Monday, August 18, 2008

Out of Iraq

It is estimated that there are between 1 million and 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria. Although some people fled from Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion by US-UK coalition forces, the vast majority of Iraqi refugees in Syria left their homes after the Golden Mosque of Samara was bombed in 2006. The damage done to the Mosque, a site of great religious importance to Shia Muslims, triggered the outbreak of extreme sectarian violence throughout Iraq. In the week following the bombing around 300 people were killed in retaliatory violence. Over the next year fighting, intimidation, torture, kidnap and murder swept across the country as armed Sunni and Shia groups fought each other – as well as the coalition forces – for rule of the streets. Millions fled the country, many into neighbouring Syria. According to UNHCR figures between 30,000 and 60,000 people were entering Syria each month, until the Syrian government, struggling to cope with such a sudden influx of people, changed visa regulations in October 2007.

Such huge numbers of refugees may conjure up images of large camps sprawling out over inhospitable parts of arid Syrian land. However, the Iraqi refugee population in Syria is largely dispersed throughout the country’s urban centres. They live, or try to live, what you might call normal lives. They have to pay rent, bills and buy food. They have children who go to school. They need to buy books, stationary and uniforms. In other words they have exactly the same expenditure as any other Syrian. However, they are not legally allowed to work. Before 2005 getting a licence to work was no problem, but the arrival of so many Iraqi people in 2006-2007 prompted the government to stop issuing Iraqi’s work permits. Some people have family members abroad who are able to give financial assistance. Some refugees are wealthy enough to live in relative comfort. The vast majority, however, have to survive on their life savings, an often inadequate sum of money for the subsistence of a whole family for more than a few months, and one which is gradually diminishing without any regular source of income.

For some there is the option to work illegally in low-paid jobs such as waiting and cleaning. Many of the refugees are from the professional classes but work in restaurants as they unable to practice their profession in Syria. Most refugees of school age can receive free education in Syrian schools. However, the increasing financial strain on their families is forcing significant numbers of young people to work in low-paid jobs – such as street-sellers or domestic cleaners – instead of going to school. Despite the bad pay, menial nature and illegality of these jobs, they offer some of the less dangerous money-making opportunities for Iraqi refugees. There are many cases of mothers or fathers returning to work in Iraq so they can earn enough to keep the rest of their family in Syria. Some women have resorted to working as prostitutes in Syria rather than return to Iraq to find work. There are cases of girls and young women being forced into prostitution. The kind of humiliation, abuse and trauma this opens people up to is made doubly dangerous by the fact that those Iraqi’s found to have engaged in criminal activities are likely to be threatened with deportation. It also shows you just how desperate to stay out of the Iraq some refugees are.

Aid workers in a UNHCR distribution, Fahad
The United Nations Higher Commission for Refugees is the main organisation working to protect and support Iraqi refugees in Syria. It is in partnership with the World Food Programme and the Syrian Arab Red Cross and other smaller organisations. Together they provide food and financial aid, medical assistance, legal protection and social counselling. Although the fact that most Iraqis live in rented homes is much better than in the crowded camps you may associate with such a large refugee population, it makes finding and targeting those in need of aid and assistance much harder. Only 203,000 Iraqi refugees have registered with the UNHCR – around 16% of the estimated total population.

Registration begins the process by which the UNHCR can asses what kind of support individuals or families need. If refugees don’t register then the UNHCR cannot support them. This leaves around 84% of refugees coping with their exile on their own.
Pride, I was told by an UNHCR outreach worker, is the main reason Iraqis do not register. Many would rather run their savings dry than depend on handouts. Lack of awareness might be another reason. It is the outreach workers’ job to identify the most vulnerable refugees. However, with only 47 outreach workers for 1.5 million refugees, they have their work cut out. Some of the more fortunate Iraqis do not need financial help, but the threat of deportation and trauma of enduring the foreign invasion and civil war can affect refugees no matter how financially stable they may be. They may need help from the UNHCR’s counselling services, legal advice and protection, but, as they are unregistered they must cope alone.

We visited the registration and distribution centre in Damascus. It is large, permanent-looking site, ready to function for years rather than months. This is just as well. Although the Iraqi refugee population in Syria has stabilised (the number of people entering Syria each month is the same as the number returning to Iraq), there seems to be no evidence that it is going to significantly decrease anytime soon. Not only are most people unwilling to return to their divided and volatile homeland, but the numbers of Iraqis being permanently resettled is pathetically low. The UK has allowed the resettlement of just 4 Iraqi refugees from Syria in the last 18 months. This statistic is made even crueller by the fact that the British government is turning down resettlement to those Iraqis whose lives are under threat after working as interpreters for the British armed forces. The USA has resettled 871 individuals, a much higher number, but still only 11% of those who applied. Considering the UNHCR submitted only 7852 individuals for resettlement, 4% of the total number Iraqi refugees registered with the organisation, you can see just how insignificant this figure is.

Resettlement is not, however, the answer. Most people hold out hope of being able to return to Iraq. They don’t all want new lives in foreign countries, especially in countries which are responsible for the blundering invasion and lethal anarchy which forced them to flee. But the miserly number of Iraqis being allowed to resettle, people who are the most vulnerable of an increasingly vulnerable population, is just another statistic which demonstrates how trapped into their refugee status these people are. Every person interviewed in a recent UNHCR-commissioned survey had experienced a traumatic event in Iraq. 72% had seen a car bombing, 75% knew someone who had been killed, 68% had experienced interrogation or harassment by militias and 16% had been tortured.

The numbers paint a brutally clear picture of why many Iraqi’s do not want to return home. Their choice is either to stay in Syria and live off the dwindling savings, money from relatives or UN aid – all of which offer a poor quality and highly dependant life – or to return home where they can work, but risk intimidation, kidnap or worse.
Even in Syria Iraqi refugees do not feel completely safe from the deadly energies at work in Iraq. This has been made all too clear in our project. We have been teaching a group of 10 young Iraqi refugees the basics of photojournalism. We wanted them to compile a photostory which documents their lives – pictures of their families and friends – but many people are anxious of being identified in photographs by people back in Iraq and fear they may target friends and family still living there. One student wanted to take pictures of her Iraqi friends in Syria, but the parents of those friends would not allow it. The reason, she told us, was that they did not trust her with the photographs, despite her being their friend.

This lack of trust between Iraqi refugees is not something you would notice on the surface. None of our students knew each other before they came to our first session two weeks ago, but almost instantly they got on like good friends. However, before we began the project we were asked not to talk about the students’ religious or ethnic differences, in case, I assumed, it would result in bringing suspicion and fear they developed in Iraq into the classroom. Another of our students told me that he would never trust anyone again after a life-long friend in Iraq was responsible for having him kidnapped 18 months ago. He was a Sunni, but his friend was a Shia, something that never affected their friendship until the sectarian violence preyed upon such differences with appalling and tragic consequences. And so you can see the kind of damage so many refugees will have to carry with them however far they flee.

There is an uncertain future for the Iraqi refugees of Syria. Currently the UNHCR is facing a serious shortage of funds. This year it has only received half the money it says it needs to continue its work and is considering scaling down its operations if it does not receive more. This is going to hit the most vulnerable of the Iraqi refugees the hardest. The dependency of many families on food aid was made painfully clear when the UNHCR had to halt distribution for two months after the Syrian government claimed use of the land on which the old distribution site stood. Furthermore, it looks like the number of refugees who are dependant on UNHCR financial support and food aid is likely to increase. With no sign of large-scale immediate returns to Iraq, and with increasing numbers of families running out of money, it seems likely more and more will be forced to register and claim financial assistance and food aid, putting greater strain on the UNHCR’s resources.

The other option, of course, is to return to Iraq. There has been a slight improvement in the security situation. The fierce sectarian violence which most people fled is not as widespread as a year ago. Next week one of our students is returning to Baghdad. He said that he would be sad to leave Syria, especially the friends he has made here, but that he is very happy to be returning home. He does not feel anxious and is confident that the area he is moving to is safe. But his family’s decision to return was not based entirely on the security situation. He has been unable to go to school in Syria because he does not have the correct papers and the family cannot afford to send his elder brothers to university in Syria without an income.

Ameer's Mother in their flat in Syria.

A year ago his father was murdered in Iraq. They fled to save their lives. If, after such tragedy, he and his family genuinely feel that Iraq is safe for them to return then perhaps there is hope for more refugees like them. However, if they have been pushed into returning because they feel unable to continue living in Syria then their story highlights the need to continue to support Iraqi refugees in their exile while the unpredictable future of Iraq unfolds.

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