At year's end, Syria hosted some 1.3 million Iraqi refugees, roughly 50 percent Sunni Muslim, 24 percent Shi'a Muslim, and 20 percent Christian. The Government tacitly accepted the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recognizing Iraqis prima facie. The Iraqi Government claimed that in October alone, before it organized convoys for returnees, some 45,000 refugees returned, but UNHCR could not confirm that number.
Around 543,000 registered Palestinians refugees lived in Syria, along with an estimated 5,000 Palestinian refugees from Iraq, of whom some 3,600 registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Around 100,000 Palestinians lived in Yarmouk refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus and most others lived in and around the city but many settled in Al Hasaka, Al Qamishli, and Dayr al Zawr in the north.
Some 5,200 Somalis and 1,100 Sudanese registered with UNHCR as refugees and asylum seekers.
During the year, UNHCR recommended 7,700 Iraqi refugees for resettlement to 14 countries, including 5,400 to the United States. Under 1,500 departed during the year, fewer than 300 for the United States.
In March, Syria reportedly deported an Ahwazi Arab back to Iran, where he had been sentenced to death. Syria did not deport Iraqi overstayers, but it severely restricted their entry after October, reportedly in response to a request from the Iraqi Government.
Three Palestinians received severe burns and twenty-five others suffered injuries and smoke inhalation in an electrical fire that destroyed seven tents in Al Tanf camp on the Iraq-Syria border. Al Tanf camp residents also endured extreme desert temperatures and risks from scorpions, snakes, and sandstorms.
The Government generally tolerated Arabs staying for nine months and did not arrest or deport overstayers. In January, however, Syria limited Iraqi refugees' stay to two weeks, following which they had to leave Syria and then apply for a three-month permit. Following protests, Syria extended the initial stay to a month in mid-February, after which they had to report to immigration officials to apply for a three-month permit. To get the permit, Iraqis had to return to Iraq. Syria announced that beginning in September it would limit Iraqis' entry to those visiting for business and academic purposes. That month, over 20,000 Iraqis entered each day before the rules came into effect. After easing its border policy for Ramadan, Syria strictly enforced the new visa rules beginning in early October. Only a few hundred entered after the deadline.
In late November, over 800 Iraqis returned to Iraq in a highly publicized Iraqi-Government-sponsored bus convoy of 17 coaches, with 70 percent citing financial and official pressure and 14 percent citing improved security in Iraq as reasons. For a few weeks after the launch of the convoys, some 1,500 Iraqis returned each day.
Syria imposed restrictions on the entry of Iraqi women between the ages of 15 and 40, requiring a male relative to accompany them.
The 1973 Constitution prohibited the extradition of "political refugees" because of "their political principles or their defense of freedom." The treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in Syria relied on informal cooperation between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Immigration Department of the Ministry of Interior, and UNHCR. As a result, Syria tacitly allowed UNHCR to conduct its refugee status determination procedure. In December, the Government formed a committee that began drafting new refugee laws and on which UNHCR requested a formal presence.
A 1956 law provided that "Palestinians residing in the Syrian Arab Republic territories are considered as Syrians by origin in Syria, in all matters pertaining to the laws and regulations," but it did not include rights to naturalize or to vote.
Detention/Access to Courts
At year's end, Syria detained 102 Iraqis, 52 Somalis, and 4 individuals of other nationalities. Syria usually held Iraqis for prostitution, illegal residence or crimes, and the Somalis for smuggling or illegal residence or departure.
In March, Syria arrested five Ahwazi Arab refugees and one unregistered Ahwazi Arab who had escaped to Syria after receiving a death sentence in Iraq. In April, Syria freed the five refugees, while deporting the unregistered Ahwazi.
UNHCR and private lawyers could represent refugees and their intervention usually resulted in more lenient sentences. Syria generally gave UNHCR unimpeded access to detention centers for foreigners, but sometimes denied the agency access in security-related cases. Government responses to UNHCR requests to interview detainees could take months, and interviews were not confidential.
While Syrian immigration laws did not acknowledge UNHCR recognition policies, UNHCR-issued certificates helped refugees receive residency permits, aid from government-associated organizations, and UNHCR intervention in case of detention. At the end of the year, UNHCR and the Government discussed official recognition of UNHCR's grant of refugee status. During the year, the agency issued nearly 67,000 refugee certificates and some 600 asylum seeker certificates, bringing the number of refugee certificate holders to around 95,000 and of asylum seekers to around 3,600. Heads of households and persons over 18 years received the certificates, which included the names of all family members. Of the nearly 1.3 million Iraqi refugees, UNHCR certificates listed only 151,000 of them, including dependents. Recognized refugees received UNHCR certificates but no residence permits from Syria, while non-Arab refugees recognized by UNHCR received limited residence permits. Authorities gave Arab nationals preferential treatment in the issuance of residence permits.
Toward year's end the 3,600 Palestinians from Iraq, while remaining under the UNHCR mandate, received temporary eligibility cards from UNRWA. Long-term Palestinian refugees enjoyed the same access as nationals to courts.
Freedom of Movement and Residence
Syria permitted refugees, including long-term Palestinian refugees, to move freely throughout Syria and to choose where they lived. Palestinians from Iraq, however, did not enjoy freedom of movement. In November, Syria reportedly sent 24 Palestinians who had entered Syria from Iraq to Al Tanf camp.
Al Hol camp residents could not leave the camp without permission, except to attend school, and Al Tanf camp residents could not enter Syria except to obtain medical treatment, after which they had to return the camp.
The number of Palestinians from Iraq in Al Tanf neared 600, after a December influx, with an estimated 300 on the Syrian side of the border. In January, the Government allotted land for a housing project to relocate 260 of them.
A 1963 law entitled Palestinian refugees to Syrian travel documents if they had registered with the General Authority for Palestinian Arab Refugees and held Syrian provisional identity cards. The documents were valid for six years, renewable at Syrian consular offices abroad, and allowed return to Syria without a visa. Additionally, long-term Palestinian refugees could travel between Syria and Lebanon using state-issued identity cards or Arab League travel documents. Those from Iraq could not travel.
The Syrian Constitution limited to citizens the rights to free movement and choice of residence.
Right to Earn a Livelihood
Palestinian refugees who had lived in the country for ten years could work in Syria with rights nearly on par with Syrians. Palestinian refugees who arrived in Syria after 1956, however, could not hold civil posts in the Syrian Government. Syria rarely granted non-Palestinian refugees work permits, relegating many to low-paying jobs in the informal sector without legal protection. A 2001 law allowed the employment of foreign domestic workers and regulated their residence. Despite that and other laws regarding minimum wages, only the contracts of foreign domestic workers governed the terms of their employment.
According to Hana Ibrahim, founder of an Iraqi women's group, an estimated 50,000 Iraqi girls and women resorted to prostitution. Gangs and even family members trafficked Iraqi women and girls, some as young as 12. The Government deported minors it arrested for prostitution.
Refugees and asylum seekers generally could not own businesses or property. Long-term Palestinian refugees could own only one house or plot of land, unlike citizens, but in rural and unregulated residential areas they could own more than one property.
Public Relief and Education
Only registered refugees received cash and food from UNHCR and its partners and had to wait up to five months to register although single mothers, pregnant women, and other priority cases could register immediately. Between 50,000 and 70,000 refugees received weekly World Food Programme rations, with the agency expecting to reach 114,000 refugees by April 2008.
In December, after a report estimated that 33 percent of the refugees would run out of money in three months, UNHCR started giving some 19,500 female-headed households, unaccompanied minors, elderly, and disabled Iraqi refugees up to $150 per month.
Generally, Arab refugees and asylum seekers holding valid visas or residency permits could receive primary health services, while emergency hospital care was available for a small fee. Recognized Iraqi refugees and asylum seekers paid reduced fees for Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) health services. In April, UNHCR provided the Ministry of Health with funds for improving medical facilities with the understanding that Iraqi refugees also could avail themselves of the services. Plans included a new hospital staffed by Iraqi refugee doctors. In July, the SARC increased to ten the number of clinics serving Iraqi refugees exclusively.
A UNHCR partner agency operated a ten-bed shelter for especially needy women refugees with children.
Long-term Palestinian refugees generally used UNRWA health services. These referred them to Syrian hospitals for urgent services which they received at subsidized rates. Al Hol camp residents had access to Syrian schools and medical services. UNRWA and the United Arab Emirates Red Crescent provided open-heart surgery for 24 Palestinians, including 20 children. Syria allowed four Palestinian children from the Iraqi side of the border to enter for emergency medical treatment.
Syria allowed refugee children to attend public schools free or for minimal fees. Only 35,000 Iraqi children attended school, while 250,000 of them, or 76 percent of school-age Iraqis in Syria, did not. Even so, Syria operated elementary schools on double shifts and packed classes with as many as 50 students. UNHCR gave uniforms to Iraqi students, funded schools, and helped the education ministry refurbish school buildings.
Primary education was free for Palestinian children, who could attend the 118 UNRWA elementary and preparatory schools as well as Syrian elementary schools.
International organizations had to receive clearance from the SARC, which took a year or more and which only two organizations had received.
- 1 million people became refugees in 2004 (USCRI Headlines)