Iraqi refugees in Syria feel new strains of war

By Babak Dehghanpisheh,
Bassem TellawiI/AP – An Iraqi refugee sits in a pick-up truck with her ration in Damascus, Syria, in this photo from 2008. With Syria at war, the Iraqi refugees must choose between returning to an unstable Iraq and hunkering down in Syria.

BEIRUT — As the conflict in Syria has raged over the past two years, the sectarian bloodletting, the car bombs and the rise of religious extremists have been all too familiar to one group of people in the country: Iraqi refugees.

There are some 480,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria, according to government estimates, many of whom fled Iraq to escape exactly the same kind of indiscriminate violence that is spreading across Syria.
Now, these refugees must choose between two bad options: return to an unstable Iraq or hunker down in Syria and hope for the best.

Between last summer and the first months of this year, some 70,000 Iraqis headed back home, according to figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. During approximately the same period, as violence has flared in Iraq, some 41,000 Iraqis entered Syria.

The numbers indicate a seesaw movement of people caught between two countries wracked by vicious sectarian wars that are increasingly spilling over their borders.

“Refugees from Iraq share all the vulnerabilities and all the problems that Syrians are facing because of the conflict,” said Reem Alsalem, a regional spokeswoman for UNHCR. “They are even more vulnerable because Syrians have at least some support from extended family members or tribe members or networks that Syrians have for being Syrians.”

Though Iraqis have emigrated to Syria for decades, the pace quickened dramatically during the peak of the Iraqi civil war between 2006 and 2009, when the Syrian government reported that about 2 million Iraqis were inside the country. Thousands of others flooded into Jordan and Lebanon.

The UNHCR now lists some 63,500 Iraqis who have formally registered as refugees in the country, most living in cities as urban refugees rather than in camps. Some observers say the Syrian government’s current count of nearly a half million Iraqi refugees inside the country is inflated, driven by a desire to get more international aid.

The majority of refugees who arrived in recent years settled in Damascus and brought with them all the trauma of the Iraq war: Approximately 1 in 10 had been a victim of torture, according to UNHCR figures. More than 60 percent of them were Sunnis, according to UN figures, but a sizable community of Shiite Iraqis also settled in Seyida Zeinab, a southern suburb of Damascus known for a prominent Shiite shrine.

The cost of living was relatively low in Syria and children were allowed to attend school for free. But Iraqis were not allowed to work, effectively making the entire community either dependent on aid from non-governmental organizations or scrambling for odd jobs that could earn them a little pocket cash. Prostitution among Iraqi women in Syria soared at the time.

When the Syrian conflict spread, thousands of Iraqi refugees were trapped because they did not have the money to leave the country or move to safer neighborhoods.

“There are certain neighborhoods that are safer than others, and the rent in those neighborhoods has skyrocketed,” said Becca Heller, the director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, a non-governmental organization that helps Iraqis with resettlement. “So refugees are literally being forced into battle zones because they can’t pay the increasing rent in the safer areas.”