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Iraq: Refugees Under Pressure in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon

Iraqi refugees demonstrating in front of the UN in Damascus on February 11 (epa) February 16, 2007 (RFE/RL) --  The Washington-based NGO Refugees International recently made a study of the situation of Iraqi refugees in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Irina Lagunina spoke with Kristele Younes, a Refugees International researcher who went to all three countries to talk to people who fled from Iraq.

RFE/RL: What are the general conditions of Iraqi refugees in neighboring countries? Do those people who fled Iraq have any savings that they can use now, any income at all? Or have they just left everything and moved?

Kristele Younes: It used to be at the beginning of the war in 2003-04 that most of the refugees who were leaving had some sort of resources. They were middle-class or upper-middle-class people, and they had some money, some goods with them that would enable them to live in Syria, Jordan, or Lebanon. But now as the violence increases all the people who can make it to the border and who can get into Jordan and Syria are trying to do so. And we see more and more people with few resources going into these countries. And even for those who had some money, now it's been a while. And they are not allowed to work in these countries and they don't have those resources any more. They are falling very quickly into the ranks of the urban poor in these countries. And they really need assistance now.

RFE/RL: You said that they are not allowed to work in those countries?

Younes: No, they are not. Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon do not recognize the refugee status. They are not signatories of the refugee convention, and basically they treat these refugees as guests or tourists. These refugees do not have the right to work in their country of asylum.

RFE/RL: There were reports from Jordan that local authorities complain that refugees are a strain for the country but for different reasons: the majority of them are well educated, better educated than the local population, and they take jobs from local population.

Younes: This is not what we saw at all. We saw a lot of Iraqis who were actually educated and who were skilled workers, but very few were actually able to get jobs in Jordan and Syria. Those who were able to get jobs were getting jobs under the table, in the black market, were underpaid, were exploited, and could not basically defend themselves because they are not entitled to anything under Jordanian or Syrian law for that matter. The very vast majority of the refugees do not work.

RFE/RL: Is there such a thing as refugee camps? Are those people at least somehow organized? Or have they simply spread among the local population?

Younes: They are a few camps, but the camps are very small and are there for particular minorities. For instance, the Palestinians who come from Iraq are stuck in camps in between borders -- in between the Syrian and Iraqi borders. They've been living in a no-man's land for almost a year now. Similarly, the Iranian Kurds that were trying to cross into Jordan from Iraq have been stuck at the border for three years now living in a camp as well. But most of the Iraqi refugees, the very vast majority, the millions of them are basically urban poor. They come, they settle in urban areas and they are a ghost population. And it almost works to their detriment because they are much harder to see, they are harder to reach, they are harder to assist. And they speak the same language, they look like the host communities. So, it's much harder for the international community to assist them. But it's not because we do not see them, that they do not need our help.

RFE/RL: Let's go around the countries that host refugees. You were in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. What is their response to this problem? In legal issues, in dealing with the international organizations, etc. Let's start with Jordan.

Younes: Jordan has been very generous in the past. It basically allowed more than 700,000 Iraqis to come in and to seek asylum, to seek safety in Jordan. However, Jordan is not a rich country. It is not a very populous country. We are talking about less than 6 million people. And 700,000 Iraqis, or even more than that, is a huge percentage of that. With those Iraqis coming in, we have seen the increases in the price of rent, real estate has become very expensive. Also public systems, health care, and education have been completely overburdened. As a result Jordan does not allow Iraqis to access public systems any more.

And because Jordan is worried about security, a year ago three suicide bombers -- all of them Iraqis -- blew themselves up in the international hotel in Jordan, Jordan is worried about it's security and has therefore decided to not let in any young Iraqi men aged 18 to 35. Which is basically forcing families to separate and sending back very vulnerable people to Iraq. Although we are not seeing a massive deportation yet in Jordan, there are cases of deportations and Iraqis in Jordan live in constant fear of been sent back into Iraq.

RFE/RL: Is the situation in Syria any better?

Younes: Until very recently the situation in Syria was better. Syria was by far the most welcoming, hospitable country in the region for Iraqi refugees. Its borders were entirely open. It took at least 700,000. The UN is now talking about a million people, Iraqi refugees in Syria. Until 2005 Iraqi refugees had access to all public systems -- health care, education, etc. Now because the systems have been completely overburdened -- Syria has not received much international assistance. In fact, it has not received any international assistance in dealing with this. Now the Syrians are asking Iraqis to pay for access to health care.

You know, Iraqis were able to come for six months at a time; they made a visa and stayed indefinitely. And the Syrian government was turning a blind eye. But now Syria has basically started giving Iraqis two-week visas instead of six months and forcing them to go back to Iraq for a month in between each stay in Syria. And this is having a dramatic effect on the population in Syria and it's having a dramatic effect on Iraqis who are trying to leave Iraq but don't know where to go any more, because the options are being extremely reduced now.

RFE/RL: The fate of Iraqi refugees in Lebanon is practically unknown. How many people are we talking about there?

Younes: There is about 40,000 of them. Most of them transited through Syria; they entered Lebanon illegally because Lebanon does not have open borders for Iraqi refugees. And they live pretty much in hiding in Lebanon. They live in fear to be arrested in the street without papers and to be sent to jail. Basically, if you are a refugee, if you are Iraqi who left Iraq since 2003 and you get arrested in Lebanon, you are detained for a month and then have the choice between staying in prison or going back to Iraq. Which is not a choice we would wish upon anybody, really.

RFE/RL: You said that those three countries are not signatories of 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees. What is there relationship with the UN High Commissioner for Regugees (UNHCR) in this case?

Younes: UNHCR is trying to operate the best it can. And because these countries have not signed the convention, UNHCR has instituted a system of temporary protection, which means that it agreed with governments to treat all these refugees as people who are in need of temporary protection and who are in need of asylum. But it does not have any legal weight. It basically means that if those countries want to arrest refugees and deport them, they can. Those people do not have any form of legal protection.

Also, UNHCR is operating under memorandums of understanding with all these countries. These memorandums say that if UNHCR recognizes the refugee status for anyone, it is under an obligation to resettle them to a third country within six months to a year. So UNHCR is very reluctant to label anyone a refugee because they either have to send these people to a third country or send them back to Iraq.

RFE/RL: Refugees International testified at U.S. congressional hearings organized by Senator Edward Kennedy on January 16, 2007, on the situation with Iraqi refugees. What were your recommendation to the U.S. administration and Congress?

Younes: Our first recommendation was an acknowledgement of this crisis. We really need to see a lot of political will going into that and acknowledge the fact the violence in Iraq has created a humanitarian tragedy, that millions of people are at risk and that they are in need of our protection and our assistance. A second recommendation is much increased funding to UNHCR. And we are glad to see that this recommendation has been followed. The United States has just announced a contribution of $18 million to UNHCR to be done immediately. While this is a positive first step, we need to see much more. Our third recommendation was bilateral assistance to the governments of these countries, to assist them in building the capacities of their ministries, of their schools, of their hospitals to be able to host refugees.

RFE/RL: But even if there are funds and assistance, as you said those refugees are ghost population. How does one organize and reach them? We don't even know the exact number of Iraqis who fled the country.

Younes: This is the first step that needs to be done. And it was done already in Syria. We need to see it happening in Jordan. A study and assessment must be conducted to try to identify where these refugees are, what there main needs are and who the most vulnerable are. It is an exercise that is difficult to make but it is feasible. These communities are organized. In Syria for instance we know that most refugees live in three different neighborhoods -- there are churches, mosques, community organizations that can direct us toward who the most needy are. We just need to put the resources into doing such an exercise.

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