Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 January 2018, 09:04 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - Syria

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 June 2003
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - Syria , 1 June 2003, available at: [accessed 24 January 2018]
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 2002, Syria hosted more than 482,000 refugees and asylum seekers. These included 401,000 Palestinians who were registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and 75,000 Palestinians who were not. About 6,000 non-Palestinians were registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – about 2,900 refugees and about 3,000 asylum seekers.

The Syrian government estimated the number of Iraqi nationals who were not registered with the UNHCR by the end of 2002 to range between 40,000 to 45,000, many of whom may be refugees. The Syrian government estimated the number of internally displaced persons to be around 150,000 to 170,000, all of them from the Golan Heights, which was occupied by Israel in 1967. There were also around 200,000 stateless Kurds who lived in the country in a refugee-like situation.

At the end of the year, a government commission prepared to receive about a million Iraqi refugees on the Syrian border in the event of a war in Iraq, and asked the head of UN Development Program in Syria to help. The Syrian government also gave UNHCR approval to continue work in the Al-Hawl camp in Al-Hasakah, northeastern Syria, which had accommodated about 15,000 refugees after the Gulf War in 1991. UNHCR later asked for approval to set up five additional camps with a capacity to accommodate some 200,000 refugees. The International Committee of the Red Cross planned to set up a center in Dayr al-Zur to support for some 5,000 refugees. The center could also serve as a base to move into Iraq to attend to emergency cases.

The Syrian government and the international organizations sought not to make these measures public to avoid the impression that Syria approves of a U.S. military strike against Iraq.

Some 3,600 Syrian nationals sought asylum in industrialized countries, mainly in Western Europe and North America, during 2002 – about half applied in Germany.

Palestinian Refugees

While not eligible for Syrian citizenship and other related political rights, Palestinian refugees in Syria enjoy most of the rights of Syrian citizens, as confirmed by law No. 260 of July 10, 1956. Legislative decree No. 183 of August 12, 1996 grants them the right to own property, but not more than one house in the cities. The government issues them identity cards and travel documents similar to Syrian passports. Like Syrians, they must perform military service, except that they must serve in the "Palestine Liberation Army," a Palestine Liberation Organization faction based in Syria. They have equal access to public jobs, professions, government services, social insurance, and employment. Of the Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA, some 116,000 – about 29 percent – were living in 10 camps. Palestinian refugees in Syria represented 10 percent of all UNRWA-registered refugees. About 75,000 more Palestinian refugees in Syria are not registered with UNRWA.

During the year, UNRWA operated 23 medical clinics, including mother-and-child health care and family-planning services. Funding shortages forced UNRWA to limit hospital referrals and the duration of hospital care. The number of people registered with UNRWA's special hardship program increased by 7.4 percent to 29,600 by September, and serious overcrowding in UNRWA schools continued.

Non-Palestinian Refugees

Syria is not a party to the UN Refugee Convention. Non-Palestinian asylum seekers and refugees register with UNHCR for assistance and protection. Syrian law considers foreigners, including UNHCR recognized refugees, who commit offenses, no matter how minor, to be subject to deportation. During 2002, there were two known cases of refoulement despite UNHCR intervention, an Iraqi and a Sudanese refugee.

Since the introduction of a new regulation restricting nationals of Arab countries to a three-month stay, the number of asylum applications decreased by almost one-third, mostly Iraqis. UNHCR obtained an extension to nine months for refugees and asylum seekers. Foreigners may not work without a permit, but illegal employment of Arabs is tolerated. Most work in petty trade or in marginal sectors of the economy, without assistance from relief organizations.

Of the total 2,900 UNHCR-registered refugees in Syria as of December 2002, most were from Iraq (1,700). Others came from Afghanistan (428), Somalia (402), and Sudan (133). Among the 3,100 UNHCR-registered asylum seekers, 2,500 were Iraqis, 149 from Somalia, 134 from Sudan, and 109 from Iran.

UNHCR reported that about 700 Iraqi long-term residents of Iran had applied for refugee status with UNHCR in Syria since 2000, mostly in 2001. UNHCR treats such applicants as "irregular movers," granting them refugee status if they meet the criteria, but denying them assistance or resettlement because it deems them to have already found protection in Iran.

UNHCR provides refugees with limited financial assistance through the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society and the Women's Association.

Except for the two cases of refoulement, the Syrian authorities generally cooperated with UNHCR and facilitated its visits to asylum seekers and refugees in detention.

Syria generally tolerates non-Palestinian refugees, but does not offer permanent asylum. UNHCR, however, does pursue resettlement. During 2002, there were 454 refugees resettled to third countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia, and Scandinavian countries. The majority, nearly 400, were Iraqis. Other nationalities included Sudanese, Somalis, Afghans, Iranians, and Egyptians.

By the end of 2002, nearly 500 refugees voluntarily repatriated, including 468 Yemenis and 19 Somalis.

Internal Displacement

Most of the Syrian population of the Golan Heights fled the 1967 war and ensuing Israeli occupation. While Israel says that about 70,000 left, Syria puts the original number at 153,000. None were able to return. Instead they were temporarily integrated in several parts of the country. Syria puts the present population of the surviving displaced and their descendents at 500,000.

After the 1973 war, Israel returned the part of the Golan Heights along the eastern edge extending to Kuneitra, the one-time capital of Golan Province, in exchange for the return of Israeli prisoners of war. Before leaving, the Israelis leveled the city. Although its 53,000 displaced residents had been expected to return, the late President Assad said that the city was uninhabitable, and it remains empty.

After 1973, the Syrian government rebuilt ten villages adjacent to the Golan area returned to Syria where it resettled about 60,000 displaced residents. The remaining Syrian displaced and their descendents live in housing projects in the suburbs of Damascus, Dara, and Homs.

Stateless Kurds

A group 200,000 stateless Kurds, little-known outside Syria, live mostly in Syria's northeastern provinces of Hasakeh and Qamishli. Although there are 1.5 million ethnic Kurds in Syria, the government alleges that this population came from Turkey or Iraq and classifies them either as "foreigners" or "unregistered" (maktoumeen).

The authorities issue "foreigners" red identity documents, which do not permit them to own land, to practice professions, to receive food subsidies, to attend public hospitals, or legally to marry Syrian citizens. Maktoumeen, on the other hand, the children (or grandchildren) of "foreigners," including those who marry Syrian women, are issued no documentation at all.

The government stripped many of the stateless Kurds of citizenship in a 1962 census aimed at finding Kurds who came illegally from Turkey. Those who could not prove they had lived in Syria since 1945 were deemed not to qualify for citizenship. The Syrian government denies the Kurds Syrian passports, but claims that those who wish to travel may receive temporary travel documents.

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