Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Syria bars Iraqis refugees, crisis worsens

The Gazette

Bassem Mroue, Associated Press
Published: Monday, February 12, 2007

DAMASCUS, Syria — Syria, the last Arab country welcoming large numbers of Iraqi refugees, is now all but closing the gates and leaving 40,000 Iraqis who flee their country each month with almost no place to go.

The new rules — imposed without any official announcement — also strike fear of deportation into the 1 million Iraqis already here. The worsening humanitarian crisis has resulted in calls for action by members of the U.S. Congress and a plea from the United Nations for more countries to help out.

"It's not fair that the burden is not being shared effectively. A very limited number of countries is paying a very heavy price," Antonio Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said on a recent tour of the Mideast.

Syria kept its doors open even after others, including Jordan and Egypt with 700,000 and 130,000 Iraqi refugees respectively, said they could take no more. But the strain on its small, state-controlled economy apparently has become too great.

Until last week, Iraqis could come to Syria without a visa and stay for up to six months. At that point, they could drive to any border, leave briefly and re-enter immediately and stay for another six months — meaning they essentially were allowed to stay indefinitely.

But Iraqis in Syria say they now receive only a 15-day permit to stay when they enter, after which they must apply for a three-month permit that can be renewed only once. After six months, any Iraqi not a student or without a job or business must leave Syria for at least 30 days before being allowed back in.

Because Iraqis can't get into any nearby country for a long period, that 30-days-away rule basically makes most Iraqis here illegal. In addition, only those renting houses in Syria can apply for residency permit — ruling out the majority of Iraqis, who crowd into relatives' apartments.

Syrian officials have said they will not deport Iraqis. And Syrian Interior Minister Bassam Abdul-Majid said recently that the new measures were taken merely to organize the resident permits of Iraqis and get an accurate count of refugees.

However, Syrian officials refuse to publicly confirm details of the new rules, and did not respond to several calls for comment, nor to a list of questions, from The Associated Press.

Many Iraqis fear the change. This weekend, thousands lined up outside U.N. offices to try to register for refugee status, in hopes that would give them a permanent toehold somewhere in the world.

Several Iraqis told The AP in recent days that their visas have expired and that they are scared to go to the Syrian immigration department for fear of being deported — and plan to just stay illegally.

Bashar Saleh, 33, who lived and worked as a barber in tense eastern Baqouba in Iraq, has been in Syria for almost a year. After the first six months, he drove to Lebanon where he spent one day, then drove straight back to Damascus. His visa expires this week but he doesn't know what to do this time.

Saleh said he applied for resettlement at the U.N. agency in July but has received no answer. "If the Syrians ask me to leave next week, I will stay here illegally. I cannot go back to Iraq," he said.

Khazaal Karim, who worked at the Information Ministry under Saddam Hussein, is in a similar bind. He fears that if he returned, he would be killed like dozens of journalists in the past three years. His visa and that of his large family have expired but he is also afraid to go to the authorities.

"If I am forced to go to Iraq for a month, I will be dead for sure," he said.

The U.S. State Department last week announced a study panel to look at Iraq refugee issues and report back on how to better focus U.S. assistance. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also authorized the top U.S. diplomat in Syria to discuss the refugee problem with the Syrian government, apparently in an effort to provide help.

But a handful of U.S. lawmakers have pressed for more urgent action. They note that since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the United States has permanently resettled only 466 Iraqi refugees, including 202 last year.

"We have a clear obligation to stop ignoring it, and help chart a sensible course to ease the refugee crisis," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Democrat and war critic, wrote in a weekend piece in The Washington Post.

The U.N. wants the United States and other nations to do two things: agree to take more Iraqis permanently, and also send aid to ease the financial burden on Arab countries supporting large numbers of Iraqis.

The U.N. classifies most Iraqis as having only "temporary protection status," rather than classifying them as permanent refugees — presumably because it assumes most will return to Iraq once fighting ends. It says it is focused on permanently resettling only the most vulnerable Iraqis.

But because the violence continues unabated and most Iraqis seem unlikely to return soon, many fear that overtaxed Mideast countries will face a refugee crisis for the foreseeable future.

The situation in Syria, in particular, is acute. Prices of apartments and food have skyrocketed since 2003 because of the influx of people, squeezing many Syrians.

Like most Iraqis here, Louaay al-Naqashabandi is scared that the new measures, despite Syrian promises of no deportation, will force him to return to Iraq. If that happens, he says, "I will be sacrificed."

The Sunni Arab lived in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad before fleeing six months ago.

"If I am ever forced to leave, I will stay at the border with my wife and two sons," said the bearded al-Naqashabandi, who is 26. "I am scared of (Shiite) militias and gangs. They threatened me with death and burned my house."