For the most part of nearly three decades, interaction between Syrians andIraqis was minimal, to say the least-restricted to political fugitives from each country residing in Baghdad and Damascus. Anyone who is someone in Iraq today was a resident of the Syrian capital-Nuri Al-Maliki, Jalal Talabani, Masoud Al-Barzani, and Ibrahim Al-Jaafari. But neither country had an embassy in the other s capital, there were no formal visits, no cultural exchanges, and no linking telephone lines. Syrians wanting a travel permit would get the words All Arab countries except Iraq stamped on their passports. The same was done by authorities in Baghdad. Restrictions were briefly lifted in the late 1970s when the two countries teamed up to oppose Egyptian President Anwar Al-Sadat s peace deal with Israel, and Iraqis poured into Syria for tourism, education and business.
Today, there are nearly 1.5 million Iraqis in Syria, but contrary to the case three decades ago, they are mostly refugees. They began arriving after the American invasion of March 2003 and are currently entering at a rate of 2000 per day. They now account for about 11 percent of Syria s 18 million residents. Syria -living up to its Arab nationalist history and convictions – is the only Arab country to allow Iraqis to come freely, obtain temporary residency permits, and own property on its territory.
Within Syria, the Iraqis have had a substantial impact. The affluent minority have caused real estate prices to skyrocket and contributed to growth of over 5 percent, but collectively the Iraqis have been a drain on an economy that has strained to provide them with basic services like clean drinking water, sanitation, medical care and education. Public schools inSyria are stretched to the limit, and so are government resources. Difficulties in obtaining proper school documentation from Iraq has caused many Iraqi students to drop-out of school in Syria, resorting to odd jobs on the streets. Despite that, the Syrians have promised to try and accommodate 100,000 Iraqi children at state-run schools, in addition to the 40,000 Iraqi college students enrolled at Syrian universities.
The rising number of Iraqi prostitutes has led the government to make it difficult for Iraqi women aged 15-40 to enter Syria unless accompanied by a male relative. According to Hana Ibrahim, the founder of Women s Will (anIraqi NGO), 50,000 Iraqi women have turned to the sex business around the Arab world due to the unbearable conditions of their lives as refugees. Crime-which is very low in Syria-has also risen in recent years in the wild and uncontrolled neighborhoods of the Iraqis, nicknamed Little Falluja.
Iraqi refugees are costing the Syrian state no less than $1 billion per year. To date, the only state-sponsored assistance received by Syria has come from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation: $1 million. Although the US has pledged $153 million to all of Jordan, Syria and Lebanon to help deal with their refugee problem, nothing of that amount has been delivered to Damascus. UNHCR has provided aid of $10 million for health and education-from its 2007 budget of $123 million.
The bulk of the burden has been, and continues to be, shouldered by the Syrian government and tax-payers. Although, the US has given $700 million since 2003 to help Jordan offset the economic dislocation it faces due to the conflict in Iraq, no comparable payments have been made to Syria. Other Western governments, which also bear responsibility for the chaos in Iraq, such as Australia, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Japan and Great Britain, have also been unwilling to help Syria support its Iraqi refugees adequately.
The world must not forget that during the Israel-Hezbollah war last summer, Syria received hundreds of thousands of Lebanese refugees. It is also permanent home to 700,000 Palestinians from a much earlier conflict.
All of this explains why Syria announced that it would be placing strict restrictions on refugees coming from Iraq as of September 2007. The announcement, which had a high tone of regret, said that Syria can no longer take in any more. Visas would only be given to those coming for educational, business or scientific reasons. Shortly after this went into effect, the Al-Tanf border crossing was described as virtually empty. International organizations, media and states called onSyria to reconsider, making claims that its restrictions would prevent refugees from fleeing the violence in their country. This scared Iraqis and raised alarm in the international community, prompting the US to announce on Sept. 21 that as of mid-October it would start receiving 1,000 Iraqis per month. By late September 2007, the US would have received 1,700 refugees-a measly number when compared to that of Syria s. Paul Rozenzweig, the Counselor of the Department of Homeland Security, added, Next year we re going to resettle 12,000 Iraqis out of a projected total of 70,000 worldwide. For their part, the Syrians changed course briefly by easing restrictions for humanitarian reasons during the holy month of Ramadan (which began on Sept. 13), claiming that this will last only until mid-October, when the fasting period ends.
If Syria were to push further with its measures, or close its borders to Iraqi refugees immigrants, however reluctantly, it would create far more serious problems for all in the region and, ultimately, for the West.
Irrespective of why or how the Iraqi war is being fought, Syria and the US share humanitarian interest in easing the plight of the refugees. On this, both countries certainly should be able to agree.
Ahram Weekly, 16 October 2007