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BorderWatch:Syria
Archive: May 2007
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Fleeing Iraq
Lack of Medical Facilities Leaves Many of Camp's 900+ Residents Desperately Sick
05/17/2007 10:45 AM ET
Children at the al-Waleed refugee camp on the Iraq-Syria border.
IRIN
Children at the al-Waleed refugee camp on the Iraq-Syria border.

BAGHDAD, 17 May 2007 (IRIN) - Hundreds of Palestinian refugees stranded at al-Waleed makeshift camp in no-man's land between the desert borders of Iraq and Syria are living in precarious conditions and people could die if they do not get medical treatment, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said on 15 May.

“We are particularly worried about the lack of medical facilities – many of the camp's 942 residents need urgent medical attention, including a mother of seven who suffers from leukemia and a teenage diabetic boy,” UNHCR spokesperson, Jennifer Pagonis, said in a statement on Tuesday.

"The tented camp is overcrowded and many people are suffering from respiratory and other ailments that need proper medical treatment. But the nearest hospital in Iraq is located four hours away by car and the road runs through dangerous territory," the statement said.

At least three people, including a six-month-old baby, have died from treatable illnesses since the camp opened last December, it added.

''Many of the camp's 942 residents need urgent medical attention.''

“We are dying here”

"What are the neighbouring countries and international community waiting for? Are they waiting for us to be in our caskets? We are dying here and no one pays attention," said Qussai Mohammed Saleh, 32, a Palestinian truck driver who has been living with his wife and two children in a tent in the al-Waleed border camp since last December.

"We are suffering high temperatures as summer approaches and sandstorms hit us from time to time in this desert," Saleh told IRIN in a phone interview from the camp.

"We have children, women and elderly people in need of urgent help - especially those with chronic problems like asthma, blood pressure, diabetic and cardiac disorders," Saleh added.

"If our problems are too big to tackle properly, then bring in a few generators and send in a medical team – that’s not difficult."

“Deadly environment”

On its latest visit the UNHCR team could only give first aid treatment to some pregnant women, a Palestinian man who had been kidnapped and badly tortured in Baghdad and to a suicidal woman traumatized by the murder of her son and husband.

''What are the neighbouring countries and international community waiting for? Are they waiting for us to be in our caskets? We are dying here and no one pays attention.''

The UNHCR statement quoted Michelle Alfaro, a Damascus-based UNHCR protection officer, as saying there was no excuse for the suffering of the Palestinians in al-Waleed camp. “They have fled death threats and the murder of family members only to face this deadly environment in al-Waleed,” he was quoted as saying.

The refugee agency also warned that living conditions at al-Waleed are likely to get worse during the summer months. Temperatures of more than 50 degrees Celsius have already been recorded this month, while sandstorms are another regular hazard.

Flight from Baghdad

Water is trucked to the camp on a daily basis, but this is rationed to less than one litre per person because of the increasing numbers of Palestinians fleeing to al-Waleed to escape threats and attacks in Baghdad.

More on Palestinians stranded on Iraqi border

According to the UNHCR, an estimated 1,400 Palestinians are living in desperate conditions in refugee camps along the Iraq-Syria border, unable to cross into a country already straining to cope with hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Palestinian refugees.

A steady flow of Palestinians have fled Baghdad since March 2006, when intimidation, forced evictions and attacks against their community began mounting.

Syria let a first group cross the border and settle at al-Hol refugee camp in the al-Hassekeh governorate in May last year. A second group was stranded at al-Tanf refugee camp, but those currently fleeing Baghdad can no longer access al-Tanf, home to 389 Palestinians.

Today, Palestinians fleeing Baghdad for the Syrian border have nowhere to go but al-Waleed, which lacks the infrastructure to support them.
Fleeing Iraq
Registering More Refugees Than Ever, But Life Still Precarious for Displaced
05/15/2007 11:11 AM ET
Damascus, SYRIA: An Iraqi family waits 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: An Iraqi family waits to register at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) center in the Damascus suburb of Duma, 23 April 2007.

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.

More staff

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.

Abandoned

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.

''Since January we’ve registered as many refugees as all of last year and we have the potential for 200,000 this year.''

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.

Case study

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”.

Smackdown
Iraq's National Security Adviser Condemns Syria's Failure to Act
05/11/2007 3:45 PM ET
Sharm El-Sheikh, EGYPT: Iraqi National Security Advisor Muwaffaq al-Rubaie attends the opening of an international conference on Iraq, 03 May 2007 in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Ali al-Saadi/AFP/Getty
Sharm El-Sheikh, EGYPT: Iraqi National Security Advisor Muwaffaq al-Rubaie attends the opening of an international conference on Iraq, 03 May 2007 in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Damascus has failed to act on specific intelligence regarding militants operating on Syrian soil, and is continuing to harbor and support Islamist militants responsible for killing both Iraqis and Americans, according to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's national security advisor.

Muwaffaq al-Rubaie, who is in the United States for official meetings in Washington and at the UN in New York, told ABC News on Thursday that Iraqi officials had presented an intelligence dossier to the Syrian government detailing insurgent activity on Syrian territory. Rubaie says the information included exact locations of terrorist training camps in Syria and the names, addresses and photographs of insurgent leaders living in Syria.

The Syrians have taken no action on the camps, and on the matter of the insurgents, the typical response is, "He's not in Syria," according to al Rubaie.

Insight
Last Week's Meeting With FM Sparked Possibility of "Cooperation" on Border
By CHRISTINA DAVIDSON 05/08/2007 4:54 PM ET
Sharm El-Sheikh, EGYPT: US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice smiles during a press conference at the international conference on Iraq, 04 May 2007 in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh/
Ali al-Sada/AFP/Getty
Sharm El-Sheikh, EGYPT: US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice smiles during a press conference at the international conference on Iraq, 04 May 2007 in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh/

Condoleezza Rice has been floating the idea of a significant policy shift toward Syria, recently introducing a new talking point speaking of hopes to "cooperate" with Damascus in working to stem the flow of foreign fighters across the border into Iraq.

Prior to the Secretary of State's brief meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem at the Iraq International Compact conference in Cairo last Thursday, her standard policy talking point placed the complete burden of responsibility on Syria to control the infiltration of foreign fighters.

A review of her interviews immediately following the encounter with Moalem shows how closely Rice stays on this message, despite whatever the Syrian foreign minister had just said to her.

Sharm El-Sheikh, EGYPT: Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem leaves a session of an international conference on Iraq 03 May 2207 in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
AFP/Getty
Sharm El-Sheikh, EGYPT: Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem leaves a session of an international conference on Iraq 03 May 2207 in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

In a conversation with John Sciutto of ABC News, Rice explained her decision to talk with Moalem:

"It's not a bad chance to remind the Syrians of their obligations, to talk about -- talk to them about the need to stop the flow of those foreign fighters, the biggest source probably of suicide bombers.

"And so in this context where the neighbors are supposedly taking on the task of having to stabilize Iraq, it's a good chance to reinforce that message....

"I'm one who believes that actions speak louder than words and I hope the Syrians in their own interest will stop the flow of foreign fighters."

Rice told Martin Fletcher of NBC News that the message for Syria at the conference was that:

"The flow of foreign fighters across that border needs to stop; that the suicide bombings are, we believe, largely a result of foreign fighters coming across its borders; and to tell the Syrians that if, in fact, they believe, as they say they believe, that a stable Iraq is in their interest, that they need to act in that way....

"They say that they understand that it is in their interest not to have extremists puddling, gathering in Syria, who could be a destabilizing force in Syria itself. So actions speak louder than words, and we'll see."

The Secretary described her conversation with the Syrian foreign minister for Sheila MacVicar of CBS News:

"I made clear that the flow of foreign fighters is a real problem across that border and Syria needs to do more to stem the flow of foreign fighters because we believe that that flow of foreign fighters is one of the principal sources of suicide bombers....

"I think if the Syrians are finally recognizing that the (inaudible) of extremists in Syria is actually a threat to Syria and that there are obligations to defend that border, then all the better. And I think it's important to continue to explore ways that Syria might be able to discharge its obligations."

By Friday morning, Rice's report to Washington detailing her conversation with the Syrian foreign minister must have sparked approval for an official softening in tone. The suggestion of a possibility for cooperation was raised for the first time in her final press conference in Cairo on Friday.

Responding to a question about her meeting with Moalem, the same basic query she had answered with parroted talking points for ABC, NBC, and CBS the day before, Rice said:

"I thought that this was an opportunity in the context of this neighbors' conference to talk to the Syrian Foreign Minister about how we see the situation and about the need to stop the flow of foreign fighters. We would hope that there can be greater cooperation on stopping the flow of foreign fighters, but that was really the extent of our conversation. Let's take this one step at a time."

In a near-slip uncharacteristic for the usually tightly-controlled diplospeak of the Secretary of State, Rice seemed to almost admit the significance of the shift before getting back on message, as she continued:

"This is an important -- I think it was an important conversation. I am very glad that had the opportunity here in this context, but this was not about anything other than Iraq and we will certainly see whether we can observe words being followed by deeds. That's what we'd like to see."

The Bush Administration may continue to maintain the official line that it expects action out of Syria, but the extension of an offer of bilateral cooperation on border security issues--considering the level of normalization in relations that would entail--indicates that there may be more of a tit-for-tat in the works than US officials have yet specifically acknowledged.

Damascus, SYRIA: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad attends a jasmine planting with his wife Asma (not pictured) in old Damascus, 27 April 2007.
Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty
Damascus, SYRIA: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad attends a jasmine planting with his wife Asma (not pictured) in old Damascus, 27 April 2007.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told NBC's Ann Curry yesterday, "It's too early to say it's a breakthrough. We were very clear to Ms. Rice when our minister told her that the beginning is having normal diplomatic relations and political cooperation."

Assad also compared his border with Iraq to the US border with Mexico, pointing out the well-known porousness of that boundary. He said that he had increased the number of soldiers along the border since the beginning of the war, "but we don't have any partner to cooperate with regard to this issue."

Later Monday, Rice responded with another public indication that Assad may soon have a partner for cooperation, telling Charlie Rose:

"If there is to be a better relationship, of course, we can't have a situation in which the Syrians are permitting foreign forces to come across that border and kill Iraqis and kill Americans. And so that would -- it would be a good step to have cooperation about border security for Iraq."

The Secretary of State does not choose her vocabulary carelessly. "Cooperation" has become the new buzzword she is using when talking about Iraq-Syria border security. The US may "take this one step at a time," but Syria watchers can expect the next step to be a pretty big one.

Fleeing Iraq
Influx of Iraqi Refugees Burdening Schools, Hospitals, Social Services
05/01/2007 11:02 AM ET
Damascus, SYRIA: UN staff register an iraqi woman at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) registration centre in Duma, 15 km north of the Syrian capital Damascus, 23 April 2007.
Ramzi Haider/AFP/Getty
Damascus, SYRIA: UN staff register an iraqi woman at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) registration centre in Duma, 15 km north of the Syrian capital Damascus, 23 April 2007.

DAMASCUS, Syrian Arab Republic, May 1 (UNHCR) – The UN refugee agency has signed an agreement with the Syrian government to provide the country's Ministry of Health with US$2.06 million for the rehabilitation of public hospitals in Damascus, capacity building for medical staff and the provision of new medical equipment.

The donation is in addition to 11 ambulances that UNHCR is delivering to the Ministry of Health, Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the Palestinian Red Crescent.

This agreement, the fourth between UNHCR and the Syrian government, is part of UNHCR's commitment to support the country's response to the crisis of Iraqi refugees. Since the beginning of the year, UNHCR has committed a total of US$9.6 million in agreements with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, the Ministry of Education and the Governorate of Al Hassake.

The funds are being used to rehabilitate 70 schools and build three new ones; to provide thousands of Iraqi schoolchildren in Syria with textbooks and other supplies; to construct a new hospital in Damascus; to support nine health clinics; and to provide food to Palestinian and Iraqi refugees.

Earlier this year, UNHCR established a new registration centre for Iraqi refugees in Douma, 25 kilometres from Damascus. To date, the office has registered 77,683 Iraqi refugees. During registration, the most vulnerable of the refugees are identified for further medical assistance, community services and resettlement.

"UNHCR recognizes that the large number of Iraqis living in Syria creates a significant burden on the infrastructure and economy of the country. We commend the Syrian government for continuing to offer Iraqis a safe place to stay and we are committed to supporting the Syrian government with this," Laurens Jolles, UNHCR's representative in Syria, said of the aid.

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