Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees are overwhelming the Syrian health and education system and driving up real estate prices. There are also fears that the civil war in Iraq will lead to tension among exiled Iraqis, reports Viktor Kocher
Officials and observers in the Syrian capital are expressing growing concern over the continuing flood of Iraqi refugees entering the country. Government agencies are unable to give an accurate total figure because, since the war began in 2003, Iraqis have been largely able to enter the country unchecked and blend into the local population. There are only very few special transit camps near the border.
Humanitarian organizations estimate the number of Iraqis in Syria at 800,000, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has put the number at 1.2 million.
Every day, an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 additional refugees enter the country. Syrian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Economy Abdullah al-Dardari said in February that the refugees have caused the Syrian population of 18 million to grow by 7 percent in just one year. To make matters worse, the majority of Iraqis are settling in Damascus and the surrounding area and, in view of the escalating civil war in their home country, many refugees are preparing to stay for a long time.
25,000 more children in Damascus schools
As an expert on economic affairs, Dardari spoke mainly of the heavy burden on Syria's infrastructure caused by the arrival of so many people. He said that it would take at least a billion dollars to deal with the initial repercussions of the influx of refugees. "In Damascus, for example, there are roughly 25,000 Iraqi children who attend Syrian primarily schools free of charge," he said.
This requires the construction of dozens of new schools. Representatives of aid organizations have reported classrooms with 60 children – and schools are teaching two "shifts" a day to keep up with the demand.
Syrian hospitals are also open to Iraqis basically free of charge. The problems here are longer waiting times and higher demands for special drugs. Pharmaceuticals for long-term patients have become scarce, and it has become more difficult to treat serious illnesses such as cancer. As a result of US sanctions, Syria receives very little international aid.
On top of that, the Assad regime suffers from its own exaggerated mistrust of all civil society associations and offshoots of international aid organizations. Only Islamic and Christian charities, the Syrian Red Crescent, the UNHCR, and the International Committee of the Red Cross are tackling the problems.
Residents and authorities in Damascus complain of massive increases in the price of housing and real estate. Since virtually all Iraqi refugees have to find place to live, no matter how humble, prices have soared by 50 to 100 percent or more over the past year. This has led to a crisis on the residential housing market, particularly in the neighborhoods of Sayida Zeinab, Jaramana and Barzeh on the outskirts of town, where many Iraqis have settled.
What's more, it is anticipated that the added purchasing of goods by Iraqi consumers will fuel inflation. Since many Iraqis arrive with only minimal financial resources and find themselves desperately in need of work, they are driving down wages on the Syrian labor market and adding to the country's unemployment rate, which under normal circumstances is estimated to be between 10 and 20 percent.
Although the Iraqi community has remained peaceful, experts warn of a mounting political threat. Iraqi fringe groups have brought prostitution, drug trafficking and organized crime to relatively crime-free Syria. This development has stirred the first feelings of hostility toward foreigners from the war-torn neighboring country.
Roughly three-quarters of the refugees are Shiites, while the majority of Syrians are Sunnis. That makes Syria vulnerable to the raging conflict between religious communities across the border in Iraq. Syrian security forces have been unable to deal with the situation because the fragmented Iraqi community cannot be controlled by the usual method based on local informants. The authorities are unable to penetrate the rapidly growing population.
For the most part, the civil war in Iraq has apparently not yet spilled over into Syria, but it would be difficult to avert such a development, should the sons of refugees begin to slip back over the border into Iraq to take part in the fighting, and then return to Syria. This could spark violent reactions between the various Iraqi groups and factions.
In addition, very little is known about the activities of insurgents and al-Qaida agents who use Syria as a transit country for their operations, according to repeated US claims. If al-Qaida should suffer setbacks in Iraq and make Syria its main battleground, this would put an end to the country's long period of stability.
UNHCR aid to Syria
In 2007, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva made four agreements with Syrian government officials and the Syrian Red Crescent to enhance the international organization's ability to help Iraqi refugees.
The agreements call for hospitals to be expanded and equipped, medical personnel to be trained, clinics to be established, ambulances to be delivered, schools to be renovated and textbooks to be financed for Iraqi children. A total of $9.6 million has been earmarked for these projects.
On 1 May 2007, the UNHCR announced that 77,683 Iraqi refugees had been officially registered in the country. However, Syrian authorities estimate that a total of 1.4 million Iraqis have taken refuge in the country over the past three years.
© Neue Zürcher Zeitung/Qantara.de 2007
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen