Posted by Joshua on Sunday, May 20th, 2007
Syria Strains Under Exodus of Iraqi Refugees Through Last Open Border, By Marc Perelman, Forward | Fri. May 04, 2007
Al Tanf, Iraqi-Syrian Border – On a recent mild spring morning, Tawfiq Mohamed was nervously pacing back and forth in front of a drab office building that bears a large picture of Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad.The former Iraqi police clerk was waiting for his two sisters, who had embarked that morning on the seven-hour journey from Baghdad to join him and the 1.2 million Iraqis now living in Syria.
Mohamed, a middle-aged man with a slight beard, was eager to explain the reason for his family’s ordeal: Shiite militias.
“I was driving home through a Shiite neighborhood, and they shot at me. Two days later, they shot at my house,” said Mohamed, who worked for 23 years taking fingerprints at a police station in Baghdad. “They did it because I am a Sunni.”
This dusty checkpoint is the last open border crossing for Iraqis fleeing the mayhem consuming their country. While neighboring countries have restricted access or even shut their borders, Syria continues to allow tens of thousands of fleeing Iraqis to enter its territory each month.
But as the number of Iraqi refugees continues to climb, the Syrian government, already struggling to contain soaring prices and rising crime, is growing concerned that the sectarian tensions bringing most refugees will cross the border with them.
Those economic and political pressures have forced the Assad regime to begin an about-face:….
One well-connected Damascus-based analyst, who asked not to be identified, put it more bluntly: “Syria will stop letting Iraqis in because of inflation and crime but also because of the political price” of feeding resentment among Syrians over socioeconomic issues that could create political trouble for the regime.
Issam el Zaim, a leading Syrian economist and former industry minister, said that while the official inflation rate was 10% in 2006, it actually was probably twice as much. In addition, the regime has been scrambling to monitor the criminal activities and, especially, the political ties, of the Iraqi refugees.
Statistics are hard to come by, but Syrian and international observers believe that the majority are Sunnis, because of the geographical proximity of Iraq’s Sunni provinces and because Syria has welcomed former Baathist cadres from Saddam Hussein’s regime. Still, Damascus has also seen an influx of Shi’ites, as well as Christians.
No serious sectarian incidents have been reported in Syria, a fact that observers say is partly attributable to Syria’s security services and also to the fact that Sunni and Shi’ite Iraqis in Syria tend to live in separate neighborhoods. …. (continue)
Iraq's Christian minority flees violence, by By RAVI NESSMAN, AP, Sun May 6
Despite the chaos and sectarian violence raging across Baghdad, Farouq Mansour felt relatively safe as a Christian living in a multiethnic neighborhood in the capital.
Then, two months ago, al-Qaida gunmen kidnapped him and demanded that his family convert to Islam or pay a $30,000 ransom. Two weeks later, he paid up, was released and immediately fled to Iraq's increasingly threatened Christian minority.
"There is no future for us in Iraq," Mansour said.
Although Islamic extremists have targeted Iraqi Christians before, bombing churches and threatening religious leaders, the latest attacks have taken on a far more personal tone. Many Christians are being expelled from their homes and forced to leave their possessions behind, police, human rights groups and residents said.
Iraq's Forgotten Refugees, By Dahr Jamail, Tomdispatch.com. Posted April 24, 2007.
The invasion and occupation of Iraq is producing what might be the most severe refugee crisis on the planet, but no one is noticing.
For the last two weeks, I've been in Syria, visiting refugee centers and camps, the offices and employees of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and poor neighborhoods in Damascus that are filling up with desperate, almost penniless Iraqi refugees, sometimes living 15 to a room. In statistical and human terms, these few days offered a small window into the magnitude of a catastrophe that is still unfolding and shows no sign of abating in any immediately imaginable future.
Let's start with the numbers, inadequate as they are. The latest UN figures concerning the refugee crisis in Iraq indicate that between 1-1.2 million Iraqis have fled across the border into Syria; about 750,000 have crossed into Jordan (increasing its modest population of 5.5 million by 14%); at least another 150,000 have made it to Lebanon; over 150,000 have emigrated to Egypt; and — these figures are the trickiest of all — over 1.9 million are now estimated to have been internally displaced by civil war and sectarian cleansing within Iraq.
These numbers are staggering in a population estimated in the pre-invasion years at only 26 million. At a bare minimum, in other words, at least one out of every seven Iraqis has had to flee his or her home due to the violence and chaos set off by the Bush administration's invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Yet, as even the UN officials on the scene admit, these are undoubtedly low-end estimates. "We rely heavily on the official numbers given to us by the Syrian government concerning the Iraqi refugees coming here," Sybella Wilkes, the regional public information officer for the UNHCR told me, while we talked recently at the main refugee processing center in Douma, a city on the outskirts of the Syrian capital. Even the high-end UNHCR estimate of 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria (a country of only 17 million people) was, she told me, probably too low….