By Alistair Lyon, Special Correspondent
DAMASCUS, May 18(Reuters) - Syria may eventually try to restrain a flood of more than a million Iraqi refugees fleeing a nightmare that could get worse, international aid officials say.
The influx, swelled by 30,000 to 40,000 newcomers a month, is straining the resources of a country that has so far upheld an open-door policy dictated by its Arab nationalist ideology.
"Little by little, the attitude of the Syrian population to the Iraqis is changing," Laurens Jolles, representative of the U.N. refugee agency in Damascus, told reporters this week.
"While there still is a degree of empathy, they are also starting to feel the consequences of this very large number of Iraqis in terms of schooling and access to clinics."
Jolles said many Syrians were also blaming Iraqis, fairly or unfairly, for soaring rents, prices and a perceived crime wave.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is the lead agency helping Syria cope with the Iraqis seeking sanctuary from the sectarian bloodshed shredding their homeland.
Jean-Jacques Fresard, chief delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), told Reuters he also feared Syria might reconsider its welcome to the refugees, especially amid growing public resentment and security worries.
"You can reasonably fear that at some stage the Syrians might say ok, that's it, the boat is full. They might not completely close the borders but they will be more reluctant to take all the newcomers. This is very preoccupying," he said.
Syrian officials were not immediately available for comment. Despite the growing refugee burden, only Syria has kept its borders open. Jordan, Egypt and other countries have made it much harder, if not impossible, for Iraqis to gain entry.
Iraqis can cross freely into Syria, stay three months and renew their permits for three months before they must return to the border and re-enter on the same conditions.
Earlier this year the authorities briefly insisted that Iraqis who had stayed six months must leave for a month before coming back, creating great anxiety and many protests among refugees, but soon reverted to the old policy, Jolles said.
In practice, many Iraqis stay without renewing their papers and the Syrian authorities have rarely cracked down, he added.
Despite greater international interest and extra donor funds this year, humanitarian efforts to help host countries seem dwarfed by the scale of an upheaval that has already forced up to four million Iraqis to flee abroad or within the country.
"I hope to be wrong, but all of us believe the worst is still to come in Iraq, which may translate into many more people arriving here and possibly pretty soon," Fresard said.
He said the rate of new arrivals could rise after the school year ends in June, or if there is any big surge in fighting.
Syria says it already has taken in 1.4 million Iraqi "guests", 80 percent of whom live in or near the capital Damascus. The UNHCR has no precise figure but says the Iraqis number more than a million in a country of 19 million people.
No third country is willing to accept more than a tiny fraction of the Iraqis for resettlement, so Syria faces the prospect of hosting them for as long as Iraq's torment persists.
Syria has long had a Palestinian refugee community, now 400,000-strong, from the 1948 war when Israel was created.
Iraqis can enroll their children in Syrian state schools with no fees -- although aid agencies say they are alarmed that only a minority do so -- or get free treatment at government medical facilities, straining already creaking public services.
An ICRC survey of Iraqi refugees in Syria found that at least a quarter were extremely poor and were cutting down on food and bottled water to save enough money for rent.
The refugees, from all of Iraq's ethnic and religious communities, live on their savings or get money from relatives in Iraq or abroad. Some find jobs in the crowded neighbourhoods where Iraqis have gravitated, although this is forbidden.
"People came with money and they are slowly running out," Fresard said. "There will be a breaking point. We don't know when, but for many of these people it will be this year."
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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