'We Abandoned Syria' An Emerging Iraqi Refugee Crisis

Syria has so far taken in 1.2 million refugees from Iraq without any help from the outside world, but there are indications that things could be about to change.

A refugee drama of the kind usually seen in Africa is currently underway in the Middle East -- and it has taken the world a long time to take notice. About 1.2 million Iraqis have sought exile in Syria, and some 700,000 more have fled to Jordan.

The fact that this mass flow of refugees long went unrecognized by the West may be the result of the behavior of Iraq's neighbors in Syria, who merely saw this generosity as a matter of course. Still, for a country of 19 million to take in 1.2 million refugees is comparable to Germany having to take in 5 million.

The result is that Syria's economy is now groaning under the strain. The population suffers from water scarcity, electricity blackouts, increased competition for jobs and higher rent and food prices. But so far, the Syrians have accepted these burdens without complaint -- and the government in Damascus continues to cultivate an open-door policy. Iraqis are neither turned away nor deported.

Lauren Jolles, the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) in Syria, is full of praise. "Jordan and especially Syria are bearing the greatest burden without complaining," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. Both countries have accepted the adverse effects on their own infrastructures and economies, Jolles said, "but every Iraqi child can go to school here. That means there are now between 50 and 60 children in one class, instead of 20 or 30."

The hardship created has gone unrecognized for too long, he said, adding, however, that the United States "is gradually acknowledging that they have handed over responsibility." But the international community ought to have rung the alarm much earlier, he said, before adding: "We have all abandoned Syria."

Large aid package needed

A United Nations aid conference scheduled to be held in Geneva in mid-April may now bring relief for the 2 million Iraqi refugees outside the country and the 1 million displaced persons inside Iraq. "We will analyze the situation and see what is required," Jolles said. But one thing is clear, in his view: "The result will have to be a very large aid package."

Even though the desperate situation of the refugees in Damascus is "less visible" -- because they have found accommodation in the suburbs and not in tent camps -- exiled Iraqis are suffering from ever-greater problems. "First the middle class arrived, bringing along with it its savings," Jolles explained. "But those savings are gradually running out." The refugees arriving today are often poorer. They had no apartment to sell in their home country and therefore lack money, according to Jolles.

The UNHCR now expects social problems to develop and worsen. "These people have been uprooted. They've been torn out of their neighborhood and their working environment," said Jolles. Worse yet, they have hopes for any kind of future.

It's a situation that has the Syrian government in a deep state of worry. "It's trying to expand its capacities in order to keep the refugees under control," Jolles said, explaining that Damascus wants to prevent the violence between Sunnis and Shiites from spreading across the border into Syria. But it is very difficult to keep an eye on such a massive number of people.

"The fear and the tension are growing," Jolles said.

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