Iraq + 1 more

Iraq-Syria: Iraqi doctors welcome refugee agency contribution for hospitals

DAMASCUS, 1 May 2007 (IRIN) - Iraqi doctors in Damascus have welcomed the announcement today by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) that it is contributing US $2 million to the Syrian Ministry of Health towards the strengthening of medical facilities available for more than one million Iraqi refugees in Syria.

"Many Iraqi refugees need urgent medical help and Syrian private hospitals are too expensive," Ayad Tariq, an Iraqi doctor who fled Baghdad in July 2006, told IRIN.

"I'm doing nothing here and I want to help the other refugees, even if I work for free. Most of the Iraqi doctors here are unemployed and we need and want to be practicing," he said. Iraqi refugees are forbidden by the Syrian government from seeking employment.

The sum brings to US $9.6 million the amount that UNHCR has pledged this year to help the Syrian government provide vital services to the estimated 1.2 million Iraqi refugees currently residing in Syria.

"This is nearly 10 million [US dollars] we have given to the Syrian government and the Red Crescent to support them in what they are already doing for Iraqi refugees and in recognition of the huge burden those refugees impose," Sybella Wilkes, UNHCR spokeswoman in Damascus, said.

The latest contribution, which is exactly US $2.06 million, is to be used for the provision of medical equipment and services as well as the rehabilitation of Damascus hospitals in an effort to meet the growing health demands of the Iraqi refugee population.

Though technically entitled to state health care in Syria, Iraqi refugees are often unable to obtain it, and are forced to seek private care, for which many have scant resources to pay.

The funds will be used to relieve "the added pressure that the refugees are putting on the existing system", said Wilkes, adding that the refugee crisis is currently "pushing the limits of the [Syrian health] system".

UNHCR estimates that more than two million Iraqis have fled Iraq since the US-led war began in March 2003, with more than one million of them fleeing to Syria. Thousands more continue to enter the country each month.

Working with the Syrian Ministry of Health and Syrian Arab Red Crescent, UNHCR is also currently involved in plans for a new hospital for Iraqi refugees.

The Zahera hospital, which is due to open in October 2007, will be largely staffed by Iraqi doctors.

With the Syrian government struggling to cope with the sheer numbers of refugees in its country, UNHCR launched an international campaign in January to raise US $60 million to assist host countries. In April, an international conference was held in Geneva calling on the international community to respond to the growing Iraqi refugee crisis.