DAMASCUS, Syria – It’s the biggest outpouring of refugees in the Middle East in more than 50 years. Not since the creation of Israel in 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were uprooted, has the region seen such a flood of human beings.
Some 2.6 million Iraqis have fled their homeland since the start of the war in 2003. The overwhelming majority – 1.5 million – are in Syria. And most of them are in Damascus, where a group of us from Seattle went last month.
We found a country struggling to make room and care for the refugees, and story after story of despair, each more heartbreaking than the last.
Adiel’s refugee story, for instance, is only incredible because it is all-too familiar. Men broke into his home, beat one of his 3-year-old daughters and kidnapped her twin.
Marianna, the kidnapped girl, who is now 7, looked quizzical recently at her father’s request but held out her hand. She showed where kidnappers cut her, the scar extending around the thumb and up over her wrist. The kidnappers held her for three months, until the family could raise $8,000 in ransom. Adiel said Marianna is still greatly troubled by the ordeal – she has trouble sleeping, she has nightmares, she wets the bed.
Now the family of nine lives in what the mother described as a cockroach-infested hovel in Saydnaya, a friendly town in the hills outside Damascus. They left everything they owned in Iraq. Adiel, as are others in his family, is registered with the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees and so is eligible for a food allowance and cash assistance. He also earns a little money doing odd jobs, even though under Syrian laws, refugees are not supposed to work. Adiel said he is willing to take his family anywhere.
“We just want somewhere we can be safe,” Adiel said.
He has been in Syria more than two years. No country, Syria included, has offered a refuge.
Iraqi refugees make up about 10 percent of Syria’s population. Many of them are afraid to let the news media use their real names because they fear harm will come to relatives in Iraq or to themselves if they have to return to Iraq to renew visas.
Despite recent news stories that large numbers of refugees are returning to Iraq because it is safer now, aid workers and refugees tell a different story: It is still not safe.
Most Iraqi refugees interviewed in Syria by Amnesty International for a June 2007 survey were victims of human rights abuses. They told Amnesty their choice was simple: leave Iraq or die.
“The type of stories we’re hearing is very often the same,” said Laurens Jolles, chief of mission for the UNHCR in Syria. “It’s about abductions, about killings, about torture, rape, about discrimination.”
Until Syria began requiring Iraqi refugees to get a visa before coming to Syria, there were thousands of people crossing the Iraq-Syria border each day.
From 2003 until late 2006, there had only been a trickle of Iraqi refugees coming to Syria. But after the February 2006 bombing of the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, and the ensuing flare in violence, what had been a trickle became a flood.
On Nov. 23, UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis said that while improved security conditions in Iraq are welcome, it was not yet time to promote, organize or encourage returns.
“There is no sign of any large-scale return to Iraq as the security situation in many parts of the country remains volatile and unpredictable,” Pagonis said.
No one was prepared for the huge numbers leaving Iraq.
Refugee workers are able to handle initial interviews with about 300 families per day, at the warehouse-like office in Damascus, said Erdogan Kalkan, an official with the UNHCR.
He said that in those initial sessions, refugees are scheduled for a formal interview five months later, because of the backlog. And until they have completed the formal interview, the refugees can’t get cash and food assistance. Priority cases – single mothers, pregnant women and others – can be registered immediately, Kalkan said.
There are no international non-profit groups helping with the enormous effort under way in Syria, mainly because none has ever operated here before. Also, the government distrusts international organizations, especially those from the West.
The UNHCR plans to register 200,000 refugees by the end of this year, to increase the number of Iraqi children attending school from 33,000 to 100,000 and to get health care to more refugees.
The dilemma is how to provide help for a million refugees mixed in with the other 5 million people in Damascus. Usually refugees are kept apart in camps. But in Syria and in most of the other countries taking Iraqis, the refugees are mingled with the rest of the cities’ population.
The Syrian government until October maintained a policy of open borders for the Iraqis. Anyone who could make it to Syria was welcomed.
“This had to do with a Pan-Arabic view of the free flow of Arabs in the region, and a certain pride also in being able to continue that policy,” Jolles said. “But this was a policy that was not meant for one-and-a-half million people.”
The refugees are costing the government $1.6 billion per year in free education, health care and other benefits. The refugee crisis also has increased costs for food, housing and other services, which worries the government and, to some extent, the Syrian people.
“Now there is a legal visa requirement, so Syria is in line with other foreign countries,” Jolles said.
But Jolles said the Syrian government is allowing many exceptions to the new visa requirement, including professionals, people married to Syrians, people needing medical care and drivers whose work takes them back and forth.
There are many hurdles to overcome in helping the refugees. The UNHCR expects international donors will fund its 2007 budget of $123 million, but small appeals by UNICEF and the World Food Program in Syria to work with Iraqis have been difficult to fund. As a result, involvement by UNHCR’s sister agencies has been slow to develop. UNHCR wants a much larger budget in 2008.
On Monday, the United Nations World Food Program announced that it will scale up efforts to provide basic food assistance to the most vulnerable Iraqi refugees in Syria, and called on the international community for financial support.
“The Syrian people have generously embraced nearly 1.5 million Iraqis in their midst,” said WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran. “Donors have been supportive, too, but more Iraqi women, children and men are unable to meet their basic food needs and social support systems in Syria are being overstretched.”
Perhaps the largest hurdle to overcome is resettlement. So far, very few countries are willing to accept Iraqi refugees on a permanent basis, and those that have are accepting only a few. For example, UNHCR referred 4,004 Iraqi refugees in Syria for resettlement in the United States in 2007, but of the 1,608 Iraqi refugees admitted to the United States, only 242 came from Syria.
The UNHCR and others are pleading with the international community to accept more Iraqi refugees.
Amnesty International has urged the European Union, the United States and other wealthy nations to “urgently start providing financial, technical, and in-kind assistance to the governments of Syria and Jordan.”
Amnesty and other international organizations also have called on the United States and other members of the coalition that invaded Iraq to take greater responsibility for the humanitarian crisis created by that war. The groups point out that the United States is spending $1 billion a day on the war in Iraq, while it has contributed only $70 million to aid refugees.
And just when might the refugees return home?
An Iraqi doctor, now a refugee in Damascus, addressed the issue in a recent e-mail: “Some of the refugees are going back now because the new visa regulations won’t allow them to stay. I would love to go back, but my kids won’t let me. They say if I go back, they will. I can’t go through the agony of the kidnapping and getting terrified every single day whenever each of them go to school or out of the house.
“Also, what is safe or unsafe? I think drinking water polluted with cholera and other deadly waterborne diseases is more dangerous than a bullet when you don’t have decent access to hospitals; or when you have electricity only for two hours a day; or in an oil-rich country you can’t get gasoline or cooking gas. We have been living like animals in a cage for a long while. We wake up in the morning to the sound of explosions of the raiding forces when they bomb the doors to reduce the troops’ losses because somebody decided to fight back during a raid. The kids keep shaking because of the yelling and screaming, the pushing against the walls and the shoving, the cursing and hitting of the parents and older brothers and sisters in front of them.
“If all this is considered safe, I will agree that it is safer in Iraq now.”