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BorderWatch:Syria
Archive: June 2007
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Fleeing Iraq
Inflation on the Rise, Even Cost of Bread Has Increased 35% in Damascus
06/29/2007 10:17 AM ET
JARAMANA, SYRIA - APRIL 24: Iraqi refugees wait for a meal distributed by Ibrahim al-Khalil church April 24, 2007 in Jaramana, near Damascus, Syria.
Salah Malkawi/Getty
JARAMANA, SYRIA - APRIL 24: Iraqi refugees wait for a meal distributed by Ibrahim al-Khalil church April 24, 2007 in Jaramana, near Damascus, Syria.

DAMASCUS, 28 June 2007 (IRIN) - A joke circulating here has two Iraqis wandering the streets of the Syrian capital, angrily protesting the large number of Syrians taking over their city.

With up to 2,000 Iraqi refugees arriving each day, adding to the 1.5 million - equivalent to around 8 percent of the Syrian population - who have flooded into Syria since the start of the US-led war on Iraq in 2003, economists and refugee experts warn of a looming social and economic crisis.

Tens of thousands of Iraqi families are now living in and around Damascus pushing up demand for already limited goods and services. Observers warn pressures will soon become unbearable as Iraqis use up their savings and become more reliant on the Syrian welfare system.

“When the Iraqis first came, Syrians were happy to help them but now that is no longer the case,” said Ammar Qurabi of the National Organization for Human Rights (NOHR) which has monitored the effects of Iraqi refugees on Syria. “Now most people hate the refugees and are angry because food and houses are expensive and there is no work because Iraqis take the easy jobs.”

Inflation

According to government figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics, inflation will reach 8 percent in 2007, slightly down from 9.2 percent in 2006. However, with reliability of official figures on the economy a significant issue in Syria, some Damascus-based economists estimate the real figure for this year’s inflation could be as high as 30 percent.

The highest inflation has been felt in the real estate market, with the tens of thousands of extra Iraqi families buying and renting properties across Damascus and raising prices by up to 300 percent. A study by NOHR estimated that the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of Damascus had risen from 8,000 Syrian pounds (US$160) in 2005 to 20,000 Syrian pounds (US$400) today.

In a country where an average state wage in the bloated public sector economy remains little more than $120, many Syrians are forced to do two jobs, and still struggle to pay rent.

“It’s a big, big problem for us,” said Rami, a middle class teacher from Damascus. “I want to buy a house but it’s become far too expensive for me. Since the Iraqis arrived house prices have gone crazy.”

The booming real estate market had raised cement prices to $200 a tonne by March, a 300 percent increase on three years ago, stunting the country’s building boom.

Increased demand for bread

Figures from the Syrian Consulting Bureau for Development and Investment (SCB), compiled from the state-run press, found that since the Iraqi influx began in early 2005 the demand for bread in Damascus - home to the majority of the refugees - has increased by 35 percent, electricity by 27 percent, water by 20 percent and kerosene by 17 percent.

The state’s social services are under intense strain. “They are increasing the claims on all of the subsidised services, particularly our education and health systems which Iraqis have free access to,” said economist Nabil Sukkar, head of the SCB.

There are an estimated 75,000 Iraqi children registered in Syrian schools, with many class sizes doubled to 60 students and schools working double shifts to cope.

Other than recent initiatives led by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to build three new schools and one hospital, there has been little infrastructure growth to meet the additional pressures.

“The added pressures the Iraqis are putting on the existing system are pushing it to its limits at the moment,” said Sybella Wilkes, UNHCR spokesperson in Damascus.

However, while many Syrians now blame Iraqis for their long-term economic difficulties and up to 20 percent unemployment, the economic burden of Iraqi refugees has not yet impacted dramatically on the basic economy.

“ essential goods, which are mainly foods, went up a bit late last year but has re-stabilised again,” said Damascus-based economist Jihad Yaziji. “So the inflation rate is not that indicative of how far the purchasing power of the average citizen has been reduced.”

Government subsidies

Many basic food goods, as well as electricity and transport, are subsidised by the government by up to 40 percent, meaning it is the state and not its population that is bearing the major burden of inflationary pressures.

Kerosene, for example, sells at a subsidised rate of seven Syrian pounds per litre ($0.14) but is bought by the government for around 30 Syrian pounds per litre ($0.60). With a 17 percent increase in consumption, “it is costing the government hundreds of millions of dollars per year,” said Yaziji.

Boost for growth

The effect of the refugees has not only been negative. The increase in demand for consumer goods and real estate spurred by the influx of Iraqis has boosted domestic consumption, contributing towards the increase in the government’s expected GDP growth to seven percent from 5.6 percent in 2006.

According to Sukkar, the Iraqis have “brought in money, invested in real estate, and opened shops, something that - on the positive side - has increased spending in the economy”.
Fleeing Iraq
Situation Worsens for Iraqi Palestinian Refugees Stranded on Syrian Border
06/27/2007 1:09 PM ET
Al-Tanaf, SYRIA: Palestinian refugees arrive in Syria from Iraq at the al-Tanaf border crossing, 300 kms (190 miles) east of Damascus, 09 May 2006.
LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty
Al-Tanaf, SYRIA: Palestinian refugees arrive in Syria from Iraq at the al-Tanaf border crossing, 300 kms (190 miles) east of Damascus, 09 May 2006.

DAMASCUS/BAGHDAD, 27 June 2007 (IRIN) - The plight of Palestinian refugees fleeing violence in Iraq and stranded in camps on the Syrian-Iraqi border is continuing to deteriorate as the summer heat intensifies and a solution remains elusive.

There is currently one camp on the Syrian side of the border, one in no-man's land and one on the Iraqi side of the border housing Palestinian refugees.

As the summer heat has increased, with temperatures now reaching 50 degrees Celsius, living conditions in the desert have become increasingly hazardous with snakes, scorpions and sand storms.

"The weather is very, very hot and people are becoming very nervous and upset," said one Palestinian in Al-Tanf camp, situated on no-man's land between Iraq and Syria. "We can't live here, it's too difficult. We need help, particularly air coolers."

"Children in particular are developing medical conditions that they've never had before simply because of the high heat and dust storms," said Sybella Wilkes, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Syria. The refugees are becoming increasingly desperate.

"The morale of the camp is so low and it's only going to get worse," said Wilkes. Nonetheless, conditions in Al-Tanf continue to be better than in neighbouring Al-Walid camp on the Iraqi side of the border. While the 389 refugees in Al-Tanf are entirely reliant on humanitarian aid, their basic needs, including food and medical assistance as well as a secure environment are being met by the UNHCR.

A third camp, Al-Hol, in northeastern Syria, houses another 300 refugees. However, conditions in Al-Hol are markedly better most notably in that the refugees have been allowed access to Syria itself and so are not stranded in no-man's land like at Al-Tanf.

Al-Tanf camp

It is now over a year that refugees have been confined to Al-Tanf camp without a solution to their plight.

In a statement on 26 June, the UNHCR said urgent medical care as well as an immediate humanitarian solution was needed for the Palestinian refugees stranded in camps on the Iraqi-Syria border.

"The situation of more than 1,400 Palestinians is deteriorating by the day. We urge countries in the region - and further afield - to help end their suffering," UNHCR spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis said in a statement on 26 June.

Al-Walid camp

Last week, a UNHCR team visited Al-Walid camp on the Iraqi side of the border and identified four children and one young man in urgent need of medical care, the statement said.

The UNHCR has established a small infirmary at Al-Walid and the visiting team delivered a month's supply of multivitamins for 120 children and distributed 300 sun protection umbrellas. "But the seriously ill - some of whom are in danger of dying - need hospital treatment."

The Palestinians were also threatened by local armed groups early last week, the statement added.

Health and security officials in the western city of Ramadi, where the Al-Walid refugee camp is located, said on 27 June that they do not have enough resources to help the stranded Palestinians.

"We don't have enough police and army troops to be sent to the borders to protect their camps," said a police officer in Ramadi who asked to remain anonymous as he fears reprisals from militants.

"Whatever force you send there, it will definitely face problems with militants as they roam the desert day and night," he added.

Dr Ahmed al-Dulami of Ramadi General Hospital said the city's health directorate has no "extra ambulances or employees to lose".

"The refugees are increasingly scared and frustrated, trapped in the middle of nowhere," Pagonis said.

Family stranded on border

Mukhlis Khalid Mohammed, a 62-year-old Palestinian refugee in Baghdad, said his family had been stranded on the border with Syria since last January and the last time he had heard from them was in May.

"Their letter, which was sent by a taxi driver, told of many tragedies as they were experiencing very severe conditions - especially the kids - but we are convinced that staying there is better than living in fear in Baghdad," Mohammed said.

Full Report PDF
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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