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IRAQ-SYRIA: Call for aid as Iraqi refugees' misery compounds

DAMASCUS, 25 March 2007 (IRIN) - Life for Ahlam al-Mulla, her husband and three children was meant to get easier after they fled their home outside Baghdad for the safety of Syria.

In July 2004, the 42-year-old Sunni was kidnapped on her way to work for the Iraqi Help Centre - a US-sponsored welfare organisation. The militia men who took her accused her of being an agent of the US occupation. They beat her for eight days, she said.

“My husband had to pay US $50,000 to get me released, otherwise I would have been killed,” Ahlam told IRIN in her bare living room in Damascus. “I was absolutely terrified.”

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that there are more than one million Iraqi refugees living in Syria. With new visa restrictions in place, soaring inflation, dwindling resources and no prospect of legal work, daily life for them has become increasingly unsustainable.

Unable to obtain official work permits in Syria, many Iraqi families, such as the Mullas, have spent the meagre resources they brought with them from Iraq and now rely on donations from relatives.

Confusion over tighter visa restrictions on Iraqis in Syria is further compounding a sense of insecurity as well as raising costs for families.

Last year, Iraqis were given six months to get visas to stay in Syria from the time of crossing the border. Now, families must apply for residency permits within 15 days of being in Syria, according to a January announcement by Syrian Interior Minister Bassam Abdul-Majid. These permits must then be renewed every three months by leaving Syria and returning. It used to be every six months.

Increasing financial strain

With twice as many expensive trips now required each year to stay in Syria, Iraqi families are coming under ever-increasing financial strain.

The huge numbers of extra residents in Damascus are also severely straining already inadequate services and infrastructure, and damaging Syria’s weak, centrally planned economy.

In a rare commentary on the situation of Iraqis in Syria, government daily Al-Baath last month called the situation “a real crisis”, noting that about 75,000 Iraqi students had enrolled in Syrian schools and that this had “overburdened the education sector and overcrowded schools”. In some schools, about 60 students are cramped into each classroom, it said.

The newspaper also complained of soaring food and rent prices as a result of the influx of Iraqis.

According to a study by the National Organisation for Human Rights in Syria (NOHR) on the effect of Iraqi refugees on inflation, an average two-bedroom apartment in a suburb of Damascus two years ago could be rented monthly for 8,000 Syrian pounds (US $160) but now costs 20,000 Syrian pounds (US $400) - a 250 percent increase.

“Syrians believe the Iraqi refugees are the main reason for inflation,” said Ammar Qurabi, NOHR Chairman. “In addition to the prices, Iraqis have brought with them many other problems, one of them being prostitution.”

For the Mulla family, who live in Damascus’ majority Shia suburb of Sayyeda Zeinab, it was the overburden on Syria’s healthcare system that was to have tragic consequences.

Unable to save their child

Delayed in admitting their 12-year-old son Anas to private healthcare in Sayyeda Zeinab after he fell sick, the parents watched in agony as doctors were unable to save their child, who died from internal bleeding.

“When we first arrived, we thought we would stay in Syria for just a few weeks, but we have been here more than two and half years,” said al-Mulla, with tears welling up in her eyes.

“We are grateful to the Syrian government for accepting us but we can’t imagine living like we do forever, and now that Anas is dead we want to move to Europe if we can.”

UNICEF estimates that around half of all Iraqi refugees are children, yet as of last month UNICEF’s Representative in Syria, Anis Salem, reported there had been no donor response to the call for US $700,000 in funding for this year’s UNICEF Syria programme.

Since the US-led war began four years ago, the US has allowed only about 600 Iraqi refugees to settle on its soil. UNHCR is urging Washington to take up to 20,000 this year.

UNHCR in Damascus is also woefully under-resourced and under-staffed, with the waiting time for seeing a UNHCR official averaging five months, according to Laurens Jolles, the UNHCR representative in Syria.

UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres met with senior officials in Damascus last month to assess the situation, and called the displacement of Iraqis “the biggest movement in the Middle East since the 1948 Palestinian crisis”.

UNHCR is arranging an international conference for 17 April in Geneva for 90 countries, including Syria, in the hope of raising some of the US $60 million it is appealing for to fund its work for uprooted Iraqis within their country and in neighbouring states, as well as for non-Iraqi refugees in Iraq.

On 19 March, Syria’s State Minister for Red Crescent Affairs Bashar al-Shaar, attending a conference in Geneva, chastised the international community for failing to provide aid to the huge numbers of Iraqi refugees in Syria.

“We call on international organisations to offer financial and moral support to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Organisation in order to ease the suffering of the Iraqi refugees,” Shaar said. “It is not enough just to express regrets and wishes.”



Copyright © IRIN 2007
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
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