DAMASCUS, 15 May 2007 (IRIN) - In a quiet street in Douma, 25km from the centre of Damascus, a new refugee centre is taking shape. The former warehouse, taken over by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and still under construction, has become a haven for Iraqis seeking refugee status in Syria.
"Since January we've registered as many refugees as all of last year and we have the potential for 200,000 this year," Sybella Wilkes, spokesperson for the UNHCR in Damascus, told IRIN.
After struggling for years with woeful facilities and a drastically under-funded budget, UNHCR Damascus at last has the money and manpower to cope better with the humanitarian needs of the 1.3 million Iraqi refugees living in Syria.
Following January's US$60 million appeal - and building on April's Geneva international conference - the UNHCR has increased the budget for its Damascus operation from $700,000 last year to $16 million this year, giving it spending power of approximately $12 per Iraqi refugee per year.
As well as establishing the new centre at Douma, which replaces the former cramped and inadequate city centre office, UNHCR Damascus has quadrupled its staff, and increased the number of clerks registering new refugees from two to 25. The new office has registered 37,000 Iraqis since January, equal to the total number previously registered since 1992.
Some of the UNHCR's $60 million Iraq supplementary budget has also been used to support Syrian government ministries and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), with whom four agreements totalling $10 million have been signed since January.
"We've seen a huge expansion of our capacity and funding since the beginning of the year. and these programmes are achieving major support for the Syrian government," said Wilkes.
Last month's $2.06 million grant to the Syrian Ministry of Health for the refurbishment of hospitals follows similar funding for schools, educational and medical supplies, as well as a new hospital due to open in October and be staffed by, and cater for, Iraqis.
"Our cooperation with the UNHCR has been very good and strong and it has been very important in helping the Iraqi refugees," said Marwan Abdullah, director of the SARC, the principle Syrian organisation working with Iraqi refugees.
Women facing abuse
The UNHCR is also using the expansion to increase social work in the community, particularly with Iraqi women facing abuse. According to Wilkes, 6,500 cases of domestic violence in the Iraqi refugee community have been reported since the beginning of the year.
In response the UNHCR has begun sending social teams into the community to investigate the growing problem.
At the Douma centre, a children's area is manned by Red Crescent volunteers who play cards with smiling Iraqi children, while in the courtyard Iraqi families sit patiently filling out forms before proceeding to the interview hall, a series of spacious booths shielded by curtains and equipped with new computers.
Yet though the infrastructure in place to support refugees has improved dramatically, countless Iraqis in Syria continue to feel abandoned.
Many projects have yet to show tangible results, and while the UNHCR is interviewing an average of 250 people daily, Iraqis continue to have to wait six months for the appointment that will certify them as refugees.
Once registered as refugees, the UNHCR can offer Iraqis very little. Unable to work under Syrian law, and with the UNHCR's budget too tight to offer individual financial support, many Iraqis who have lived in Syria for many months are fast running out of resources.
Iman Kate fled the violence of Baghdad in August 2006, looking for a more secure future in Damascus after her husband was killed and son kidnapped. Her hopes have not been realised. Though registered as a UNHCR refugee, life remains a daily struggle.
In recent weeks, the rent for her Damascus home - a sparse room in a bare concrete house, overlooking a field of putrid rubbish - was doubled and she and her two children were forced to move elsewhere. With little of the US$1,000 she arrived with remaining and unable to work legally, Iman does not know what she is going to do next.
"I am very miserable," she says, "very miserable." Iman, like many refugees, saw the UNHCR as her gateway to a better future, but was disappointed to find the agency unable to provide any easy answers.
"When I called them, the woman told me this is not a travel agency and that I couldn't speak to them without an appointment," she said. "Then she hung up."
Iman sees her family's only hope as repatriation to the US or Europe, a solution which the UNHCR rejects as "not an option" for the over two million Iraqis driven out of their country.
"Are they helping me? Never. I don't know what they're doing with me," Iman said, describing numerous phone calls and visits to the UNHCR to plead her case.
Without further financial support, there is little more the UNHCR can do.
"This is a start but we want to double, triple, quadruple this support for all these ministries," said Wilkes, pointing toward the imminent launch of "another huge appeal".