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Escape to Syria

Text by Marie Sophie JOUBERT

Latest update : 2008-10-24

Syria is still the principal destination for refugees fleeing the violence in Iraq. But as they join approximately 1.5 million Iraqis already in the country, Syrian authorities are struggling to cope.

Syrians have prided themselves in the warm welcome extended to Iraqi civilians fleeing their war-torn country. Yet their patience is being tested by the sustained flow of refugees. Every day, thousands more flock to the border between the two countries. Indeed, Iraqis now amount to “close to 10% of the population,” said Astrid Van Genderen Stort, spokesperson for the United Nations’ High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). “In Damascus, Iraqis have taken over entire neighbourhoods. Schools are full and hospitals are overflowing, a situation that is causing frustration among the local population, particularly in recent months.”

Syria can point to a long tradition of hospitality. In the past, it has offered refuge to Lebanese, Armenians, Algerians, Palestinians and, of course, Iraqis. “Few countries would have been so ready to welcome Iraqi refugees. But the sheer number of immigrants is now a major burden on the local population,” said Van Genderen Stort.


A costly hospitality


It is hard to give exact estimates of the cost of the recent Iraqi influx for the Syrian government. Speaking to representatives of the European Parliament last September, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Abdullah Dardari estimated that the cost of creating schools for Iraqi migrants alone was several million dollars.

Refugees have also clogged up the Damascus housing market, a sector particularly affected by spiralling inflation.
While the Syrian government puts the 2007 inflation rate at 5.5 percent, some independent observers estimate the actual rate at 30 percent.


“We can no longer buy anything,” said real estate developer, Ibrahim Jarous. “Rents have tripled, and in some neighbourhoods, like Jaramana in Damascus, they have increased fivefold. Here, wealthy Iraqis were able to meet the costs.”


But Nabil Sukkar, an economist and director of the Damascus-based Syrian Consulting Bureau for Development and Investment (SCB), stressed that many Syrians do not believe the Iraqis are the sole cause of Syria’s inflation. According to Sukkar, bad weather, rising oil prices and market liberalization are equally to blame for the hike in consumer prices.


A Syrian journalist who did not want to be named also noted that the Iraqi influx was not the sole cause of Syria’s inflation. "The presence of the Iraqis did nothing but amplify an already existing situation. Let’s not forget the injection of liquidity from the Gulf nations into the real estate market that has contributed to the rising housing prices - if not, how do you explain the rising prices in tourist zones? It’s not the Iraqis who have settled there. "


In recent years, a number of Gulf-based property developers have been investing in megaprojects – particularly in resorts and beachfront properties – in Syria as part of an expansion into emerging markets.


Nabil Sukkar notes that "the Iraqis are putting severe pressure on social services subsidized by the state." They are also affecting the Syrian labour market. Although prohibited from working in Syria, Sukkar remarks that Iraqi migrants do accept work for lower wages, leading to a downward pressure on wage rates.”

In an attempt to deal with the financial burden, one that Sukkar states as not being shared by the international community, Syrian authorities have recently started tightening their visa requirements. A measure that adds additional strain to desperate Iraqis fleeing an already desperate situation back home, according to Van Genderen Stort. "They are increasingly desperate," she says, “the majority cannot work any more and do not have any more money."


Resorting to prostitution


It’s a plight that has led some Iraqi families to take desperate measures. A recent FRANCE 24 report found certain Iraqi families in Damascus were forced to prostitute their daughters. Fatima, a young Iraqi woman, who declined to provide her last name, had just arrived in Syria to join her aunt who then forced Fatima into prostitution. "I was surprised to discover that my aunt had lied me about her work,” she told FRANCE 24. “I tried to flee and find other employment, but I could not even find work as a cleaning lady. Then, I had to return to it,” she said, referring to paid sex work.

Fleeing the rampant violence and rape in Iraq, often kidnapped or sold to human trafficking networks, many Iraqis such as as Fatima sink into prostitution. According to Haria Ibrahil from Women’s Will, a Damascus-based NGO,  there are more than 50,000 young Iraqi women forced into prostitution in Syria, the majority of them aged below 16.


Alarmed by the rise in human trafficking, Syrian authorities now prohibit women younger than 35 years from entering Syria without a male family member. But activists rightly note that it is not really a solution at all.


Date created : 2008-03-19