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Iraqi Refugees in Syria Growing Poorer
Report Presents Detailed Snapshot of Displaced Iraqis
06/19/2007 09:00 AM ET
Khitam Munir and her two sons (3 and 4 years-old) wait their turn to register at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) registration centre in Duma, 15 km north of the Syrian capital Damascus, 23 April 2007.
Photo by Ranzi Haidar/AFP-Getty Images
Khitam Munir and her two sons (3 and 4 years-old) wait their turn to register at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) registration centre in Duma, 15 km north of the Syrian capital Damascus, 23 April 2007.

Syria, along with Jordan, hosts the largest caseload of Iraqi refugees, with estimates hovering between one million and 1.5 million displaced Iraqis living in the country.

A new report released by the Brookings Institution and the University of Bern provides a detailed look at the Iraqi refugees in Syria, highlighting ominous trends for the future of the Iraqi refugee crisis in the country.

Conducted by a team of field researchers on the ground in Syria, the Brookings-Bern report, entitled "Iraqi Refugees in the Syrian Arab Republic: A Field-Based Snapshot" is a rare systematic look at this large and growing population living on the margins in Syrian society. The study's principal authors are Ashraf al-Khalidi, Sophia Hoffmann, and Victor Tanner. Ashraf al-Khalidi is a nom de plume adopted for security reasons by an Iraqi researcher who is also a valued contributor to IraqSlogger's network of expert sources.

Iraqis in Syria, on the whole, have been able to avoid living in the tent cities associated with other humanitarian crises and mass flight of populations, and some, especially those with some access to capital or skills, have found work or even found a Syrian partner to illicitly run a business.

However, the Brookings-Bern report finds that any other Iraqis have not found such opportunity in their host country, and that there are ominous signs of deterioration in the condition of displaced Iraqis.

Several groups form a "small core of highly vulnerable Iraqi refugees," including Palestinians who had been living as refugees in Iraq, religious minorities such as Christians and Sabeans, children, some of whom are forced into exploitative labor arrangements, and the very poor, whose numbers are growing quickly.

While most Iraqis have settled in Syria, significant Iraqi populations reside in several other metropolitan areas of the country. All ethnic and sectarian backgrounds are represented among the Iraqi population in Syria, with Christians and Mandeans disproportionately present.

The study provides a rich snapshot of the areas of housing, health, education, economic activity, including discussions of child labor, prostitution, and the secondary trade in Iraqi food rations.

Many Iraqis live in a delicate legal situation in Syria, able to enter the country, but unable to work or obtain property. Many poorer Iraqis especially are compelled to renew their visitors' visa by returning to Iraq, a trip that can be dangerous and costly, especially as Syria adds restrictions requiring Iraqis to wait a month before reentering Syria. However, lax enforcement has allowed some Iraqis to pursue business or employment opportunities that they might not have had in other host countries.

Growing poorer

Most ominously, Iraqis in Syria are, on the whole, growing poorer, in several significant ways. First, the stream of new refugees to Syria tend to be those who could not afford to leave in earlier waves of Iraqi displacement, but who decide to leave Iraq now as the security situation deteriorates. They arrive in Syria with very little and cannot count on more resources sent from home. Secondly, many Iraqis have been living on their savings or on the proceeds of selling their possessions. As these funds are depleted, more Iraqis will face destitution in their host country.

An Iraqi refugee shows his passport as he waits in queue to register at the UNHCR center in the Damascus suburb of Duma, April 23  2007.
Ramzi Haidar/AFP.
An Iraqi refugee shows his passport as he waits in queue to register at the UNHCR center in the Damascus suburb of Duma, April 23 2007.
"Syria is not a rich country," and the impact of the mass inflow of refugees on Syrian society has been considerable. While some Syrians have found new opportunities with the Iraqi population, many complain of increases in prices and rents with the addition of over one million Iraqis, though the report notes that Syria was struggling with these issues beforehand, and that "the economic impact of the Iraqi refugees has probably not been all negative."

"Iraqi refugees receive little from the international community," the study finds. Only a relatively small percentage of Iraqis living in exile in Syria access assistance from international organizations such as the UNHCR, and relief efforts may very easily be swamped. As of May 2007, only 85,000 Iraqis were registered to receive assistance from the UNHCR, out of as many as 1.5 million living in the country.

The only real assistance that most Iraqi refugees receive comes from the Syrian state. Syria lets them in, unlike most other countries whether geographically near or far, and allows them to use the national education and health systems. Finally, because of the inconsistent, lax and at times corrupt implementation of work and business regulations by Syrian police, some of the Iraqi refugees are able to make a living and provide for their families. The only national organization to really provide support to the Iraqi refugees is the Syrian Red Crescent, which is closely affiliated with the Syrian authorities.

However, the looming crisis of depleting resources and increased influx of poorer Iraqis may force the government to reduce its support as the crisis escalates. The report warns that increasing demand on the Syrian public welfare system could harden the position of the Syrian authorities.

Community-based and charitable resources, either among Iraqis or Syrians, have not shown a capacity or willingness to meet the growing challenges:

There seems to be a dearth of help from national or local Syrian charitable organizations, other than a few church-based organizations and the Catholic organization Caritas. It is interesting in particular that Islamic charitable organizations (local or international) do not seem to have mobilized, either with their own funds or as an implementing partner for the Government or UNHCR.

There are very few self-help organizations within the Iraqi refugee community. The only ones are Christian and Sabean. There are reportedly several Shi‘a offices in Sayyida Zeinab: a Sistani-affiliated (hauza) office, a Sadr office and a Shahid al-Mihrab (SCIRI) office. They operate openly but do not provide much assistance, sometimes helping to gather money for Iraqis who want to return but cannot afford the bus fare. They mostly organize Shi‘a ceremonies and register the marriages of Iraqi Shi‘a. Self-help among the Iraqi Muslim refugees that seems to be limited to friends and kin. But there is little formal organizing among the refugees. It is difficult to start an association or organization in Syria, but this lack of organization is nevertheless striking. The Christians and the Sabeans on the other hand have been more active in organizing solidarity networks within their communities that go beyond extended families and circles of friends.

The fact that there are few community-based organizations means that the refugees have to rely on institutional help – the Red Crescent, Syrian government services for health and education, even Syrian Christian charities – or themselves and their kin. As the number of Iraqis in Syria grows, as increasingly poorer Iraqis enter the country, and as the needs of those already in the country grows because of dwindling resources, institutional assistance may no longer be available to them in the same way. Charities will be overwhelmed. The Syrian government may have to cut down on the level of services they allow the refugees to access. This could open large gaps in the assistance the Iraqi refugees receive, and shift decisively the burden of assistance to the refugees themselves, just as their ability to respond is diminishing.

Refugee issues are becoming paramount, the report argues, as the wave of displacement shows no sign of abating, and the great majority of Iraqis surveyed reported that they had little hope of returning home in the near future.

The full document is available here: BrookingsBern200706RefugeesSyria.pdf

The Brookings-Bern report, also located here on the Brookings Institution site is one in a series of reports produced by the Brookings-Bern partnership on the Iraqi refugee population. Earlier documents, detailing the crisis of Iraq's internally displaced populations, are available from the study's web page. The Brookings-Bern reports on displaced Iraqis are among the most important in-depth studies of the Iraqi refugee crisis.


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