Syria is finding it hard to cope with the flood of refugees from Iraq

refugi.jpg The Economist/
Syria is finding it hard to cope with the flood of refugees from Iraq
“DO YOU have a job?” and “What are you doing at the moment?” are leading questions on the whiteboard in an English lesson at an Iraqi refugee community centre in Sayyida Zaynab, a suburb on the edge of Syria’s capital, Damascus. The students can expect more such requests for personal data in the coming weeks as the Syrian government and the UN carry out a census to count those who have fled from neighbouring Iraq.

Syria has taken in the lion’s share of Iraq’s refugees, about 1.5m of them, of whom well over half are probably Sunni, some 15% Shia and maybe 10% Christian. Jordan is thought to account for another 600,000 or so, but no one knows exactly. The Syrian survey will assess the needs of the refugees—and their effect on the host country, which has 19m of its own citizens. Many refugees are running out of savings, slipping into poverty, sometimes into crime and prostitution.

The count will be difficult. If they were all in camps, it would be easier, says Kristele Younes of Refugees International. “It’s the first time in the UN’s history that there’s been an urban crisis of such huge proportions,” she says. “They are people who are very difficult to ‘see’. They speak Arabic and look pretty similar [to Syrians]. It’s almost a ghost population.”

In Sayyida Zaynab, near a Shia shrine to Zaynab, the Prophet Muhammad’s granddaughter, the streets teem with Iraqis. Shops have been taken over by Iraqis, restaurants such as the Bakery Bagdady [sic] sell Iraqi specialities unknown to Syrians, and travel agents offer trips to the border for 500 Syrian pounds ($10). Some 350,000 Iraqis may have moved into this area alone, putting a strain on water and electricity supplies as well as on schools.

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent, together with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), has opened a clinic to cope with the influx of sick Iraqis. Inside, the waiting area is packed. Dr Akram al-Hasani, a Syrian orthopaedic surgeon, is examining a Basra man still suffering from an arm wound after being shot four years ago. “We have many trauma victims,” he says. “And a large proportion of children with congenital problems, more than among Syrians.”

In the mainly Christian district of Jaramana, a clinic at the Deir Ibrahim Khalil convent has an equally wide range of problems. “Depression, depression, depression,” says Sister Malekeh, a Greek Catholic nun. “It’s very sad. Now we have a psychiatrist who started two months ago. Before they didn’t accept it and wouldn’t come to the clinic, but now they have started to come.”

In a census in 1987, there were said to be 1.4m Christians in Iraq. In the 1990s, the figure shrank to 1m or so. After Saddam Hussein’s demise, they began to be targeted, mainly by Sunni groups linked to al-Qaeda, so most have now fled. An Anglican churchman says that some 1.25m Iraqi Christians now live outside Iraq, with about 250,000 left behind.

International aid workers are queuing up to work in Syria, to relieve the burden on the UN agencies and on the Red Crescent. Eight charities, including Islamic Relief and the Norwegian and Danish Refugee Councils, have been negotiating for months to start projects. The foreign ministry has given its approval, but they must work under the umbrella of the local Red Crescent, which has been slow to reach agreement with the various groups. The Ministry for Social Affairs and Labour, which oversees local NGOs, says that Syrian ones should work mainly for Syrians.

Moreover, Syrian attitudes to Iraqis are hardening, as the numbers overwhelm local services. The government also worries about the cost of providing the extra population with heavily subsidised bread, fuel and other goods.

The UNHCR has managed to register only 135,000 refugees, a fraction of those who have arrived. And they are still trickling in, despite new rules that have in effect closed the border. Only certain favoured categories of applicants, such as lorry drivers, businessmen, academics and engineers, are now being allowed in, with occasional exceptions for the sick.