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Iraqi refugees in the Syrian Arab Republic: A field-based snapshot - report

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In the past four years, the number of Iraqis who have been displaced by violence, both within Iraq's borders and in neighboring countries, has increased drastically. Of the estimated two million Iraqis who have sought protection in neighboring countries, at least 1.2 million to 1.5 million are presently in Syria. This study, part of a project funded by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees that will assess patterns of Iraqi displacement inside Iraq and throughout the region, focuses on Iraqis who have come to Syria since 2003. Subsequent research will examine internal displacement in Iraq and the situation of Iraqis in other countries of the region. The research was carried out by a team of international and Iraqi researchers in March-April 2007 and is based on several hundred interviews with Iraqis living in Syria, as well as with Syrians, Palestinians and international officials.

Two waves of Iraqi refugees have come to Syria over the course of the past 25 years. The first wave came in the 1970s and 1980s, many of them Sunnis who opposed the Saddam Hussein regime. Others were Shi'a fleeing persecution. Following the first Gulf War and the Iraqi government's repression of Shi'a in the South, the Syrian-Iraq border remained closed throughout the 1990s and only re-opened in 2001-2002. The second wave of Iraqi displacement began in 2003 as a result of the US invasion. The study focuses on this second wave of Iraqi refuges and traces the milestones of displacement within the period of 2003-2007.

The Iraqis who have come to Syria in the past four years come primarily from urban areas and represent diverse sectarian backgrounds, including Sunni, Shi'a and Kurds as well as minority groups of Christians (who are over-represented as refugees in Syria compared to their numbers in Iraq), Sabean-Madeans and Palestinians. Both Sunni and Shi'a Iraqi radical groups, especially the Ba'thi resistance, are also present in Syria.

Iraqis in Syria reported numerous reasons for leaving their country. Many left as a direct result of conflict, mostly from the rising sectarian violence but also from fighting between the insurgents and the Multinational Forces (MNF) allied with the Iraqi military. Individuals also left because they perceived themselves to be at risk for one reason or another - because they worked with the former regime or for the MNF, or because their ethnicity or occupation had become a target in the new violence. Others left for economic reasons - because they could no longer make a living in Iraq or because their homes had been taken by others. Many came because they had family members in Syria or needed health care which was not available in Iraq. In some cases, Iraqis came to Syria with their entire families while in other cases, individuals or some members of a family would be sent to Syria for their safety.

Iraqis sought refuge in Syria, rather than in other countries, for a number of reasons: geographic proximity, simple entry requirements, easy access to services, common language, the low cost of living and often the presence of family or friends in Syria.

Most Iraqis use buses and collective taxis to reach Syria although the roads are increasingly dangerous. People are not only targeted by sectarian militias, but are also attacked by bandits and looters seeking financial gain. Entry into Syria is relatively easy although Iraqis need to leave the country periodically to renew their entry stamps.

Iraqis fleeing overland to Syria generally do not bring much money with them because they fear looters on the road. Once in Syria, many rely on hawala transfers from friends and family in Iraq. And, as the situation in Iraq worsens, many Iraqis send money back to kin at home. While Syrians generally believe that the Iraqi refugees are rich, in fact wealthy Iraqis are a small minority of those living in Syria. Most Iraqis arrive with limited funds that often run out before steady employment can be secured, and many Iraqis must periodically make dangerous return trips to Iraq to sell off cars and other valuables. The situation is made worse by the fact that Iraqis are not allowed to work. Consequently, unemployment is high among the Iraqis, even if some have managed to work with a Syrian partner or for Iraqi-run businesses. Some Iraqis continue to draw government pensions and food rations, which are usually transferred to them in Syria - in cash or in kind - with the help of friends or family in Iraq. Many Iraqi families have stayed in Syria longer than they intended and the situation grows worse as their resources run out. Iraqi refugees have turned to both child labor and prostitution as coping mechanisms.

The largest area of Iraqi concentration in Syria is the greater Damascus urban area where they have established communities in specific neighborhoods, many of which have thriving businesses. Sectarianism has not spilled across the border. Most of the neighborhoods in which Iraqis settle are mixed. Unlike other refugee crises, most of the Iraqis who fled are skilled or have access to some finances. They do not live in tented camps or collective centers, but like most Syrian urban dwellers, in apartments. Unlike in Jordan, few Iraqis buy property in Syria, and prices for real estate and rents for apartments are increasing.

In terms of access to services, Iraqis who have the means to do so visit private doctors and clinics. Poorer Iraqis can only visit the Syrian public health service for emergency and primary health care and most poor Iraqis rely on Syrian Red Crescent clinics. Syrian charitable organizations also provide some health services. Religious affiliation seems to have no impact on the quality of health care Iraqi refugees receive.

Syrian elementary and secondary schools are open to Iraqi refugee children who can attend Syrian schools at no cost. But admission can be arbitrary, and they have to pay for supplies and uniforms (around 5,000 LS per year or $100). However, the Syrian Ministry of Education estimates that only 30,000 Iraqi children are enrolled in schools - a very low rate of registration.

The only real assistance that most Iraqis receive comes from the Syrian state. UNHCR is stepping up its assistance for refugees in the country, particularly for health services. There are very few self-help organizations within the Iraqi refugee community. The economic impact of the refugees on Syria has been substantial, but has probably not been all negative. The deterioration of relations between ordinary Syrians and their Iraqi guests is a cause for concern.

In the region, Syria has been the most open country to Iraqi refugees, allowing them to enter without stringent visa requirements, to come and go, to settle freely and to access basic services. Although many of the Iraqis have managed to survive in Syria, the study concludes that there are three challenges: the condition of a small core of highly vulnerable Iraqi refugees, the likely increase in the number of Iraqis coming to Syria, and a possible hardening of Syrian policies.

While it is clear that many of the Iraqis would like to return to their country, the overwhelming majority of Iraqis in Syria do not think that it will be safe enough to return in the near future and many believe that it will never be safe enough. The international community should work with Syrian authorities to help meet the needs of the refugees.