ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA - Ethiopia is banning street begging by Syrian nationals who have startled people by showing up in growing numbers in recent months in major cities around hotels and mosques.
"We are now coordinating our security services to effectively ban Syrian citizens from begging. We have tolerated them for some time but we have now decided to ban the illegal practice. ... They are becoming a burden," the deputy head of Ethiopia's immigration office told The Associated Press on Friday.
Some 560 Syrians entered between mid-August and mid-December and the majority leave when their tourist visas expire, said the deputy, Yemane Gebremeskel. While street begging is not illegal in Ethiopia — there is a large presence of children — the act of entering the country as a tourist and begging is, he said.
Nearly 120 other Syrians have applied for refugee status in the East African nation that hosts one of the world's largest refugee populations, and they were provided with support equaling around $73.
"We gave them what we could afford but they are still begging," Yemane said.
Many Ethiopians were baffled when the Syrians began appearing on the streets of the capital, Addis Ababa, displaying signs written in the local Amharic language appealing for help.
One Syrian told the AP his family fled the war at home and has moved from place to place as life in other countries became too expensive.
Khalid Youssef said he, his wife and three children first sought refuge in Lebanon then a year ago moved to Sudan, which neighbors Ethiopia, with the help of the United Nations. They finally moved to Ethiopia.
"We don't have any money," he said. "Besides, there was no work in Sudan even though people were generous. Here, people are even more generous and they help us a lot."
To survive, he said, the family asks for charity during the day. "At night we go to sleep at the mosque."
The U.N. refugee agency told the AP in December it was supporting Ethiopia's government in caring for close to 80 "Syrian refugees and asylum seekers" whom it said started arriving in the country in 2014.
After several interviews the Syrians on the streets, the agency "was able to establish that these were new arrivals," it said. Over the previous month three Syrian families composed of 20 people had applied for asylum, it added.
Ethiopia currently hosts 900,000 refugees mainly from neighboring Somalia, South Sudan, Eritrea and Sudan. Earlier this month the U.N. praised the government for a new law that will allow refugees to obtain work permits, go to primary schools, open bank accounts and more.
Ethiopia's refugee law is now "one of the most progressive refugee policies in Africa," the agency said.