Syrians face ‘bitter’ choices as Erbil suspends residency renewals

The government of Iraqi Kurdistan has suspended residency renewals for Syrians in its territory without issuing a formal decision, leaving many in a state of chaos and confusion about their future in the autonomous region.

AL-HASAKAH — For 20 days, Amer Abdullah (a pseudonym) pursued a single goal: renewing his yearly residency permit in Erbil, the capital city of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), before it expired. Nothing he tried worked, and his residency finally expired on May 7.

Without valid residency, the 28-year-old Syrian fears he will be forced to return to Syria “under duress.” Then there are the fines. The government levies a daily fee of 20,000 Iraqi dinars (IQD) (around $14) for overstaying an expired residency permit.

Abdullah contacted several travel agencies and lawyers while trying to renew his residency, but everyone he spoke to “confirmed that it was currently impossible” because the notary office where those applying for or renewing residency permits must provide fingerprints is closed, he explained to Syria Direct.

The notary office’s closure coincided with an April 4 decision issued by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to stop issuing entry visas to Syrian passport holders as of March 29. Syrians with residency in the United States, Canada or Europe were exempted.

While the April 4 decision did not mention residency permits, Erbil appears at the same time to have suspended renewals for Syrians already living in its territory. With no formal clarification, Abdullah and other Syrians—particularly those whose permits have expired or are on the verge of expiring—are left worried and confused.

Although the main roadblock Abdullah encountered was the closure of the notary office, others who were already fingerprinted and took a blood test—one of the last steps for a renewal—have also been unable to complete the process.

The suspension of residency renewals comes amid reports that Erbil intends to significantly increase the price of renewals, introduce new conditions and limit the procedures to specific companies.

The KRG currently charges IQD 735,000 (around $525) to renew a residency permit, alongside lawyer or travel agency fees of between $40 and $50, Omar Agha, a lawyer in Erbil, told Syria Direct.

Rikan Aziz Saleh, a lawyer and director of the Lake Uzungol Company in Erbil that specializes in visas and residency permits, said renewals were suspended because of “a loophole, or misunderstanding, regarding social security.”

Under the social security law in the KRI, five percent of a worker’s income and 12 percent of a business owner’s income is deducted and deposited into a pension fund, which is paid out after workers reach retirement age. However, this law has not been applied to Syrians.

Syria Direct reached out several times to the Director General of Diwan at the KRG Ministry of Interior, Hemn Merany, for clarification regarding why residency renewals were suspended and whether they would resume once the fee is raised. Merany did not respond by the time of publication.

Over the past several years, Erbil attracted thousands of Syrians to its territory, making it easy for them to obtain entry visas and residency permits and not pursuing those without valid residency. As a result, Erbil became a refuge for Syrians fleeing conscription and a meeting place for families separated by borders and war.

That changed at the start of April. The regional government began to tighten restrictions on Syrians by stopping issuing entry visas to Syrians, calling on new arrivals to leave its territory as soon as their visas expired and suspending the residency renewal process.

On May 7, the owners of travel agencies in the KRI posted videos on social media speaking about a decision issued by the Erbil Residency Directorate to allow Syrians without residency permits—or who have not been able to renew—to leave without paying accumulated fines. Instead, those affected can pay a flat fee of IQD 60,000 (around $42). However, the decision did not refer to those who wish to stay and renew their residency.

‘Tough choices’

One year ago, Abdullah, who is originally from Aleppo city, arrived in Erbil and obtained a one-year residency to “improve my living situation and secure [money for] the ‘cash alternative,’” a waiver of $8,000 that can be paid in lieu of mandatory military service. With the waiver, he hoped to be able to visit his family without being pursued by Syrian security services.

“Since the renewal was stopped, I’ve been living the worst days of my life,” Abdullah told Syria Direct via Facebook Messenger. “I don’t know what to do. I can’t go back to Syria.”

With residency renewals suspended, Syrians like Abdullah have gone from a place of relative stability to a reality of “tough choices,” as he put it. “I don’t currently have the money to pay for the military service waiver that would allow me to return to Syria, and I can’t travel to another country because of the high costs.”

To renew residency in the KRI, foreigners must apply through lawyers or specialized travel agencies, providing a passport, two personal photos and the current residency permit, in addition to fees that vary from one company to another. These documents are sent to the notary office, where applicants provide their fingerprints.

Once the fingerprints are accepted, applicants must take a blood test, after which they are summoned to the Erbil Residency Directorate to confirm they are currently present in the KRI and receive a residency permit.

While Abdullah’s residency has now expired and he is accumulating fines, Salem Ahmad (a pseudonym) has a month and a half left. Given the KRG’s restrictive measures and lack of clarity regarding its position on residency renewals, the 38-year-old fears it could halt renewals altogether. This would “destroy my life and business,” he said.

Ahmad, who is from the Syrian capital city of Damascus, came to Erbil a year ago “fleeing reserve service,” he told Syria Direct. As soon as he arrived, he obtained a residency permit and opened a shop selling fruits and vegetables. “The store [generates] good profits. It’s my livelihood, and I support my family in Syria with it,” he said.

If Erbil stops renewing residencies altogether, Ahmad faces two options, “both bitter.” He can remain in Erbil and keep working, accumulating fines and “facing arrest or deportation at any moment,” or sell his shop and travel to Egypt, “starting from zero.”

“We, the Syrian people, if we worked making shrouds, people would stop dying. We have no luck in this world,” Ahmad said. He emphasized that Syrians in the KRI work long hours for little pay, going without in order to save money for residency fees.

Hope remains

Every day, Samer Ali (a pseudonym) checks the Erbil Residency Directorate’s website and trawls through Syrian social media groups looking for the latest news, “but there’s nothing new since the notary office is still closed,” he said.

Ali’s residency expires on May 23. The 23-year-old worries Erbil could delay renewals further, leaving him accumulating fines.

Ali, who is from Syria’s Hama city, has lived in Erbil for two years. He already submitted his documents to a lawyer in the hopes of renewing his residency, but, like Abdullah, was told it is “currently impossible.”

“I hope Erbil will show compassion and allow us to renew,” Ali said. He feels trapped. He cannot return to Syria, and if his residency expires he will lose his job as a delivery driver.

Still, amid the chaos that Syrians in Erbil are navigating, Ali seemed optimistic that the KRG would restart renewals, and that its increasingly restrictive policies would not devolve into deportations. The local labor market would take a hit “if we were deported, because there are thousands of Syrians working,” he said.

Agha, the lawyer in Erbil, agreed that “there is no option except renewal.”

While dozens of Syrians who Syria Direct contacted or observed on social media have not been able to renew their residency permits, Muhammad Zariqat, a 25-year-old from Daraa, did receive a new permit on April 29 after paying $540 in lawyer and residency fees. Zariqat applied for his renewal in March 2024, was fingerprinted on March 7, and took a blood test on March 26, he told Syria Direct.

Saleh, the lawyer and company director in Erbil, said Syrians can still obtain renewals if they began the procedures, such as fingerprints and blood tests, before April 1. Syria Direct could not verify the accuracy of this from an official source.

Saleh also said the KRG’s Ministry of Interior would issue detailed instructions related to granting and renewing visas and residencies within a month, citing what he was told by “relevant parties” he did not name.

Until any official guidance is issued to explain the mechanism for granting visas and residencies that will shape Syrians’ future in the KRI, Abdullah is clinging to the hope that renewals will once again be processed and fines canceled.

No matter what the instructions contain, “the government should issue a decision explaining what we should do,” Ahmad said. He held the Erbil government responsible for “putting an end to the chaos and confusion it has caused.”

Translated into English by Mateo Nelson.

Original article

Photo: A market in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq, 15/10/2022. Source: Martin Bertrand/Hans Lucas/AFP.

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Syrians at a loss after Erbil stops issuing visas

Themes
• Armed / ethnic conflict
• Forced evictions
• Housing rights
• Legal frameworks
• National
• Norms and standards
• Public policies
• Refugees
• Regional
• Temporary shelter