Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 October 2017, 08:56 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2004 - Syria

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 25 May 2004
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2004 - Syria , 25 May 2004, available at: [accessed 19 October 2017]
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 2003, Syria hosted more than 497,000 refugees and asylum seekers. These included 414,000 Palestinians who were registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and 77,000 Palestinians who were not. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) assisted more than 6,000 non-Palestinians in the country – about 3,700 refugees and 2,400 asylum seekers. UNHCR camps also provided refuge to some 260 stateless asylum seekers, including Palestinians who fled Iraq with Iraqi travel documents. Outside the Middle East, around 3,300 Syrian nationals sought asylum in industrialized countries during 2003, most in Western Europe.

Syrian nationals in Iraq lost their homes and belongings in widespread lawlessness and looting in Baghdad following the collapse of the government. Of the estimated 4,000 Syrians who live in Iraq, more than 600 registered with UNHCR for assistance, with most preferring repatriation to Syria. The majority is reported to be former Syrian Baath party members who fled Syria following the 1965 ouster of then-President Amin al-Hafez. Mr. Al-Hafez returned from Iraq to his home near Aleppo when the government of Saddam Hussein fell.

While not eligible for Syrian citizenship or other related political rights, Palestinian refugees in Syria enjoy most of the rights of Syrian citizens. Of the Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA, some 121,000 – about 29 percent – were living in 10 official camps. Palestinian refugees in Syria represented 10 percent of all UNRWA-registered refugees. About 77,000 more Palestinian refugees in Syria are not registered with UNRWA. The number of people registered with UNRWA's special hardship program increased to nearly 31,000 in 2003 – 7.5 percent of all registered cases in Syria.

Iraqi Nationals

Iraqis comprised the largest group of Syria's asylum applicants in 2003, comprising more than half of all new applications. Although precise figures are not available, the Syrian government estimates the number of Iraqi nationals in the country to be at least 40,000 – many of whom may be refugees. More than 1,600 Iraqi residents besieged UNHCR offices in March and April, seeking temporary protection letters needed to apply for asylum.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, UNHCR Damascus registered about 5,500 Iraqis for voluntary repatriation, and there were unconfirmed reports that religious leaders organized and financed repatriation convoys for Iraqi Shi'a wishing to return to Iraq. During two operations in April, Syrian security forces returned a total of 44 Iraqi refugees – including 23 children – from el-Hol refugee camp near the Iraqi border. Syrian authorities believed that the refugees, who came from Tikrit, were loyalists of Saddam Hussein. However, UNHCR put Iraqi cases world-wide on hold during 2003 – including refugee status determinations (RSD) and resettlement of previously-recognized Iraqi refuges – pending further analysis of conditions for return to Iraq.

Other Refugees

Syria is not a party to the UN Refugee Convention, and non-Palestinian asylum seekers and refugees register with UNHCR for assistance and protection. Of the total 3,700 UNHCR-registered refugees in Syria as of December 2003, most were from Iraq (2,400). Others came from Afghanistan (425), Somalia (453), and Sudan (191). Among the 2,400 UNHCR-registered asylum seekers, 1,500 were Iraqis, 267 from Somalia, 235 from Sudan, and 57 from Iran. With Iraqi cases on hold, UNHCR shifted its focus to Afghan, Somali, and Sudanese applications and explored voluntary repatriation, but considered third-country resettlement to be the most viable option.

Syria generally tolerates non-Palestinian refugees, but does not offer permanent asylum. UNHCR, however, does pursue resettlement. During 2003, UNHCR resettled 314 refugees to third countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia, and Scandinavian countries. The majority, nearly 170, were Iraqis. Other nationalities included Sudanese (73), Somalis (25), and Tunisians (20). By the end of 2003, only 63 refugees voluntarily repatriated, including 50 Yemenis, 8 Afghans, and 5 Somalis.

During the year, UNHCR Damascus implemented new Guidelines on Standard Operating Procedures in an attempt to streamline refugee status determination and appeal procedures and ensure greater accountability.

Stateless Kurds and Internal Displacement

A group 200,000 to 250,000 stateless Kurds live mostly in Syria's northeastern provinces of Hasakah and Qamishli with "foreigner" or "unregistered" (maktoumeen) status without even minimal rights. In 2003, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad announced that the government would undertake a study to address the statelessness of this population to assess its needs. Results of the study were still pending at year's end.

The Syrian government estimated the number of internally displaced persons to be between 150,000 and 170,000, more than twice the estimate of the Israeli government. The displaced Syrians are all from the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967.

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