x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A plea from the forgotten people

Correspondent's notebook Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees in Syria are waiting to be resettled. For most of them, returning home is not an option.

Iraqi refugees hold up their registration certificates at a protest outside the United Nations refugee agency's office in Damascus.
Iraqi refugees hold up their registration certificates at a protest outside the United Nations refugee agency's office in Damascus.

DAMASCUS // There are papers piled on the table in front of me, dozens of sheets and scraps, perhaps a hundred, maybe more. Old chewing gum wrappers, a torn cigarette packet, pages ripped from a small notebook with "welcome" printed at the top in blue letters, sections from a diary. Scrawled on every piece is a refugee code, sometimes a name, sometimes a phone number. Each one is a plea for help. They were pushed into my hands or stuffed into my pockets and my bag by a mob of desperate Iraqis. They had been queuing up outside the United Nations office in Damascus last Tuesday, as usual, sitting in the morning sun, hoping against the odds, and against all previous experience, that today would be the day something changed in their lives for the better.

Tuesday is resettlement day, when a refugee finds out if he or she has been accepted as an asylum seeker in Europe or the US. The normal drill for an Iraqi refugee here is: flee from your family home in fear for your life, arrive in Syria, register at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), get put on a list and then wait. Probably for years. If you're really poor you may get some financial help, although not nearly enough to live on. If you have a serious medical problem there might be some aid, but you will have to pay a contribution towards it. You cannot work, you cannot easily travel to another country and, because you ran from violence and instability at home you cannot really go back. Damascus is a beautiful, hospitable city, but for Iraqi refugees, it is a trap, a place for apparently endless waiting.

Some Iraqis here ran from the war six years ago and have been in limbo ever since, too afraid to go home or with nothing much left to return to, a sense that their futures - their children's futures - lay in the peaceful and prosperous West. There are more than 200,000 Iraqis in Syria registered with the United Nations, although there are tens of thousands more Iraqis living here. Since 2007, 28,000 of the UNHCR cases have been submitted to third countries for resettlement, with 10,593 accepted.

The majority who are left behind are forced to wait in silence with each passing month they grow increasingly desperate, despairing of the future and angry. Savings dwindle, children grow up into rootless young adults, the middle aged become elderly, the elderly die. Which is why, last Tuesday, hundreds of refugees decided to hold a rare protest outside the UNHCR office. They were going to be there anyway, so it did not require much organisation. One person painted a slogan saying, "Why do they keep us homeless". The media were invited but only three journalists turned up.

I was the only foreigner outside the office, and a quiet Iraqi woman in her 60s, dressed in a black abaya, came up and spoke to me. She did not ask for anything, she just started telling her story, sketching the outlines - a murdered husband, no children, poverty, homelessness. More refugees began to gather around, listening in, and another woman started to tell her story, speaking of her desperation. Others began to talk at the same time, raising their voices, almost shouting to be heard above the rising noise. Quickly and unhappily I had become the centre of attention, surrounded by Iraqis waving registration papers in my face, asking to be noticed, asking for someone to listen to their tragedies. Iraqi refugees here, apparently without exception, feel woefully let down by the international community. They feel ignored and that no one cares about the wreckage of their lives. And they have a point. Despite all the hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, most refugees get little real help.

An Iraqi man held up his registration papers and asked me to take a photo of them, then another did the same, then others. For no real purpose - what would I be able to do with them? - but it seemed like having the papers on camera would give some affirmation of existence, a piece of photographic evidence of who, what and where these refugees were. I took hundreds of pictures, people tugging my arm asking for their turn, some pushing in front of others, pushing their papers into the camera lens.

Then one of the refugees gave me his registration paper, the copy he had held up in front of me. He had written his phone number on it and asked me to call. More followed suit, scribbling down numbers, names. Those without pens borrowed them, those without copies of their refugee status certificates wrote on anything that came to hand. Papers were shoved at me from every direction and, my hands full, people pushed them into my trouser pockets, my bag.

It never felt threatening but things were getting out of control and a Syrian police officer waded into the small, growing crowd, grabbed me and led me behind the concrete-and-wire barricade that separates the air-conditioned UN offices from the boiling street outside. I waited there for a while, then pushed back out through the crowd, taking more and more papers as I went, promising to call when I caught someone's eye.

I made the promise, unthinkingly, to one woman whose face I'd seen before, somewhere in the swell of people. She was close this time and said, in English, "You promised. You must call. The UN has forgotten us, the world has forgotten us, don't you forget us." With some effort, and some more help from the Syrian police, I got away from the crowd, some stragglers running up, around the police, passing me their papers before running off again.

Back at home, I put all the papers in a bag and successfully forgot about them for an evening. But they sat there, like an accusation or an opportunity or something in between. For a while, last year, Iraqi refugees were a subject that interested the world's media and UN donor countries it was a hot issue. Not any more. No one asks about them now or how the UNHCR in Syria has not yet been able to get the funding it needs this year to keep up medical and financial aid programmes for the destitute.

Iraq is safer now, but tens of thousands of refugees, who have already risked and lost so much, are not prepared to take the chance that fragile security gains will not be reversed. Each new suicide bomb back home, each kidnapping or shooting that we do not read about in the English-language media, each act of corruption or theft gives them another reason to stay in Syria. The UN still does not recommend that Iraqi's return home, and the UNHCR's Syria office estimates that at least 60,000 of its registered cases are so severe that they cannot go back to Iraq and should instead be relocated to a third country.

That relocation will not happen for most of these Iraqis. The US and Europe are taking more refugees than they once did, but they are still only the tip of the iceberg. With a fickle world now looking to Afghanistan as this year's must-see war-zone, Iraq's refugees are likely to feel increasingly invisible. It may not make any difference, but looking at this pile of papers and phone numbers next to me, I am going to try to get out and speak to as many of the them as I can.

I will hear their stories, and report them, in the hope that doing so will somehow make it impossible for the world to ignore this ongoing humanitarian disaster. psands@thenational.ae