February 18, 2016 / 2:57 PM / in 2 years

U.S. adds visa restrictions to Yemen, Somalia, Libya travelers

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has added Yemen, Somalia and Libya as “countries of concern” under its visa waiver program, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said on Thursday, in a move that will make U.S. visa procedures more stringent for individuals who have visited those nations during the past five years.

People seek cover from rising dust as a Qatari military cargo plane carrying aid lands at the international airport of Yemen's southern port city of Aden August 1, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

The new restrictions were imposed under a law passed after the November attacks in Paris attributed to Islamic State. Citizens of U.S. allies who previously had been able to travel to the United States without first obtaining a visa now will have to apply to U.S. consulates for such visas if they have traveled to those designated countries in the past five years.

The Homeland Security Department said the new requirements will not automatically affect nationals from visa-waiver countries who also are dual nationals of Yemen, Somalia and Libya.

The department said that under the new procedures, the Homeland Security secretary can waive the more stringent visa requirements on a case-by-case basis. Such waivers would primarily be available to journalists or individuals traveling on behalf of international organizations or humanitarian groups, the department said.

The latest visa waiver restrictions were imposed as U.S. security agencies sharpen their focus on the threat posed by Islamist foreign fighters and seek to make it more difficult for them to take advantage of the U.S. visa waiver program. The program allows citizens of 38 mainly European countries to travel to the United States for up to 90 days without a visa.

Before traveling to the U.S., citizens of visa waiver countries must register online using a U.S. government system called ESTA. This system gives U.S. agencies the opportunity to check out visa waiver applicants’ backgrounds through intelligence and law enforcement data bases before giving them permission to board U.S.-bound flights.

The U.S. visa waiver program came under harsh scrutiny in the U.S. Congress after the Paris attacks because some of the militants behind the attacks were European nationals, theoretically eligible for U.S. visa waivers, who had become radicalized after visiting Syria.

The three additional nations join Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Syria as countries subject to restrictions for those seeking to travel to the United States.

Homeland Security said it will continue to work with the State Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to determine whether additional countries should be added to the list.

Reporting by Megan Cassella and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Susan Heavey and Bill Trott

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