Iraqi Refugees in Syria
Open Door Policy at Significant Cost

Syria's welcoming policy toward Iraqi refugees has been praised by the UN. But the estimated 1.5 million Iraqis who fled the violence in their home country are putting increasing stress on the Syrian housing market and the public sector. Zaytuna Razan reports

Iraqi refugees at the UNHCR office in Damascus, Syria (photo: AP)
An Iraqi married couple at the UNHCR office in Damascus. Many refugees are dependent on NGO aid

​​During the Asian World Cup that has recently been held, the hearts of many Syrians were clinging to the hope of a victory for the Iraqi team. Immediately after the victory in the finals, the joy was overwhelming: friends were congratulating one another, many in tears. Syrians as well as Iraqis saw the victory as an "award" for Iraq and its people, a moral consolation against daily hardship and bloodshed.

By evening, however, grumblings began to seep into the congratulatory dialogue. The Iraqi refugees who were out on the streets celebrating created in some areas traffic jams and congestion. In other areas of the city, groups of Iraqi men, women and children were displaying their national flag celebrating in their own way this triumph. Some Syrians regarded this behaviour as unsuitable to the hosting nation. Again, an unease with the presence of Iraqi refugees in Syria was unmistakably felt.

An estimate for the refugees in Syria was placed somewhere between a million and a million and half Iraqis. One legal organization estimated the rate of recent Iraqi arrivals to be about one thousand a day where all are granted a six month resident permit after which they would either have to leave and re-enter the country – a step which had been described as a precautionary measure.

A less-than-accurate stereotype

Most of these refugees reside in the capital Damascus, a city that has been suffering from population congestion due to a steady increase in internal migration, either from rural or other urban centers who for various reasons head for the capital.

This recent settlement of increasingly large number of Iraqi refugees has highlighted the difficult economic conditions of most Syrians. Prices have rocketed to a remarkable 30% as have the residential rents, creating a crisis to a situation which many Syrians regarded as catastrophic to start with.

Rents increased to double or treble the rate in some areas where many landlords resorted to ejecting their Syrian occupants whose payment of five or seven thousand Syrian liras a month for rent, for example, was replaced by Iraqis who were capable of paying fifteen to twenty thousand Syrian liras a month. Such rent hikes are unheard of for many Syrians who live on limited incomes.

All this has contributed to forming a less-than-accurate stereotype of the Iraqi refugee; fostering an image of a rich and economically solvent individual currently elbowing his way through the housing market and livelihood of the average Syrian, adding all the while to his burdens. This stereotype disguised the realities that many poor Iraqi refugees face who often live on aid and handouts.

The case of prostitution

The deputy of the Syrian Minister of Economic Affairs has declared at the beginning of the year that there are currently 75,000 Iraqi students registered in Syrian schools receiving free education. This situation here exemplifies the increasing pressure placed on schools to absorb more than they can handle.

photo: AP
The Iraqi owner this barbershop in Damascus gave it the name of "Baghdad". The country is changing under the influence of the great number of Iraqi refugees

​​The consumption of electricity has also increased by an additional 16%. One also needs to factor in the water crisis that also has resulted in comprehensive rationing.

The situation is not limited to a material calculation only; an ethical dimension has been added to the refugee situation. Much has been said about the rise of prostitution in some of the areas with strong Iraqi concentration. Many of the Syrians, including those who are more liberal, consider this increase unacceptable socially and ethically. The truth is that prostitution existed in these areas to begin with, but again as stated earlier, the Iraqi presence brought it out to the light.

Linguistic and other contrasts

The different social environments of the two nations have been brought to the forefront as well. Unlike the Palestinians, or the Lebanese, the Iraqi dialect is markedly distinct from its Syrian counterpart with some overlapping in a few limited areas. This linguistic contrast is the first psychological barrier that bolstered other differences in behaviour and everyday habits of two communities.

In the same venue, one cannot overlook the effect of the movement or migration of human groups into areas that are already heavily settled and given its own distinctions and relationships. Often the reaction to the phenomenon only enforces an unconscious rejection of the new arrivals who appear to have violated entire neighbourhoods by renaming them after their old cities.

There are some social stratums in Syria, on the other hand, that have benefited materially from the presence of Iraqis. But for the majority of Syrians this has not been their experience. The refugees do not live in isolated or secluded tents; most of them reside in main residential areas of middle or limited income families.

Had the Syrian government taken the steps to settle these refugees across different cities and governorates instead of concentrating all of them in the capital where the service sector is already overstrained, it could have prevented these negative sensitivities from manifesting themselves. In effect, the presence of Iraqi refugees was a strong catalyst in highlighting the problems of the economic and service sectors rather than being the direct cause.

Zaytuna Razan

© 2007

Translated from the Arabic by Mona Zaki

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