Iraqi refugees in Syria not going back soon
April 15, 2010
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees have been stuck in Syria for years. They are running out of money and into trouble.
Burud (39) walks with a limp. She lifted her long dress to show she had been
missing a foot ever since she came too close to an exploding bomb in Baghdad
in 2005. After she recuperated from her injuries - most of them that is, she
is still missing a hand and her body is full of shards left by the bomb -
Burud fled to Syria, where she remains to this day.
She lives in the narrow Sha’ab street, out in the Damascus suburb of Yarmouk,
with her six children, aged 4 to 17. For Burud, going back is not an option.
"I have gone through enough," she said. "And besides, we were kicked out of
our house by Shiite militias."
Most refugees are Sunnites
According to UN estimates, Syria harbours 900,000 Iraqi refugees at the most.
Of all registered refugees, 65 percent are from Baghdad province.
Most, (62 percent) are Sunnites. Only 19 percent are Shiites. Slightly less (11 percent) of refugees are Christian.
In Iraq, 60 percent of the population is Shia, 20 percent are Sunni and 1 percent is Christian.
Hundreds of thousands fled for Syria
Burud is just one of the hundreds of thousands Iraqi refugees who have been
living in Syria for years now. Most of them live do not live in refugee
camps but have found a place amongst the Syrians. To date, 163,000 refugees
have officially been registered with the UN refugee agency UNHCR, but it is
estimated an additional 400,000 to 800,000 now in the country have not.
"Perhaps they don’t need our help. Or perhaps they don’t trust us," said
Farah Dakhlallah, a spokesperson for the UNHCR in Damascus.
After the bombing of the golden-domed Al Askari mosque in Samara in 2006 set
off a wave of violence between the Sunni and Shia Muslims in Iraq, refugees
started pouring into Syria in huge numbers. At one point, as many as tens of
thousands were arriving weekly. Since 2008, Iraq has slowly become less
violent. The number of people killed dropped from 2,000 a month to somewhere
between 200 and 300. But, like Burud, many refugees have no intention of
returning. They no longer have homes to go back to, or remain wary of
conditions in their home country.
The UN has yet to give the green light for them to return. "A lot of problems
remain with general security," Dakhlallah said, sitting in the UNHCR’s
Damascus office. "In addition, power and potable water are not readily
available. Unemployment levels are high. We do not believe that the
conditions allow for a safe, permanent return, particularly in the five
central provinces. A lot of work remains to be done there."
The Iraqi government promised large sums of money, housing and jobs to
returning refugees. "But it has failed to make good on those promises," said
Filippo Rossi, with the UNHCR registration centre in Douma. Many people have
returned without any assistance, the UN assumes some 60,000 did in the last
New refugees are still coming
But at the registration centre, dozens of new arrivals still awaited their
turn. Every day, some 20 to 30 families, 150 a week, still check in here.
Approximately 60 percent are fresh from Iraq. The others have been in Syria
for a while but only register once they run out of money and need support.
The slower influx of refugees means that their total number is now
declining, but the Iraqis left here are doing worse and worse. "Most are
middle-class Iraqis who have been pushed into the margins of society,"
Official, refugees are not allowed to work in Syria. "Which forces them to
work illegally," said Dakhlallah. They lose their dignity and their families
fall apart. Domestic violence becomes more frequent. Generally speaking, a
lot of negative phenomena are on the rise: child labour, forced marriages,
Mazen (50) is a Sunni from the Al-Ghazaliya neighbourhood in Baghdad. "I had a
prospering car rental business," he recalled. "But Shiite militias took over
my neighbourhood in 2006. I was threatened and told to leave. One day,
militias gained access to my home by posing as a regular patrol and raped my
wife. I took her, my daughter [now 14] and my two sons [18 and 21] and fled
here. By now we have gone through all of our savings, and there is no work
here for us."
Mazen does not want to go back. Al-Ghazaliya is still under Shia control. "If
we returned we would be killed. Here we are safe, but dependent on outside
help. I have lost my dignity," he said.
All registered refugees are entitled to food rations consisting of rice, sugar
and tea. Vulnerable groups, single mothers especially, also receive
financial assistance of some 80 euros a month. They pay only a nominal fee
for basic medical care and their children can attend school for free.
The UNHCR is trying hard to prevent Syria’s better healthcare from drawing
'medical tourism’ from Iraq. The UN support Syrian healthcare and education
by building new schools and introducing new educational methods for
instance. "It is important to continue this assistance," Dakhlallah said.
"So Damascus won’t suddenly decide it has had enough. So far, Syria has been
more than generous." Still, the UNHCR expects that international financial
contributions will dwindle as the world’s attention shifts away from Iraq
and its refugees. "Iraq is no longer the world’s biggest problem, but this
would be exactly the wrong moment to pull out. A lot of refugees can’t
return," Dakhlallah said.
Burud’s husband returned to Iraq in 2006 to earn money. "He is risking his
life," Burud said. "At a certain point he was kidnapped ad by Shiite
militias, held captive for three months and tortured."
"In Iraq we are humiliated. We have asked our government for help, but only
Shiites or people with wasta [connections] receive it. I am not going
back," Burud added.