union might reciprocate and implement similar rules itself. It could decide to do so as early as April 2016. If it does so, a number of Syrians might find themselves caught in the middle of this burdensome situation.
Such a move by the European Union would only add to the existing pile of worldwide restrictions aimed at Syrians. They already face difficulties entering their fellow Arab countries, even neighbouring Lebanon and Jordan. Furthermore, nobody can forget the tragic and ongoing migrant crisis in Europe where massive numbers of Syrians have sought refuge while facing enormous risks to their lives. For a country that used to pride itself on welcoming people from around the world whether for residential, touristic, educational or humanitarian purposes, it is a very unfortunate state of affairs that Syrians find themselves in, not to mention the plight they have to bear witness to in their country. With all these factors in mind, the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 is just another unnecessary measure directed at them.
Please note that the following 38 countries (in alphabetical order) are participants in the Visa Waiver Program: