DAMASCUS – "I’ll go to any country," says Zirgon Tomas al-Aya, a 60-year-old Iraqi standing outside the UN Refugee Agency headquarters in Damascus.
"I like Syria but I can’t work here, I want to go somewhere else," said the asylum seeker, one of about 1.5 million Iraqis who have fled to Syria since 2003. He said he will not go back to Iraq.
And he’s not alone.
A United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees poll released Tuesday found that only 4 percent of Iraqi refugees in Syria plan to return home. Conducted in March by the market research company IPSOS, the report found that 90 percent of the 1,000 Iraqis questioned in the Syrian capital have no plans to cross the border to their homeland.
The UNHCR has warned the European Union that Iraqis like Aya may head to Europe if support from the international community does not arrive.
"I think they will move north if things don’t get better," Laurens Jolles, the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees head of operations in Syria, has said. In 2007, nearly 40,000 Iraqis sought asylum in the EU, twice as many as in 2006.
UNHCR appealed in January for $261 million in humanitarian aid for Iraqi refugees in the region and for internally displaced persons in Iraq but, according to the UN Web site, have received just under half that amount.
"We have funding now for our food assistance program, but that’s running out, and by June we’ll be facing significant problems," Sybella Wilkes, UNHCR’s regional public information officer, told IPS.
Wilkes said about 40 percent of Iraqis are living off their savings, and for many, the situation has become desperate.
"The fact is for many refugees, as they run out of savings, the natural instinct is: if they can’t continue to live here, they try to go back to Iraq (and many say they can’t do that) or they go and try to find another place to live where they can make ends meet," said Wilkes. "Now we think it’s extremely important to meet their needs here."
Unknown thousands of Iraqis live in the Damascus neighborhood of Set Zeinab. Inside one of the shops selling Iraqi flags and other souvenirs on the main road aptly named Iraqi Street, 20-year-old Mohammad Abderaza watches an al-Jazeera television report on Iraq with some friends. He fled to Syria in late January after his brother was killed by Shia militants. In Syria, he said, Sunnis and Shi’ites are like brothers.
But he still wants to leave.
He said it’s his dream to go to Europe, maybe Denmark or Sweden, which last year admitted about 20,000 Iraqis, turning down just 10 percent of applicants. By comparison the United Kingdom, with troops in the occupation force, rejected 780 of 1,100 Iraqi asylum seekers last year.
"I want to move to Europe so I can get a good job to support my family," Abderaza told IPS. "It’s tough here in Syria and even worse in Iraq, so I want to make a new life in Europe."
Abderaza lives in Damascus with his wife, son, parents, and brother. The Baghdad native said the UN gives his family food each month, but it’s not enough. He’s not employed in Syria and is looking for work.
Officially, Iraqi refugees cannot work, but many do.
Peter Harling, a Damascus-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, said job opportunities for refugees here are few.
"That’s the key challenge," Harling told IPS in his Damascus office. "Obviously, many hesitate at the idea of going back to Iraq, not being quite sure that the situation there is sustainable. And also they worry at the fact that it might be far more difficult for them to come back to Syria now that Syria has closed its border with Iraq."
Syria hasn’t completely closed its borders.
The Arab nation still lets in about 1,000 Iraqis every day, as long as they get a visa. Before October, when Iraqis could enter without a visa, more than 4,000 entered the country daily. The Damascus government says it won’t force Iraqis to return home.
Europe, however, is "backing off" from Iraqi refugees while "playing up this relative calm in Iraq to say there is no crisis," according to Harling. He told IPS the "big ambition" of many Iraqis remains to move to Europe.
"I think Europe has closed it doors. You have some channels, illegal channels, but that’s extremely costly. I think it can go up to $15,000 per person with absolutely no guarantee that their status as refugees in Europe will be recognized."
Wilkes said there are people looking to take advantage of Iraqi refugees’ desperation.
"In many cases, there are also scams going on in which people promise to help refugees smuggle themselves into Europe," she said, "and all that happens is they lose tens of thousands of dollars and never go anywhere."
A UN poll of Iraqis returning to their motherland from Syria found that about half were leaving because they couldn’t afford to stay.
Abderaza said he wants the international community to help Syria provide aid to refugees like him. An estimated 2.5 million Iraqis have fled their country since the U.S.-led invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The support extended to Syria has not been "generous" so far, Harling told IPS. He said political and bureaucratic issues make the legal channels for refugee resettlement in Europe or the U.S. "painfully slow."
In 2006, the U.S. admitted 202 Iraqi refugees. Last year, 1,608 Iraqi refugees were resettled to the United States.
"The problem here is that Syria doesn’t have very good relations with the U.S. in fact, it has very bad relations with the U.S. and there’s been a tendency on both the U.S. and the host country to blur the lines between the political crisis and the humanitarian one," said Harling, who lived and worked in Iraq from 1998-2003.
Harling says the United States has made a commitment to "progressively" increase its efforts. U.S. officials plan to accept 12,000 Iraqis in the United States by the end of 2008.
"This is a tall order, but it remains attainable," James Foley, the U.S. State Department’s senior adviser on Iraqi refugee issues, told reporters in February.
Foley urged the European Union on April 9 to "find a way to contribute substantially more" to UNHCR’s appeal for humanitarian aid. He said his European counterparts questioned the refugee agency’s accuracy in its portrayal of "dramatically increasing" needs.
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