January 8, 2016 / 5:43 PM / in 2 years

Syrians return to Damascus after Turkey introduces new air-travel visas

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey introduced visa requirements for Syrians arriving by air and sea on Friday, part of efforts to stem the flow of illegal migrants to Europe, forcing hundreds of Syrians to return to Damascus, officials said.

Some 400 Syrians transiting through Beirut were unable to board two flights to Turkey late on Thursday as a result of the move and had to return to Damascus, an airport official said.

When it announced the planned restrictions last week, the Turkish foreign ministry made clear its land border would remain open to migrants, a policy in place since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011.

“Applying visas to those coming through air and land borders results from a need for an arrangement which can be seen in the framework of the struggle with illegal immigration,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Tanju Bilgic said on Dec. 30.

Turkey is home to more than 2.2 million Syrians, the world’s largest refugee population.

At great peril, hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and others have used Turkey as a stepping stone to reach Greece before traveling to other parts of Europe, creating the largest movement of people since World War Two.

The European Union, which Turkey aspires to join, agreed in November to provide Ankara with 3 billion euros ($3.27 billion) in aid in exchange for Turkish moves to stem the flow of migrants leaving for Europe.

Reporting by Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara and Mariam Karouny in Beirut; Writing by Ayla Jean Yackley and Nick Tattersall; Editing by Richard Balmforth

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