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Fleeing Iraq
Syria Provides Healthcare for Iraqi Refugees
Damascus Strains Under US$60 Million Pricetag for 1.5 Million+ Iraqis
07/30/2007 1:13 PM ET
Damascus, SYRIA: Iraqi refugees wait to register at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) center in the Damascus suburb of Duma, 23 April 2007.
Ramzi Haidar/AFP/Getty
Damascus, SYRIA: Iraqi refugees wait to register at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) center in the Damascus suburb of Duma, 23 April 2007.

DAMASCUS, 30 July 2007 (IRIN) - Syria's minister of health said providing free medical care to the over 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria is costing the country around US$60 million a year, a burden he criticised the international community for failing to take responsibility for.

"It was the duty of the international community to take the initiative long before now to stop the suffering of our Iraqi brothers," said Maher Housami, speaking on 30 July at the end of a two-day conference in Damascus organised by the World Health Organization (WHO) to address the health crisis among Iraqi refugees' displaced by the four-year-old US-led invasion.

The WHO conference, attended by the health ministers of Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt, as well as WHO and UN officials, met to discuss Iraqi refugees' access to health care in Syria and the need to formulate a plan to counter the strain being placed on the national health system.

Housami expressed his disappointment that the USA had not provided countries in the region, particularly Syria and Jordan - who between them currently shelter an estimated 2.25 million Iraqi refugees - with greater financial support.

The Syrian government provides Iraqi refugees with free education and health care, but the massive influx of people - estimated at around 40,000 per month - means hospitals and clinics are often too overcrowded to treat refugees.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) provided funds for medical needs, including a US$2.06 million contribution to the Ministry of Health for the rehabilitation of hospitals, in a deal signed last May.

The agency is also involved in a project to launch a new hospital in October staffed by and catering for Iraqis.

"Burden" too great for Syria – minister

However, at a similar international conference in Amman last week aimed at easing the burden of countries hosting large numbers of Iraqi refugees, Housami said Syria had received only US$1 million out of the US$2 million agreed upon from the UNHCR.

Syria had been able to face the challenge for the past three years, said Housami in Amman, but "the suffering has surfaced now and Syria is no longer capable of enduring this burden."

Radhouane Nouicer, UNHCR regional director for Middle East and North Africa, said the UNHCR had allocated some US$40m out of its 2008 budget for Iraqis' health needs in host countries, and warned that the refugees had overburdened the host countries.

"Great problems lie ahead of us," said WHO regional director Hussein Gezairy. "We cannot eliminate these problems but we can reduce the suffering." Among the issues discussed at the conference was the urgent need to provide immunisations for Iraqi children to prevent the spread of disease.

The Damascus conference came just a day after Iraq won the final of the Asian Cup, a victory that brought up to five thousand celebrating Iraqis out onto the streets of the Sayeda Zeinab, an Iraqi-majority suburb of Damascus.

For many, the joy of victory was a welcome distraction from the daily hardship of life as a refugee.

"We have big problems - bombs are going off in Iraq and life here is so difficult," said Mohammed, a jubilant Iraqi football fan, "but for today we are so happy".

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