SYRIA: Undocumented, overlooked and struggling to survive

from IRIN
Published on 31 Mar 2010
DAMASCUS, 31 March 2010 (IRIN) - Thousands of non-Iraqi and non-Palestinian refugees and asylum-seekers in Syria risk deportation and ill-treatment, and cannot get the help they need, according to refugee agencies.

Most are Somalis but there are also sizeable communities of Afghanis, Sudanese and Iranians, as well as nationals from Ethiopia, Eritrea and the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to agencies working on the ground.

There are no accurate numbers, but registrations by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) give an idea of the proportions, if not the sizes, of the various communities.

Currently registered with UNHCR in Syria are 3,500 Somali refugees and a further 1,000 asylum-seekers; 1,000 Afghani refugees and 500 asylum-seekers; 400 Sudanese refugees and 600 asylum-seekers; and 200 Iranian refugees as well as 200 Iranian asylum-seekers.

"These refugees [and asylum-seekers], most of whom live in Damascus and Rural Damascus, suffer considerable hardship," said Farah Dakhlallah, UNHCR spokesperson in Syria.

Syria is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, but it does allow legally residing foreigners to access services. However, a lack of documentation leaves many without essential education and health care.

"Non-Iraqi refugees have the same access to health care as Iraqis and all legal aliens have the right to enrol their children in Syrian state schools free of charge. However, since many non-Iraqi refugees often lack documentation, including passports, they face difficulties in accessing these facilities," said Dakhlallah.

Many of the undocumented refugees and asylum-seekers from these countries are at risk of being deported and frequently have to bribe their way out of trouble.

"I live in fear of the authorities as I don't have enough money to pay bribes and I don't want to be deported," said a Somali man in Masaken Barzeh, an area of Damascus with a high population of Somali refugees.

Narrow mandate

A further obstacle to providing services is the narrow mandate under which refugee agencies work.

All refugee agencies in Syria must be registered with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and, until recently, have had a mandate to deal with Iraqis only. Although many non-Iraqi refugees benefit indirectly from programmes for Iraqis, there are no services directly tailored to their needs.

Recently SARC accepted that services aimed at Iraqis may also be extended to non-Iraqis, and some organizations, such as IECD, a French development agency, have altered their programmes accordingly. At the IECD centre in the Damascus suburb of Jaramana, 5-10 percent of beneficiaries are non-Iraqis.

Some of the agencies trying to help non-Iraqi refugees are not registered and thus work illegally, aid workers say.

Lack of information

Each ethnic group has specific difficulties, but not nearly enough research has been done, and there is a big information gap.

"The Somalis' needs are higher than the Iraqis as they are poorer," said a Damascus-based refugee worker who preferred anonymity.

Among the problems identified in the Somali community are tribal allegiances transferred from Somalia, and female genital mutilation/cutting.

Many Afghanis arrived in the 1980s, and a new wave has been arriving recently owing to the war. "They struggle with the language as they speak neither Arabic nor English," the refugee worker said. "And they lack the networks to tap into."

Concerns involving the Sudanese include extreme economic hardship and women who have suffered violence and rape in Sudan, aid workers said.

Many of the Ahwazis (Iranians of Arab descent) fled to Syria after speaking out against the Iranian regime. In 2006 UNHCR expressed concern at the "refoulement" (sending back) of some of these refugees or asylum-seekers by Syria.

"Often these refugees are jailed or are in danger of being extradited but Syria can't be seen to be doing anything to help them," said a diplomat involved in refugee work who preferred anonymity. "There is help going on with the aid of embassies, but none of it is reflected in official figures."