DAMASCUS // Iraqi refugees, many of whom who have been living in exile for more than four years, demonstrated outside the UN refugee agency offices in Damascus yesterday, protesting their "abandonment" by the international community. "We are tired of this, we have been forgotten," said Waleed al Ali, one of the organisers of the protest. A Sunni Muslim, he said he fled southern Iraq three years ago after being threatened by a Shiite militia, and has since been living with his wife and three sons on the outskirts of Syria's capital city.
Such public demonstrations of anger are rare in Syria, with most Iraqi refugees preferring to keep a low profile. As the months and years pass however, despair and frustration have left them feeling there is no other choice but to openly raise their voices. Mr Ali is registered with UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, and has a certificate from them acknowledging his status as a refugee. But the 43-year-old and hundreds of other Iraqis here say they have received little else.
"We get given a piece of paper to hold, it's nothing," he said. "I'm not even asking for help anymore, I just want some signal from the UN that they know we exist, that they are following our cases. "We come here, we register and then hear nothing, not a sound. I have lived like that for three years. You realise no one cares." There are 206,000 registered Iraqi refugees in Syria and new cases are continually being added. Violence in Iraq has fallen in recent years and some families have returned to their homes. But more continue to arrive in Damascus, running from cities like Mosul, Basra, Baghdad and Baquba, which all remain dangerous.
Iraq's government encourages returnees, while the UN says that conditions in the country are not yet stable enough for vulnerable families to go back wholesale and that any repatriation must be a matter of individual choice, not compulsion. According to UN figures, since 2007 more than 28,000 refugee cases from Syria have been submitted to potential host countries around the world, including the United States, Canada, Britain and other members of the European Union. Of those, only 10,593 refugees have been accepted and have left for their new homes.
Up to January this year, the US had taken in 7,208 Iraqi refugees from Syria. Britain, the other main force in the 2003 invasion, had accepted 25 refugees. "I'm sick and tired of this, we all are," said Yass Huthaifa, who has also languished as a refugee for three years. "We would all like to return to our homes but most of us have nowhere to return to, or cannot go there safely." "We do have a huge number of desperate people here that see resettlement as the only solution to their problem," said Sybella Wilkes, a spokeswoman for the UNCHR in Syria. "We expect to be submitting more than 60,000 cases that we think require resettlement in a third country, but the hard fact is that only a fraction of that number will get accepted.
"You are leaving behind a group of people who can't work here and who cannot go back to Iraq. It's a very, very difficult situation." Under the resettlement programme, the UNHCR screens cases that meet the requirements set out by participating host countries, which then make the final decision on who is accepted as an asylum seeker. Thousands of Iraqi refugees in Syria have been rejected. Refugees' fears they are being forgotten are shared by United Nations officials. The UNHCR has appealed for US$299 million (Dh1.1 billion) to meet the requirements of Iraqis in Syria in 2009. It has so far received 52 per cent of that amount and has warned assistance programmes, including already limited health care, education and financial aid to the poorest families, will have to be cut back.
"We are very concerned that the plight of Iraqi refugees seems to have fallen off the radar," Ms Wilkes said. "There has been an improvement in the security situation in Iraq but that does not equate to a situation to which all refugees can return. "Iraqi refugees have huge ongoing needs and this is not the time to turn away from them." firstname.lastname@example.org