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U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1999 - Syria

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 January 1999
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1999 - Syria , 1 January 1999, available at: [accessed 24 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

At the end of 1997, Syria hosted approximately 370,000 refugees in need of protection. They included 365,805 Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA and about 4,000 non-Palestinian refugees registered with UNHCR. About 4,500 non-Palestinians sought UNHCR protection during the year. Some 23,000 Iraqi nationals not registered with UNHCR also lived Syria during 1998, many of whom may be refugees.

Conditions for refugees in Syria remain shrouded for several reasons: the absence of free speech, the absence of independent human rights monitoring organizations, a government-controlled press, and the intimidating presence of all-powerful state security forces and an omnipresent intelligence network.

Palestinian Refugees

Of the Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA, some 106,748, about 29 percent, were living in camps. Palestinian refugees in Syria represented 10.4 percent of all UNRWA-registered refugees. Another 64,000 Palestinians living in Syria were not registered with UNRWA, according to the Palestine Liberation Organization's Refugee Affairs Department.

UNRWA's weakened financial state, particularly acute in 1997, improved little in 1998. Since 1993, UNRWA has struggled to maintain its services for a growing refugee population with a roughly constant budget. This trend led the agency to rack up a string of successive annual budget deficits that severely eroded UNRWA's financial position. The agency has been forced to implement austerity measures that severely strained UNRWA's ability to assist Palestinian refugees in Syria during 1998.

Despite its weakened position, UNRWA continued to provide essential services in the fields of health care, education, infrastructure development, and emergency relief in 1998.

During the year, UNRWA operated 23 clinics that provided comprehensive medical care to Palestinian refugees, including mother and child health care and family planning services. Three primary health care clinics were located on unsatisfactory rented properties and needed to be replaced, UNRWA reported in October 1998.

UNRWA also contracted with eight Syrian private hospitals to provide hospital care in 1998, although funding shortages forced UNRWA to control strictly hospital referrals and the duration of hospital care.

During its 1997-98 reporting year, UNRWA completed construction of 29 classrooms to replace unsafe classrooms and avoid triple shifting. Nevertheless, the serious overcrowding in UNRWA schools continued, with 93 percent operating on double shifts.

After several years of delay, UNRWA began to replace the malfunctioning sewage system in Neirab camp near Aleppo. Nevertheless, refugee families continued to live in unsafe and decrepit former army barracks in Neirab. A plan to provide new housing was shelved in 1996 because it lacked Syria's approval. During UNRWA's 1997-98 reporting year, UNRWA provided funding to rebuild 33 houses belonging to families registered with its special hardship program. Funding shortages forced UNRWA to cancel plans to rebuild an additional 24 houses, however.

Some Palestinian refugees reportedly have had difficulty traveling to and from Syria. The Syrian authorities do not permit Palestinians from the Gaza Strip to enter Syria.

Non-Palestinian Refugees

Syria is neither a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention nor the 1967 Protocol. Therefore, non-Palestinian asylum seekers and refugees continued to register with UNHCR for assistance and protection during 1998. About 4,000 refugees were registered with UNHCR at year's end, including some 1,300 Iraqis, many of whom resided in El Hol refugee camp in northeastern Syria.

Syria does not allow non-Palestinian refugees the right to employment, a restriction it reportedly strictly enforces. Unable to work legally, most UNHCRrecognized refugees depend on limited financial assistance that UNHCR provides through the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society.

Despite signs that the situation of asylum seekers and refugees in Syria marginally improved during 1998, observers reported serious impediments to refugee protection during the year. A 1970 Syrian presidential ordinance authorizes the Ministry of Interior to deport foreigners who represent a threat to Syrian security or public order. Based on this ordinance, Syria deports foreigners, including refugees, who have committed any crime, regardless of its seriousness. During 1998, Syria reportedly deported hundreds of persons with possible claims to refugee status without sufficiently reviewing the potential danger to individuals deported. During the year, Syria refouled Iraqi, Somali, Libyan, and Algerian refugees.

With no possibility for permanent asylum for non-Palestinian refugees, UNHCR pursues resettlement for those it recognizes as refugees. Some 713 refugees, most from Iraq, resettled from Syria to the United States during the year.

Turkish Kurds

Tensions between Syria and Turkey escalated during the fall of 1998 over Syria's alleged support for the Turkish Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), including Syria's reported tolerance of PKK military operations against Turkey from Syrian soil. After several weeks during which Turkey threatened military action to destroy suspected PKK bases in Syria, the two countries signed an agreement on October 21, ending the crisis. The agreement, however, raised concerns about the protection of Turkish Kurds in Syria with possible claims to refugee status. Under the agreement, the Syrian government reportedly agreed to detain PKK militants in Syria and supply their names to the Turkish government.

In an October 26 letter to the Syrian government, USCR expressed its concern that the agreement could pose a significant danger to persons mislabeled as PKK militants. Such persons "could face detention, torture, or possible death if returned to Turkey," USCR said. USCR requested that the Syrian government employ safeguards to ensure protection for bona fide refugees. On the other hand, there were no reports that Syria's agreement with Turkey had resulted in the refoulement of any Kurdish refugees from Turkey at year's end.

Internal Displacement

Except for some Druze villagers who stayed behind, most of the Syrian population of the Golan Heights fled in 1967. Estimates of their original numbers vary. Israel says that about 70,000 left; Syria puts the original number at 153,000, and says that the number has grown to almost 500,000, 31 years later.

After the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Israel agreed to return a slice of territory along the eastern edge of the Golan Heights, extending to Kuneitra, the one-time capital of Golan Province, in return for the repatriation of Israeli POWs. Before leaving, however, the Israelis leveled the city with bulldozers and dynamite. Although its 53,000 displaced residents had been expected to return, President Assad said that the city was uninhabitable, and it remained empty.

Stateless Kurds

Another little-known group outside Syria consists of 142,000 stateless Kurds in northeastern Syria. Although the Syrian government has registered them, it denies them citizenship despite their strong claims. Consequently, although they carry no passports and cannot travel outside Syria, they are denied the rights and benefits of Syrian citizens. Syria disenfranchised this group in 1962, saying they were "alien infiltrators."

In a 1996 report, Human Rights Watch said that although the stated purpose of a recent census of this population was to identify illegal immigrants, in fact, it served part of a comprehensive plan to "Arabize" northeastern Syria. The group is divided into 67,000 classified as "foreigners" and 75,000 termed maktoumeen, meaning "unregistered." The former are issued red identity documents, which prevent them from owning land, practicing certain professions, receiving food subsidies, being admitted to public hospitals, or having legally recognized marriages to Syrian citizens. The latter are issued no documents at all. Maktoumeen are the children (grandchildren, etc.) of "foreigners," including foreigners who marry women who are Syrian citizens.

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