WFP began a three month emergency response operation (EMOP 10576) on the 1 January 2007 to support UNHCR assist 6,645 vulnerable Iraqi and Palestinian refugees in Syria with basic rations in response to evidence of an increasing number of vulnerable refugees from Iraq entering Syria. It is believed Syria is hosting between 500-700,000 refugees, with reports of over a thousand arriving every day over the last eight months as a result of the escalation in violence in Iraq. What until now has been a somewhat silent contained exodus, is becoming a matter of urgency for both the Syrian authorities and the international community as the number of Iraqis leaving their homes to escape violence increases.
The UNHCR January 2007 appeal hopes to raise USD$60 million to provide much needed support both in Iraq and in the neighbouring countries(1) of Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey where an estimated 2 million are seeking refuge. A joint UNHCR/UNICEF/WFP assessment of Iraqi refugees in Syria during the last quarter of 2005(2) concluded that of those that had registered with the UNHCR to obtain a Temporary Protection letter(3) a large majority (82%) had adequate food consumption patterns.
A food security consultant was deployed to the WFP Syria Country Office (29 January-8 February 2007) to assess the food needs of the increasing number of new arrivals from Iraq and to advise WFP on the most appropriate food aid response.
Overall, the rapid assessment concludes that it is increased violence and fear of persecution that continue to drive people out of Iraq into Syria. Those fleeing from their homes over the last six to eight months, are entering Syria with less resources and less time to prepare their departure from Iraq than those arriving over the last few years. This means they are crossing the border and being totally reliant on their available cash and social networks to pay for their housing, medical, food and non-food needs whilst in Syria. The recent increased cost of living in Syria means that the poorer newcomers will be unable to fend for themselves for as long as the earlier arrivals, as rental prices have more than doubled from $80 to $160-200 for a one room house, food prices are up 25-30% and more and more refugees compete for under paid ljobs in the labour market that they are legally not allow to work in. However, it also means that a small proportion of refugees who have been in Syria for more than a year, still unable to work legally, will be unable to meet their monthly expenses(4).
The assessment estimates that 15 per cent of those registering with UNHCR in Syria (45,000 register in the first week of February) are unable to meet their expenses for more than three months from the date of arrival in Syria. It was not possible to ascertain the level of food insecurity of those not registered. Food insecurity is caused by limited purchasing power for Iraqis who have settled in Syrian cities and towns as many report they were unable to sell their assets before departure due to individual threats on their lives and are reluctant to show any evidence of their plans to leave their homes so as to avoid sectarian violence. In the case of the 654 Palestinian refugees from Iraq who have been grouped in El Tanf and El Hol in makeshift camps near the Iraqi border, food availability as well as access are the issue, as they have no means of supporting themselves.
There is currently limited formal assistance being given to vulnerable refugees fleeing Iraq. For the Iraqis, informal support networks through the Iraqi refugee community and the Syrian population are very likely the most effective means of support for those who need it. The UNHCR has more than doubled the number of refugees registered from 20,000 to over 53,000 in the last few months. During the second week of February UNHCR faced a sudden surge in numbers wishing to register spurred by fears of new Syrian government visa regulations and rumours arising from the visit of the High Commissioner for Refugees. The number on the waiting list climbed to 72,000 in one week prompting UNHCR to revise year end estimates of registered refugees to 200,000.
UNHCR refers vulnerable households to Syrian Arabic Red Crescent (SARC) health clinics, and to charitable organisations who can provide some food and non-food items as well as social support. Whilst there has been a three month waiting period to register in the past UNHCR is upgrading the system and expects to dramatically increase the number registered each month to absorb a rapidly rising caseload. The registration process assesses the refugees vulnerability and need for medical and food assistance. This assistance is limited by the low number of implementing partners available to the UN (the Syrian government strictly regulates and restricts the registration of NGOs in the country). WFP food commodities will be channelled through these organisations and through the local authorities outside Damascus in the Governorates of El Hassake and Deir-ez-Zour.
The legal status of Iraqis in Syria has become the most crucial issue for refugees. Recent changes by the Syrian authorities on visa formalities and visa extension procedures came into place on 20 January 2007, creating an atmosphere of utmost panic among refugees who fear deportation and the splitting up of their families. At the time of writing it appears the new measures are being put in place by the authorities. This is leading Iraqi families to try and register their school age children into local Syrian schools in the hope of being granted a longer term visa in country(5). Informal work opportunities available to the refugees are diminishing and therefore affecting their cash flow and purchasing power. Field work revealed that some refugees are considering returning to Iraq despite the security risks, or wanting to seek refuge along the border rather than crossing it, as they have no homes to return to in Iraq and do not want to not seek refuge in the Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps. Some refugees hope for resettlement arrangements as the only solution.
The assessment concludes that:
- Food access for both Iraqi and Palestinian refugees (in Al Hol and Al Tanf) is dependent to economic status, family composition and level of violence experienced in Iraq. Purchasing power is related to cash flow rather than ability to get credit. Refugees, unlike poorer Syrian households appear not be credit worthy among shop keepers and even their own community.
- Refugees registering with the UNHCR upon arrival in Syria over the last few months are more vulnerable than those who entered two or three years ago because they are leaving Iraq very rapidly, bring less cash with them, and are competing for accommodation and illegal work opportunities in Syria to maintain themselves.
- New arrivals are spending their money more quickly than they anticipated as the cost of living in Syria has recently become more expensive than in Iraq. Households reported spending twice as much money on food in Syria, with the better off families spending USD $3 per person per day and the poorest reducing their spending to USD$0.50 (this is very close to the market value of a full WFP food ration of basic commodities). This is true of both rural and urban areas.
- Refugee profiles are extremely diverse in terms of place of origin, access to accommodation in urban or rural settings, informal work opportunities and social support networks. Those registering with UNHCR, are increasingly motivated by medical assistance offered and hopes it will support their legal claims as asylum seekers. Registration to date is focused in Damascus and El Hassakeh.
- More information is required on whether households can afford to register their child in a Syrian school, as registration helps with visa extension claims.
- A new category of vulnerable refugee is forming among some of those who have been in country for more than a year as they now need to find more money per month to make ends meet than a year ago.
- Remittances are an effective coping mechanism for part of the refugees, but depend on the household's personal circumstance.
- The assessment cannot conclude whether registration is more attractive to those with material needs than the better off refugees.
The assessment does not make any conclusions about the nutritional status of the refugees. Whilst the quality of the diet has undoubtedly deteriorated for many refugees since they left Iraq, it is not possible to gauge what their nutritional status was before their arrival, and therefore impossible to discern between nutritional deficiencies due to poor quality diets whilst in Iraq or in Syria.
(1) There are an additional 54,000 in Iran since the 1990s assisted by UNHCR.
(2) UNHCR/UNICEF/WFP Assessment of the Situation of Iraqi refugees in Iraq (March 2006)
(3) Interim measure provided by UNHCR initially developed to prevent deportation of Iraqis regardless of them being eligible for refugee status. Temporary protection does not exempt refugees for the Syrian immigration procedures for temporary residency in Iraq, and in 2005 UNHCR was receiving an average of 400 applications per month, whereas in 2007 6,000 per month are expected.
(4) Monthly per capita expenditure among refugees was estimated at almost USD$100 in 2005, significantly higher than the Syrian upper poverty line of USD$ 42 reported by UNDP. Refugees have considerably higher housing costs than poor Syrians.
(5) The 2005 joint assessment estimated 30% of Iraqi school age children had not registered in schools. As of end of January 2007, 22,000 are said to be registered by the Syrian authorities - source UNHCR