|An Iraqi- Palestinian refugee woman looks after her infant inside a tent at the Hawl refugee camp in northern Syria, near the Iraq border.|
By Rachel Bonham Carter
NEW YORK, USA, 21 February 2007 – As Syria tightens entry regulations for refugees crossing the border from Iraq, UNICEF and its partners continue to advocate for humanitarian exceptions to the rules.
Almost 4 million people have been left homeless by the ongoing violence in Iraq. More than half have fled the country, seeking shelter as refugees in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey and Iran.
Syria has taken in the largest number of refugees – upwards of 700,000, with the Syrian Government placing that figure at over 1 million. UNICEF estimates that around 50 per cent of them are children.
Syria tightens requirements
According to UNICEF’s Representative in Syria, Anis Salem, refugees have been entering the country since 2003 but the situation has intensified during the past 12 months.
“People who have come with savings out of Iraq are now running out of money,” says Mr. Salem. “They are putting pressure on the employment market and we are also beginning to see cases of theft and prostitution – and many of these things are getting into the newspapers and creating public concern and hardening the attitudes towards immigrants.”
Mr. Salem adds that the Syrian authorities feel they are being left alone by the international community to deal with the growing number of refugees. They believe they have no alternative but to tighten entry requirements, he says.
Palestinian-Iraqi refugee crisis
Until recently, Syria had been very welcoming to Iraqi refugees, granting three-month permits that were renewable by a simple border crossing. Now, on a case-by-case basis, refugees will receive 15-day permits after which they must leave the country for a month before returning.
“The reality,” says Mr. Salem, “is that none of Syria’s neighbouring countries will receive refugees for one month, so they find themselves in a ‘Catch 22’ situation.”
On a recent visit to the region, the head of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), Antonio Guterres, pointed out that the growing crisis has sparked the biggest population shift in the Middle East since the mass movement of Palestinians following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
Now, thousands of Palestinians who settled in Iraq again find themselves under pressure. Nearly 20,000 have fled Iraq, but an estimated 15,000 remain, most in Baghdad. Approximately 700 are stranded on the border with Syria, which has refused them entry due to legal complications concerning their status; they were in Iraq under a special mandate of the UNHCR at the request of the Iraqi Government.
“This has led to a terrible situation,” says Mr. Salem. “These people are stranded at the border with practically no support.”
Need for humanitarian aid
Living in two makeshift camps, the Palestinians at the border have been receiving some assistance with water and sanitation, nutrition, and health and education supplies from UNICEF, UNHCR and the International Red Cross. A tent school opened earlier this month, enabling around 90 children to start attending classes despite all the uncertainty around them. UNICEF is supplying the educational materials.
Mr. Salem says UNICEF and its partners are asking the Syrian Government to take in this group of Palestinians as a special humanitarian gesture.
While in the region, Mr. Guterres of the UN refugee agency explained that the international community has been “overwhelmed” by the movement of people there – and that support for host governments and non-governmental organizations struggling to cope with huge numbers of Iraqi refugees must be stepped up.
This view is echoed by Mr. Salem, who says there has so far been no donor response to the call for $700,000 in funding for UNICEF Syria’s programmes in 2007, as outlined in UNICEF’s Humanitarian Action Report.
14 February 2007:
UNICEF Representative in Syria Anis Salem describes efforts to assist the Iraqi-Palestinian refugees stranded on the Iraq-Syria border.
UNICEF mourns the loss of Iraq staff member [with audio]
The UN Refugee Agency website
(external link, opens in a new window)