[Debate] Syria's Forgotten Refugees
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Thu May 10 23:50:37 BST 2012
Analysis: Syria’s forgotten refugees
DUBAI, 23 April 2012 (IRIN) - It was 21 February 2006. The date is
etched in Samia’s* mind.
She was in her kitchen making tea for her brother’s family, who was
visiting her at her home in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, when gunfire
broke out in the sitting room.
“It was as if there was a war in my home,” she recounted.
She could not move; could not breathe; could not do anything. Militias
killed nine members of her family that day, while she stood in the
other room, effectively paralysed.
Those were the early days of sectarian warfare in Iraq. Tens of
thousands of other deaths would follow over the course of the next two
Samia told IRIN her story years later from the rural suburbs of the
Syrian capital, Damascus, where she now lives as a refugee with her
husband and two of her children.
She is desperate to get out of Syria, where she says she continues to
receive threats from across the border in Iraq.
“Until now, I get calls saying if you come back, we will kill you,” she said.
The current unrest in Syria has only made things worse - food prices
have risen, she is reliving memories of war, and worst of all, her
family’s resettlement in the USA has been indefinitely stalled, with
limited alternatives for leaving Syria if the situation there
continues to deteriorate.
While the world focuses on the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees
fleeing an increasingly violent conflict between the government and
opposition forces, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in Syria - the
largest Iraqi refugee population in the world - have been all but
forgotten. The 102,000 registered refugees, amid a government estimate
of 1 million Iraqis in total, now face a more uncertain future than
ever - and some of them are crying out for help.
“Please,” Samia begged this IRIN reporter, “Consider me your mother.
Do something to help me. Let our voices reach America…Why can’t they
just take us out of here?”
Flight from Syria
Until now, there has been no mass departure of Iraqi refugees from
Syria. But according to government figures, in 2011, 67,000 Iraqis in
Syria returned to an Iraq which, while significantly safer than in
2006-7, is still one of the most dangerous places in the world. That
number is a significant jump from previous years: In 2009 and 2010
combined, the number of returns from Syria was less than half that,
according to statistics recorded by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and
the Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration.
The number of Iraqi refugees in Syria is expected to keep dropping,
with the overall registered refugee population expected to be 90,000
in the course of 2012, down from 127,859 in January 2011, according to
international community’s 2012 Response Plan for Iraq.
One senior aid worker told IRIN most of these returns have been
willing, voluntary and ultimately “the best solution”.
But the Brookings Institution, calls their return “premature” and a
survey by UNHCR just before the unrest in Syria started found that
most refugees in Syria were still unwilling to return home
“In situations like this, often, refugees have to decide between two
difficult situations and they will have to decide which is the least
problematic,” Panos Moumtzis, UNHCR’s newly-appointed regional
coordinator for the Syria crisis, told IRIN last month.
Much smaller numbers of Iraqis in Syria have fled a second time - into
Turkey, and to a lesser extent Lebanon and Jordan, where entry poses
Struggling to survive economically
Most Iraqis in Syria live in Damascus and the business capital,
Aleppo, relatively unaffected by the violence in Syria, which has
killed an estimated 9,000 Syrians since March 2011. Thus “they have
continued to enjoy relative stability and peace,” Moumtzis said.
Until now, UNHCR has been able to continue its regular assistance
programmes for Iraqi refugees, even in places as far as Hassakah, in
But the devaluation of the Syrian currency, sanctions and a deepening
economic crisis in Syria have affected everyone, including refugees
who were economically vulnerable to begin with and who are forbidden
from legal work as refugees in Syria.
The vast majority of the Iraqi refugee population in Syria gets food
assistance, which UNHCR says has helped to stave off negative coping
mechanisms and keep malnutrition at bay, but refugees say they are
eating less and even selling food to make ends meet.
Mohamed*, an Iraqi refugee in the northern Syrian city of Halab,
receives 10,500 Syrian pounds a month (about $183) for his family of
seven as a food allowance from UNHCR; but the bill for rent, water and
electricity is higher. And as food and gas prices have more than
doubled in some cases, his family has been forced to change their
eating habits, eating one loaf of bread per day instead of two, for
His family depends on remittances - now affected by the devaluation of
the Syrian currency - from family in Iraq to survive. UNHCR recently
increased the food allowance from 1,100 to 1,500 pounds per person per
month ($19 to $26); and intends to increase cash assistance for the
most vulnerable by 40 percent to compensate for the increase in
Samia, in rural Damascus, says her family sells the food they receive
from the World Food Programme in order to pay rent and carry them over
until the end of the month.
“I try to manage, scraping a bit from here, a bit from there to make
ends. Only God knows how much I’m suffering,” she said.
Her daughter has lost significant weight, she said, and the family has
reduced its food intake to basics like bread, tomatoes and oil,
refraining from fruit, chicken, cheese and other perceived luxuries.
Forbidden from formal employment in Syria, most Iraqis work in the
informal sector - in hotels or in tourism - an industry hard-hit by
the unrest. During a UNHCR survey of more than 800 refugees in
February, 40 percent of respondents reported a decrease in their
monthly income, and 13 percent had lost their employment altogether,
Helene Daubelcour, UNHCR spokesperson in Syria, told IRIN. Ninety
percent of them said they had higher food expenditures.
According to UNHCR, about 10,000 Iraqi refugees were living in hot
spots like Homs, Dera’a and areas of rural Damascus (Harasta,
Zabadani, Duma) when the Syrian conflict began. About half of them
have since moved to other areas of the country, displaced once again
and in need of more assistance.
Their secondary displacement has also driven up rent prices, as the
pressure on the availability of accommodation increase.
“You see the domino effect,” Daubelcour said.
At a roundtable discussion hosted by the Brookings-LSE Project on
Internal Displacement and the International Rescue Committee in
February, participants pointed to tensions between Iraqi refugees and
displaced Syrians as they compete for diminishing resources.
More than direct violence, refugees in Syria are at risk of
re-traumatization, with 78 percent of refugees surveyed by UNHCR
saying the current situation had had a negative impact on their mental
and physical well-being, including nightmares and recollections of the
past. The anxiety has led to an increase in domestic violence,
“We feel that what happened in Iraq could happen again,” said Mohamed,
who says he was kidnapped and tortured by the Mahdi Army, a Shia
militant group, in May 2006.
“I’m afraid of everything around me,” said Samia, the Iraqi who was in
the other room when her family was killed.
In response, UNHCR has further developed its psychosocial support and
Of the 1,600 Iraqis from Syria who registered with UNHCR in Turkey,
most said they did not feel safe.
“[They said] they already went through this once in Iraq and they have
no intention whatsoever of waiting for it to hit them more
particularly,” one senior aid worker in Turkey told IRIN. “It seems to
be that they are leaving pre-emptively.”
Stuck in Syria
The problem is that many of them cannot do so.
Some 18,000 Iraqi refugees who had already been accepted for
resettlement to a third country or were awaiting interviews, have had
their files frozen. Initially delayed due to new US security
procedures, the cases have now been put on indefinite hold because
resettlement countries have had more difficulty conducting interviews
amid the unrest.
Both Samia and Mohamed’s families have had their suitcases ready for
months, believing they were to travel any day; others were reportedly
turned back at the airport. They are now “stuck” in Syria until a
solution is found.
“There are a lot who had the expectation of resettlement and will not
be resettled any time soon,” said Andrew Harper, UNHCR representative
Refugee advocates have called for completing the process by video
conference, but UNHCR representatives say that option, as well as the
possibility of processing them in another country, is simply not
manageable for such a large number of people.
“Frankly speaking,” said the aid worker based in Turkey, “I don’t
think it is realistically doable.”
Nor would it necessarily be welcomed in neighbouring countries, which
are themselves hosting Iraqi refugees and have resettlement processes
of their own.
“Whether they jump the cue or not, that’s quite a sensitive issue,”
the aid worker pointed out.
This has left people like Samia and Mohamed “between a rock and no
place”, as the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project put it - unwilling to
return to Iraq’s continued violence, uncomfortable with the rising
insecurity and economic challenges in Syria, but unable to leave for
fear of losing their chance at permanent resettlement elsewhere.
Mohamed said he was told that if he left for Jordan or Turkey, his
case could be closed. UNHCR says there is no guarantee resettlement
cases will be taken up at the same stage if refugees leave for another
“I don’t want to waste these years that I invested here and throw them
away for nothing,” he told IRIN. “I spent six years here. There’s no
way I’m going to start over again.”
Freedom of movement
Others don’t have the financial means to leave Syria in the first place.
“If we had any way of going elsewhere, we would have left,” Samia’s
daughter, Zeinab*, told IRIN.
But the doors would not necessarily be open to them. Iraqis can get a
visa for Turkey at the border, and have been able to enter Lebanon on
tourist visas (about 100 have done so). But Jordan, which has opened
its doors to fleeing Syrians, has all but closed the border to Iraqis,
observers say, out of a fear that a mass influx of Iraqis would
overrun the already strained infrastructure in their small country,
already hosting many Iraqis from 2003 onwards.
“Of course, there are different considerations [for Iraqis],”
Jordanian government spokesperson Rakan al-Majali recently told IRIN.
“There are specific rules and regulations governing the entry of
Iraqis which existed before the crisis in Syria and continue to exist.
“A humanitarian situation does not justify breaking rules that apply
to a specific group.”
UNHCR acknowledges that this could lead to a situation in which it
becomes too violent for Iraqis to stay in Syria, too dangerous to go
back to Iraq and impossible to enter Jordan. It would then be up to
the international community to lobby other countries to take these
In addition to the Iraqis, there are around half a million
Palestinians and some 8,000 refugees from other countries - Somalia,
Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, even Afghanistan - who can’t necessarily go
back to their countries of origin.
“At the moment, we would like to see the borders remain open,”
regional refugee coordinator Moumtzis said. “Of course, the final
decision is on the neighbouring countries to make sure that this is
“With 45% of registered Iraqi refugees having been in Syria for over
five years, and decreasing opportunities for resettlement, the
character of the refugee situation will become protracted in nature,”
says the response plan.
*Names changed to protect identities of refugees
IRAQ-SYRIA: Samia, "Why can't they just take us out of here?"
DUBAI, 23 April 2012 (IRIN) - Syria is home to the largest Iraqi
refugee population in the world - an estimated one million people, of
whom 102,000 are registered with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
For years, it was a stable and welcoming refuge, but since an uprising
against the government began last year, Syria, too, has become a
Among the refugees are 18,000 who were in the pipeline or final stages
for resettlement abroad. Initially delayed due to new US security
procedures, the cases have now been put on indefinite hold because
resettlement countries have had more difficulty conducting interviews
amid the unrest. Samia* and her daughter Zeinab* told IRIN their story
from the outskirts of Damascus.
Samia: “My brother and his kids were visiting [Samia’s house in
Baghdad]. I was making tea in the kitchen. Militias entered the house.
I could hear gunfire in the other room. It was as if there was a war
in my home.
“I was virtually paralyzed. I wasn’t able to move. I couldn’t do anything.
“Nine members of my family were killed: my brother, his wife, their
young kids and my parents.
“Me and my daughter were in the kitchen. My husband and other kids
were at the petrol station. That’s why we weren’t killed.
“I couldn’t speak for hours. I didn’t know what to do until the
neighbours came to my house… At first, they hid us in the garden, and
then they brought us to Syria.
“Until now, I get calls saying, ‘If you come back, we will kill you’…
We didn’t know who they were… and I don’t know anything until now.
“Since 21 February 2006, until this hour, I swear to God, it’s as if
I’ve been slaughtered. It’s as if I am dead.
“When we came to Syria, we applied for resettlement... We are five:
the three kids, and me and my husband…We [were accepted in December
2010] and were supposed to travel in February 2011.
“But someone from the [International Organization for Migration, IOM]
got in touch and said the papers for my youngest son were not
complete. She said the other four of us could travel, and he would
follow in two weeks or a month at most.
“From February to October, we waited for the visa for America for the
four of us.”
Zeinab: “In October, they said `Get your bags ready. You will travel
Samia: “Then, the IOM got back in touch with us, saying only my
youngest son would travel. Now he’s in America and I’m still here… I
fled Iraq with my son so that he’s not killed. Now they’re taking him
to America and leaving me behind? ... There is nothing dearer than a
son… If they tell me I can’t go to my son, I’ll just set myself on
fire now. Death is better for me.”
Zeinab: “They shocked us. It was a big surprise to us… People with
cases that were [not as serious] as ours have travelled. Why are we
still here? What is the secret?”
Samia: “I don’t eat. I don’t drink. Wherever I go, I cry…
“My situation is dire… Help me because I can’t stand it any more. I
don’t have a home. I don’t have money. My son is in America… My
husband is 60 years old. He has kidney failure. He needs an operation
“My daughter volunteers with a humanitarian organization. We are
living off of her stipend: $150 a month [much of which goes towards
“If only you could see my daughter, she is extremely thin because we
don’t have enough food. We sell the food that comes to us from the UN
to pay the rent. I try to manage, scraping a bit from here, a bit from
there to make ends meet. Only God knows how much I’m suffering.
Zeinab: “Prices used to be so cheap in Syria. We were comfortable. But
now the situation has changed. Everything is frightening. The prices
are higher. The situation is different.”
Samia: “I am scared and worried. We don’t want a repeat of what
happened in Iraq… My [Syrian] neighbour, who lives below me, was
killed. Nobody knows who did it. If they come to kill my neighbour,
how do you want me not to be affected? If the violence is reaching the
citizens of the country, can’t it affect me too?
“I am not a citizen of this country. The citizens of this country are
fighting each other. How can I ensure my security? How can I feel
safe? I don’t know where to go. I was safe here, I was comfortable.
But now I am afraid. I don’t sleep at night.
“They could come from Iraq and kill me. They can reach me here…We
heard of an Iraqi store owner in Syria who was killed. People came
from Iraq to kill him… Until now, I am getting threats from Iraq… I’m
afraid of everything around me.
“I don’t understand [what the problem with the resettlement is]. All I
understand is that until now, the visa hasn’t come.
“What is our fate? They could get us out if they wanted to. They
already registered us and accepted us. Why can’t they just take us out
of here? The same way some people have been taken to Romania. Why not
“My suitcases are packed. I’m just waiting.”
Zeinab: “If we had any way of going elsewhere, we would have left.
“We can’t go back to Iraq, me and my family. We are afraid. What
happened to us - we don’t want to go through that again.
“We know people who have gone to Turkey, Jordan… But we have no money…
The visa costs money... How am I going to earn a living in Jordan?
“So we’re here, waiting for the visa…
“My mother has psoriasis all over her body. My father’s left kidney
failed. My younger brother has no work. He is frustrated. He can’t
propose [to any woman]. He has no means to propose… no money, no
stability. We are all just sitting here.
“We are frozen. Our lives are frozen right now.
“Day after day, we tell ourselves, `Maybe the visa will come in a day,
a week, a month.’ That’s how we’re living. Every day, we hope that
nothing [bad] is going to happen… We are wondering where we can go if
things get worse. That is what we are worried about. We spend all
“We’ve almost lost faith.”
Samia: “Please… Consider me your mother. Do something to help me. Let
our voices reach America… so that they find us a solution.”
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the refugees
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