Nearly half a million Iraqi refugees are now living in unsustainable conditions in Syria. According to aid agencies in Damascus, it is a socio-economic crisis resulting from the US-led war on Iraq that the international community continues to play down.
‘The international community must give the situation urgent attention, planning and action in order to avoid a new exodus,’ wrote Abdel Hamid el-Ouali, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative in Syria in the first comprehensive report by international aid agencies into the plight of Iraqi refugees in Syria since the start of the US-led war on Iraq in March 2003. The report – published in June – concluded that an estimated 450,000 Iraqis in Syria ‘are facing aggravated difficulties’ related to their ‘ambiguous legal status and unsustainable income.’
‘I was working [in Iraq] with the Americans as a translator for $20 a day,’ said 71-year-old Hermiz Shilman, a member of the Chaldean sect of Catholic Christians, while he sat by the side of the road in the Damascus suburb of Jeramana. ‘They came to my house – they were Iraqis no doubt – and they said: “You are an old man. We are not going to kill you. But if you do not leave your job, we will kill you.” So I brought my two daughters and my son to Syria. Now we are just sitting here, like gypsies. We do nothing.’
The report warned of increasing prostitution among young Iraqi women, some as young as 12 years old, and found evidence of ‘organized networks dealing with the sex trade’.
Local NGOs put the estimated Iraqi community in Syria at 800,000: the majority of them children under the age of 18 living in the suburbs of Damascus in cramped conditions with few prospects for education or employment. Before the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in April 2003, the number of Iraqis living in Syria was estimated at 100,000. A tally by Washington-based NGO the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, published on 14 June 2006, counted 644,500 Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan in 2005 – equivalent to around 2.5 per cent of Iraq’s population. The total is triple the number of Iraqis who were living as refugees in Syria and Jordan in 2004 and represents an exodus of Iraqis from the violence that has scarred their country over the past year.
Ann Maymann, a protection officer at the UNHCR in Damascus, sums up the situation: ‘Who wants to say there is a refugee crisis in Syria and Jordan? Because if they say that they admit that the US-led war created the conditions for this crisis.’