Iraqi refugees in Syria not going back soon

An Iraqi store in the Syrian capital of Damascus.

By Carolien Roelants in Damascus

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 that she has 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 Sunnis

According to UN estimates, Syria harbours up to 900,000 Iraqi refugees.

Of all registered refugees, 65 percent are from Baghdad province.

Most, (62 percent) are Sunnis. 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 one percent is Christian.

Hundreds of thousands fled for Syria

Burud is just one of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees who have been living in Syria for years. Most of them do not live in refugee camps but have found a place amongst the Syrians. About 163,000 refugees are currently registered with the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, but it is estimated that an additional 400,000 to 800,000 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 the2006 bombing of Al Askari mosque in Samara set off a wave of violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Iraq, refugees started pouring into Syria in huge numbers. At one point, 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 of the UNHCR registration centre in Douma. Many people have returned without any assistance; the UN assumes some 60,000 did in the last year.


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,” Dakhlallah said.

Officially, 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, prostitution.”

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 supports Syrian healthcare and education by building new schools, for instance, and introducing new educational methods. “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.”

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