Posted by: Lister | October 21, 2007

Syria closes door to Iraqi refugees

Syria makes changes to stem the flow of Iraqi refugees:

Long the only welcoming country in the region for Iraqi refugees, Syria has closed its borders to all but a small group of Iraqis and imposed new visa rules that will legally require the 1.5 million Iraqis currently in Syria to return to Iraq.

The change quietly went into effect Oct. 1. Syrian officials have often threatened to stem the flow of refugees over the last eight months, but until now have backed down after pleas from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

For more than a year, 2,000 to 4,000 Iraqis have fled into Syria every day, according to UN officials. On the last four days that the border remained open, the officials said, 25,000 Iraqis crossed into Syria.

“The door is now closed to Iraqis in every direction,” said Sybella Wilkes, a spokeswoman here for the UN refugee agency.

It is unclear whether Syria will enforce the rules on the Iraqis already in the country. UN officials believe the Syrian government is likely to continue its practice of not deporting citizens of other Arab countries whose immigration status is illegal. The Syrian government has avoided any direct announcement about the policy, leaving refugees and UN officials in a haze of uncertainty.

[…] Syrian officials have said they were responding to a longstanding request from the Iraqi government to close their border, according to Syrian officials who spoke on condition of anonymity according to government policy. They said the Iraqi prime minister told Syrian leaders on a state visit in August that the constant flow of refugees undermined the Iraqi government’s effort to bring greater security to the country.

That account was corroborated by diplomats based in Damascus and by UN officials. Attempts to reach officials in the Iraqi Foreign Ministry and prime minister’s office were unsuccessful on Saturday.

[…] Syria’s government says it has cost $1 billion to provide services and subsidies to Iraqi refugees.

Jordan is the only other neighbor of Iraq to take in a substantial number of refugees, housing an estimated 500,000 to 700,000 Iraqis. But Jordan limited admission to Iraqis more than a year ago, leaving Syria as the only option for Iraqis fleeing sectarian violence.

The amount of aid given to Iraqi refugees doesn’t seem to be enough to sustain them. (They aren’t officially registered as refugees, because that would put extra burdens on the Syrian government). And some Iraqis, unable to afford to stay in Syria, are returning to Iraq: Money gone, Iraqi refugees reluctantly head back to uncertain future:

Their money gone, Iman Faleh and her family packed their belongings for Baghdad — a journey they said was like a trip to “death row.”

The religiously mixed family — Iman is a Sunni but the others are Shiites — fled their home in a mostly Shiite part of east Baghdad in July and took refuge in Syria, joining an estimated 1.5 million other Iraqis here.

But in early fall, they became part of a growing wave of Iraqis leaving Syria for home — not because they are confident of Iraq’s future, but because they ran out of money.

Others are returning because Syria has made it more difficult to stay — most Iraqis cannot work legally in Syria and survive on savings or handouts from relatives.

“Going back to Baghdad means going to ‘death row,'” said Iman’s 27-year-old son Zaid as he hauled luggage from the family’s $1,200-a-month apartment in Damascus. “But we have no money left that could allow us to go on living here.”

No figures are available on how many Iraqis are leaving safe havens in Syria, Jordan or other Arab countries to return to an uncertain future in Iraq.

Back in their old home in Baghdad, Zaid said Friday that the family was trying to cope with the dangers. “When we first got here we could not sleep for the first couple of nights because of the blasts and all night long shooting, but now it had become a routine,” he said. During three-day Muslim holidays last week, he took his wife to see her family for one day but spent the rest of the time in the house

“Unlike living normally in Damascus hanging out all day long, now we have to stay indoors because its not safe to go out,” he said. The family is trying to collect money to return to Syria — but he was unsure if they would be able to because of new visa requirements imposed by Damascus.

At the border station at Tanaf, a Syrian immigration official estimated late last month that up to 1,500 Iraqis are returning to Iraq each day.

Just a few weeks ago, about 20,000 Iraqis were entering Syria daily, he said on condition of anonymity because he was not supposed to speak to the media.

But the number entering Syria dropped sharply in recent days, since the Syrian government began requiring Iraqis to obtain visas before entering the country. Most visa applications from Iraqis are denied.

Those who came to Syria before the new rules took effect must leave when their three-month permits expire, unless they have been officially recognized by the U.N. as refugees — a process can take months.

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