Refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria: what sort of welcome awaits exiles?
Anne Ziegler is a project coordinator at the St Vartan Centre (Jesuit Refugee Service) at Aleppo in Syria. She describes the alarming situation of Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan.
Neither Jordan, nor Syria, nor Lebanon are signatories to the Convention of 28 July 1951 relating to the status of refugees. Nevertheless, Syria is playing host to more than one million Iraqis and Jordan to around five hundred thousand, in addition to the three million Palestinians living in camps in the region for decades. There are also some 8,000 refugees of other nationalities (Somalis, Afghans, etc.).
In Lebanon, the absence of legislation means that Iraqis are considered to be illegal migrants and are therefore very vulnerable, often placed in detention and returned to their own country. Palestinians are being denied many basic human rights and, because they are stateless, they do not enjoy the same rights as other foreigners. However, in Jordan and Syria, Palestinians benefit from virtually the same rights as the nationals of these two countries.
In Syria and Jordan, Iraqi refugees live out of sight, mainly in the bigger cities (Damascus, Amman, Aleppo) and try to manage without assistance: scarcely 170,000 of them are registered with the High Commission for Refugees (HCR). From the very outset, Syria and Jordan have made basic medical and education services available to these people, whom they refer to as their guests despite the pressure of these massive inflows on their economy, housing and schools, especially in Syria. However, Iraqis do not have the right to work legally, though governments do turn a blind eye to informal labour.
Initially, after having left their country, often in haste because of direct threats or local insecurity, Iraqis believe that they will be able to return after a few months. The most needy and desperate then contact the HCR when their resources are exhausted, after a few years of exile with no income, or when they can no longer cope: 70% of refugees registered with the HCR have been in exile for more than four years, and more than 40% have specific needs (critical medical conditions, handicaps, need for protection, survivors of torture, traumatised, etc.).
Because of the security situation in Iraq and the lack (or poor quality and reliability) of basic services (education, water, electricity, social services), Iraqis continue to leave their country: 12,000 new registrations were recorded by the HCR in the first six months of 2011. The scheduled departure of the Americans between now and the end of the year, and the uncertainty over the resulting situation, make any improvement look unlikely. Refugees who return to Iraq do so, despite their fears, when they really have no resources left to care for their families and have lost all hope of an alternative solution. Muslims, who represent 90% of refugees, still plan to return to Iraq in the long term, but the vast majority of Christians see no other option but to set up in another country, despite the very low probability of success (since 2007, 128, 000 requests have been submitted by the HCR to host countries, and fewer than half of them result in departures).
There are the figures, and there are the people… At the St Vartan centre of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Aleppo, in Syria, we find that refugees are becoming increasingly desperate and their situation is deteriorating. In Iraq they were teachers, computer engineers, pilots and traders. Here they come to the Centre to find clothing or some form of heating, arriving outside opening hours to avoid being seen. Some of them stop the training or schooling offered to children because they simply cannot afford to pay for urban transport. Many children do not go to school as in many instances they are more likely to find work than adults. Prostitution and domestic violence are on the increase.
Since the beginning of the recent events in Syria, psychological disorders and tensions are more in evidence: Iraqis now live in fear of seeing history repeat itself, and having to flee again. But where can they go?
Mourad Abou Seif sj
Paul Diab sj
Jesuit Refugee Service, Aleppo, Syria
Translated from the original French