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Syria Strains Under Exodus of Iraqi Refugees Through Last Open Border

Al Tanf, Iraqi-Syrian Border – On a recent mild spring morning, Tawfiq Mohamed was nervously pacing back and forth in front of a drab office building that bears a large picture of Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad.

The former Iraqi police clerk was waiting for his two sisters, who had embarked that morning on the seven-hour journey from Baghdad to join him and the 1.2 million Iraqis now living in Syria.

Mohamed, a middle-aged man with a slight beard, was eager to explain the reason for his family’s ordeal: Shiite militias.

“I was driving home through a Shiite neighborhood, and they shot at me. Two days later, they shot at my house,” said Mohamed, who worked for 23 years taking fingerprints at a police station in Baghdad. “They did it because I am a Sunni.”

This dusty checkpoint is the last open border crossing for Iraqis fleeing the mayhem consuming their country. While neighboring countries have restricted access or even shut their borders, Syria continues to allow tens of thousands of fleeing Iraqis to enter its territory each month.

But as the number of Iraqi refugees continues to climb, the Syrian government, already struggling to contain soaring prices and rising crime, is growing concerned that the sectarian tensions bringing most refugees will cross the border with them.

Those economic and political pressures have forced the Assad regime to begin an about-face: After proudly proclaiming that it would shelter Iraqis in the name of Pan-Arab ideology and rely on its own means to do so, Syria is now openly calling for international financial support and quietly considering closing its borders.

The refugee crisis that many had predicted would follow in the immediate aftermath of the American invasion in March 2003 did not materialize. But the situation changed dramatically in February 2006, after the attack on a Shi’ite mosque in the city of Samarra ignited wide-scale sectarian violence. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the conflict in Iraq has caused the most significant displacement in the Middle East since 1948, with about 2 million Iraqis currently displaced inside the country and up to 2 million abroad. The U.N. agency estimates that about 12% of Iraq’s population will be displaced by the end of this year.

In recent months, the Bush administration has come under fire for granting only a limited number of visas to Iraqis and giving scant attention to their fate. Washington has announced that it would grant some 7,000 visas and would support more funding for refugees in the region.

A U.N. conference agreed last month to increase assistance to the 4 million Iraqis who fled their homes, although no specific pledges were made.

The U.N. refugee commission estimates that there are 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, but the government there believes that the total is at least 1.3 million, according to Munir Ali, an official in the country’s information ministry.

“We need help to help solve the problem that the Americans created,” he said. “Prices are going up, there’s a shortage of water this year and the government will face severe problems over the summer.”

Ali added, “I hope they won’t be forced to close the border.”

One well-connected Damascus-based analyst, who asked not to be identified, put it more bluntly: “Syria will stop letting Iraqis in because of inflation and crime but also because of the political price” of feeding resentment among Syrians over socioeconomic issues that could create political trouble for the regime.

Issam el Zaim, a leading Syrian economist and former industry minister, said that while the official inflation rate was 10% in 2006, it actually was probably twice as much. In addition, the regime has been scrambling to monitor the criminal activities and, especially, the political ties, of the Iraqi refugees.

Statistics are hard to come by, but Syrian and international observers believe that the majority are Sunnis, because of the geographical proximity of Iraq’s Sunni provinces and because Syria has welcomed former Baathist cadres from Saddam Hussein’s regime. Still, Damascus has also seen an influx of Shi’ites, as well as Christians.

No serious sectarian incidents have been reported in Syria, a fact that observers say is partly attributable to Syria’s security services and also to the fact that Sunni and Shi’ite Iraqis in Syria tend to live in separate neighborhoods. In Syria, when Saddam was hanged earlier this year, many Sunnis mourned and many Shi’ites celebrated.

Sunnis such as Mohamed, who worked in the security branches of Saddam’s regime and lost their jobs after the American invasion, are unsurprisingly the most critical of the new Shi’ite-dominated government in Baghdad.

A man who just arrived at the border checkpoint and rushed toward the customs office said that he was a Sunni in the military under Saddam who found himself without a job when the United States decided to disband the Iraqi army. Blaming America and the Iraqi government “controlled by Iran,” he said that life in his Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad had become too difficult.

In addition to the packed cars and trucks streaming in from the Iraqi side of the border, scores of Iraqis already in Syria come here to do the “U-turn,” a quick foray to the Iraqi customs office to renew their temporary residence permits.

Earlier this year, Syria briefly tightened its temporary permit rules but quickly reversed course after demonstrations from Iraqi refugees and protests by aid agencies. Iraqis are granted renewable three-month permits and need to register with the immigration ministry within a month of their arrival. Syria considers the Iraqis “guests” and, as such, they have in most cases not been granted refugee status by the U.N. refugee commission.

Unlike the first refugees who came immediately after the war, the latest newcomers are mostly middle-class or poor Iraqis who tried to stay but eventually gave up because of the growing sectarian violence, unbridled crime and staggering unemployment.

Most of them live in the impoverished Jaramana and Sayada Zainab areas in Damascus. As a result, the capital’s total population has seen a 20% increase — to 6 million from 5 million; real estate and foodstuff prices have skyrocketed, and schools, hospitals and other public services in the Syrian capital are overwhelmed. And unemployment is reaching record levels.

On Sayada Zainab’s main thoroughfare, which has been renamed “Iraq Street,” young men are selling bus rides to all areas of Iraq. Posters of fiery Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr adorn the walls next to a coffee shop named for Iraq’s capital. But the nostalgia for the homeland is magnified by the daily struggles to eke out a living.

While they praised Syria for sheltering them, a group of refugees there described their difficulties in finding jobs, feeding their families and sending their children to school. “My children don’t go to school, because we can’t afford all the extra expenses and I don’t want to choose which ones I send to school,” Muhamad Abdul Hussein Aban complained.

Jassem Mohamed Ali was working in a butcher shop in the mainly Shi’ite area of the Iraqi capital when a car pulled in front and its occupants began shooting. He moved to Damascus two months later with his wife and children. But he then decided to send them back. “It was a very difficult decision, but we just can’t afford it here,” he said. The U.N. refugee commission has been trying to address the situation. But the agency’s operations are under-funded and understaffed.

The commission’s budget jumped to $16 million for this year, from a mere $700,000 in 2006 — less than $1 per refugee. Still, Laurens Jolles, the head of the U.N. agency’s operations in Syria, said that he was hoping for more funds to provide food subsidies, support schools and hospitals, and offer vocational training.

“We need to step up our assistance, especially the support for the Syrian government,” he said. “The U.N. created a special agency for half-a-million Palestinian refugees in 1948, but we are now dealing with many more people.”


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