By Paul Cochrane in Damascus
The Independent On Sunday 10 June 2007
A major and growing refugee crisis is developing in Syria. More than 1.4 million Iraqis have fled there since the 2003 invasion, with about 30,000 more arriving every month.
The influx is putting a massive strain on Syrian society, triggering inflation and overburdening social services. Relief agencies are struggling to handle the crisis.
With only a quarter of the £30m allocated for Iraqi refugees by the United Nations used in Syria, UN relief agencies are now appealing for further funds and assistance.
"We are looking for more funding," said Laurens Jolles, a UNHCR representative. "We encourage other agencies to come, and bilateral funding for Syrian governmental departments most affected."
The problem is particularly acute as Syria is a poor country that faces US economic sanctions and is under international pressure to cooperate over Iraq and Lebanon. There are also some 400,000 Palestinian refugees who have lived in Syria since the creation of Israel in 1948.
Around 80 per cent of the Iraqis in Syria are believed to live in Damascus, according to the UNHCR, adding to the capital's water and housing shortages. Schools and hospitals are struggling with the influx, with some schools reporting more than 60 students per class instead of the usual 30.
With the Iraqi refugees costing the state £500m over the past four years, according to a recent government statement, Damascus tried to tighten entry regulations a few months ago. The decision sparked protests in the capital and the government eventually capitulated, realising the issue could cause significant problems domestically.
"The government is now insisting that Iraqis register themselves to give details about accommodation, as Syria likes to have more control over the people here. However it is still very permissive, especially compared to Jordan and Lebanon," said Mr Jolles.
The UNHCR has so far registered 82,000 refugees, with some 450 registered per day and up to 2,000 Iraqis seeking appointments every week. In the past year the refugee crisis has become even more pronounced.
Initially, wealthier Iraqis left for Jordan or Syria. But as Iraq descended into chaos, poorer Iraqis crossed the Syrian border in increasing numbers, contributing to societal and economic strains in a country that has 25 per cent unemployment. "It's a big problem. We don't want Iraqis here as many are bad people - thieves and roughnecks - and are driving up the price of everything," said shopkeeper Yassir Habash, 31.
The influx of refugees, equivalent to roughly 8 per cent of Syria's 19 million population, has resulted in inflationary pressure, doubling the price of accommodation and raising food costs by an estimated 10 percent in under two years. Petty crime and prostitution has also increased, with Iraqi women selling themselves on the streets for as little as £1.50.
The influx has generated a degree of xenophobia towards the new immigrants. "I worked as a mechanic but locals started threatening me and I was forced to leave," said Tariki Zaide, 23, who now supports his parents and four siblings by working, illegally, as a cleaner at a guesthouse in Damascus. Earning £1.50-£2 a day he said his family is struggling to pay the £60 monthly rent.
"People are complaining that Iraqis are raising the price of rents and oil, but if Syria doesn't take them who will?" asked Dr Nabil Sukkar, managing director of the Syrian Consulting Bureau for Development and Investment.
Neighbouring Jordan is reeling from an estimated 750,000 Iraqi refugees, tightening entry requirements and imposing certain conditions on Iraqis that wish to stay in the country of 5.9 million people. Saudi Arabia is keeping its doors firmly shut, planning to build a US-Mexico style border fence, at the cost of a £3.5bn, to keep Iraqis out.
"At least 50 per cent will never go back, especially if they stay another year," said Dr. Sukkar. "Many have settled down here, getting jobs or creating 'Little Baghdads' in certain areas, but I see more trouble before Iraq settles down," he said.