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middle east - do not use

Refugees struggle to make ends meet in Lebanon, Syria

Text by Perrine MOUTERDE

Latest update : 2010-03-09

An estimated two million Iraqi refugees have fled to countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt since the 2003 US invasion. Despite major hardships, they would rather live outside Iraq than return to their homeland.

Rush hour is over. Only a handful of families are still waiting in line in the dreary shed that serves as a UN registration centre for Iraqi refugees just outside the Syrian capital of Damascus. Hana, a 39-year-old Iraqi Christian, is one of the people waiting on a bench.

Not long after US troops invaded Iraq in 2003, Hana, who goes by just one name, fled her native Baghdad for Syria to escape “the raids, the daily security searches and the random killings”.

She returned to Baghdad five years later hoping the situation had improved. But a few months later, she was back in Damascus. “The situation is much worse than authorities will admit,” she explains. “There are suicide bombings and kidnappings almost every day - our lives are in constant danger. Power is regularly cut off, sometimes for weeks at a time. Public utility services are non-existent,” she adds. Her brother also chose to flee the Iraqi capital, heading to a relatively safer region in the north.

Hana is adamant that she will never return to her country after everything she has witnessed there. She has used up all of her savings; her only hope now is UN assistance. “I’m in terribly low spirits,” she admits.

Iraqi neighbourhoods in the heart of Damascus

The Douma UN centre, opened in 2007 some 20 km away from the Syrian capital, is the largest refugee centre in the world. “Usually this type of structure consists of a tent and a few chairs. This one is particularly well equipped,” explains Dalia al-Achi, public information assistant for the UN's refugee agency (UNHCR) in Damascus.

In 2007, around 10,000 refugees flocked to the centre every day to seek assistance. The flow gradually slowed down, but the centre still registers over 1,000 families daily.

Today, Hana lives with an Iraqi friend in Jaramana, one of several Iraqi neighbourhoods in the Syrian capital. New building sites mushroom at every corner, and the traffic-packed streets are lined with Iraqi restaurants, Iraqi banks and music stores selling Iraqi albums.

“This area has radically changed in the past few years,” says al-Achi. “It used to be very quiet, very calm, now it’s become really busy. The influx of Iraqi refugees has completely transformed the urban landscape,” she adds.

Different country, same stories

In neighbouring Lebanon, Roueiss, a suburb south of Beirut, has also become a hotbed of Iraqi migrants. Bouchra left Iraq for Beirut seven years ago with her five children. Her dream is to join her eldest daughter, who succeeded in migrating to the United States, but her application was rejected by the UN refugee agency. Bouchra was a hairdresser in Iraq, but now she is forced to beg in front of a mosque to feed her kids.

“Two of my children developed eye problems after the 2006 war,” she said, referring to the Israeli attack on Lebanon. “But I have no money to pay for treatment,” she explains, her eyes brimming with tears. “Every day I hope the next one will be better. In fact, things keep getting worse and worse.”

Exploitation, depression, prostitution

An estimated 260,000 refugees have registered with the UN services in Syria and another 10,000 in Lebanon since the 2003 US invasion. They remain second-class citizens, with no legal status and no working rights. Child labour, prostitution and forced marriages are on the rise, according to international aid agencies and human rights groups.

A 2007 Human Rights Watch report denounced the worrying conditions under which Iraqi refugees live in countries such as Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

“Because refugees aren’t allowed to work, they’re forced to resort to desperate measures once their savings have run out,” says al-Achi, adding that, nonetheless, the Iraqi refugee community remains “strong and dignified in their misery”.

Most of these refugees have no intention of ever returning to Iraq, despite the voluntary repatriation programme launched by the UN in 2008. Most dream of a new life in the west, but less than five percent of refugees benefit from UN-assisted reinsertion programmes, according to UN figures.

Upcoming elections on March 7 bring little hope to displaced Iraqis, even those who are able to vote from abroad. “The elections won’t change anything,” says Bouchra. “There will just be more bombs every day. How can the situation get better?”

Date created : 2010-03-04

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