The Syrian Haven and the Iraqis

Syria never quite intended to absorb so many fleeing from fighting and insecurity in its neighbouring country, Iraq. Even so, it has willingly let in perhaps a million and a half people – there are no proper statistics. But what will happen to them in the long term? Asks Theodor Gustavsberg.

There are cafés in the suburbs of Damascus where you hear more Iraqi accents than Syrian. Freshly baked samoun (bread dipped in syrup), tea vendors on the street, and restaurants offering Iraqi specialities are now familiar in Jaramana or Saida Zainab. The taxis that drive to Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra, parked in front of the travel agencies, are reminders that people are still leaving Iraq, even if the situation there seems to be improving.

A businessman who now lives in Sweden said: “We had to leave Mosul in 2004 because it wasn’t safe. We took refuge in Qamishli (a Syrian town close to the Iraqi border). For six months I travelled back and forth to Iraq, to keep my construction business going. Then, when security improved at the beginning of 2005, we went back to live in Mosul. But a year later we were forced to leave again, this time for good. We settled outside Damascus. I had sold everything we owned, and with the money, my wife and I were able to emigrate to Sweden that year. But my two oldest sons can’t get visas to join us. They tried twice to come illegally, but their attempts failed and they lost a lot of money to traffickers.” This isn’t unique. Many Iraqis left thinking they would soon be able to return, and tried to keep their businesses going when they were able to go back.

The refugees try to rebuild their lives in Damascus, but once their savings run out, they meet difficulties. Abu Jaber is a dressmaker in his fifties who left Baghdad in July 2006. He now lives in a Damascus suburb with his wife and four children. “One of my sons was a driver for the oil ministry,” he said. “In 2003, he started receiving death threats because he worked for the government. In Baghdad I had my own garment workshop with 20 sewing machines. I had to leave in a hurry and was only able to sell a few of my belongings. I arrived here with $4,000. I had thought about going to Jordan where I have family, but I chose Syria because it provides better facilities. I rent an apartment for $400. For a while I was unemployed or did casual work, but now I rent a small workshop with one sewing machine. My two sons work there with me, and between us we earn $10 a day.”

Although Iraqis in Syria have access to state education and health care, like all foreign nationals they must obtain a work permit. Employers rarely provide these, since it increases their costs. So most Iraqis end up in the informal economy, with a low and unreliable income. (Around half of the Syrians who work in the private sector are in the same situation.) But the huge influx of Iraqis, tolerated by the Syrian authorities, has greatly increased commercial activity in Damascus.

No right to asylum

The instability that followed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 has led to huge numbers of displaced people: The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) says more than two million people have been internally displaced, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that a similar number have left the country.

Syria has welcomed several waves of refugees, even though it is not a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention on the right to asylum. Some are there long term, such as the Palestinians who came in 1948. Others, like the Lebanese who arrived after the conflict in July 2006, have sought temporary refuge. Though the current migration of Iraqis has been compared to the exodus of the Palestinians, it has taken a different form. The migrants have not come in massive waves, but in an intermittent flow, with some leaving Iraq for good, and others commuting. Unlike the Palestinians, most Iraqis have come from urban areas, and move to towns and cities, not to camps.

There is no census of Iraqis living in Syria. The UNHCR has registered more than 200,000, but many are not recorded. They come from a variety of backgrounds, arrive by different routes, and live in diverse circumstances, so it is very difficult to know the real number. Estimates range from a few hundred thousand to 1.5 million.

This is one of the most significant movements of people in the world in terms of numbers and regional impact. Iraqis made 22,115 applications for asylum in industrialised countries in 2006, and the states bordering Iraq, in particular Syria and Jordan, took in the biggest number. (The exception is Sweden, which has received several thousand.) In the 1990s hundreds of thousands of Iraqis had already taken refuge in Jordan, and tens of thousands in Syria.

Temporary protection

Before October 2007, Syria’s border was open to Iraqis, who were able to enter and stay on the same relaxed terms as other Arab nationals. Then, in consultation with the Iraqi authorities, Syria introduced a visa requirement, to be applied for in advance, and limited to certain categories (businessmen, scientists, students, taxi drivers, and people being reunited with their families).

Because Syria has no laws on asylum (except in the case of Palestinians), Iraqis do not enjoy refugee status. The UNHCR can issue them with temporary protection letters, renewable on an annual basis. In theory these protect them from being sent back to Iraq, and give them access to aid (money, food, mattresses, blankets, and other basic goods) and medical services, via the Syrian Red Crescent, local charities and, recently, foreign organisations.

The number of Iraqis entering the country has gone down significantly since the visas were introduced. The relative drop in violence in Iraq also means fewer people are leaving. The new restrictions have also led to a significant reduction in the number of people commuting between the countries: Only around 40,000 have returned to Iraq since the visa was introduced. That is a relatively low figure given the total number of refugees. Most of those who return do so for financial reasons, or because they find it impossible to extend their residence permits. According to the surveys, the apparent improvement in security in Iraq plays only a small part in their decision.

Iraqis who arrived in Syria before October 2007 are now in a difficult situation: Before, they could renew their tourist visas by simply leaving the country and returning. Now that they have to apply for a visa before entering Syria. This is impossible. Some have the right to a one-year temporary permit, if they have children at school in Syria or if they, or a family member, are having medical treatment. And the Syrian authorities have said they will not forcibly return people because their visas have expired, a promise they have kept, according to the UNHCR. Nonetheless, many Iraqis find themselves living illegally, making them more vulnerable.

There are minority groups among the refugees. They fled Iraq either because of discrimination, as in the case of the Mandaeans, or because, like the Nestorian or Chaldean Christians, they felt isolated. While Sunni Muslims are the majority of refugees in Syria, according to UNHCR statistics, the Christian and Mandaean minority are over-represented (15% and 4%), compared with their small numbers in Iraq. This is partly because they have a well-established migratory network. Some groups are also helped by having an established diaspora in the West.

For several thousand Iraqis, Syria may be just the first stage of a journey that ends in Europe, the United States or Australia. But for most it represents a haven where they can try to live normally. Despite promises they would be resettled abroad (the UNHCR offered more than 7,800 Iraqis to host countries in 2007), only 833 refugees were resettled in a third country in 2007, and fewer than 1,500 in 2008.

As one Iraqi man in Damascus put it: “Syria opened its doors to us and we began living again without fear of going outdoors or of sending our children to school. But now that we have lost everything in Iraq, and western countries don’t want to take us in, what will become of us here?” — translated by Stephanie Irvine

Theodor Gustavsberg is a researcher at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), Paris.

© 2008 Le Monde diplomatique

(Distributed by Agence Global)