Iraqi Refugees in the Syrian Arab Republic: A Field-Based Snapshot

Ashraf al-Khalidi, Sophia Hoffmann, and Victor Tanner
Victor Tanner Consultant on Humanitarian Issues; Faculty Member, Johns Hopkins SAIS; Co-author, <i>The Internally Displaced People of Iraq</i> (Brookings report, 2002)

June 11, 2007

For copies of the report or more information contact the Project at [email protected]

The dramatic increase in sectarian violence, lawlessness and abductions in Iraq has resulted in a massive displacement of Iraqis, including a large-scale exodus to Syria, according to a report released today by the Brookings Institution-University of Bern Project on Internal Displacement.

In the new report, Iraqi Refugees in the Syrian Arab Republic: A Field-Based Snapshot, co-authors Ashraf al-Khalidi, Victor Tanner and Sophia Hoffmann and their Iraqi field team analyze the patterns of Iraqi displacement to Syria. This is part of a larger study on Iraq’s ongoing displacement – both within the country and in the region.

“The prevailing violence and lawlessness in Iraq drives tens of thousands of families from their home every month. Syria, because of its open border and the public services the state provides, has become a haven for many fleeing Iraqis,” says Elizabeth Ferris, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-director of the Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement. “The make-up of the Iraqi refugee community in Syria-comprised of all major sectarian affiliations, occupations, economic backgrounds and home governorates-reflects the breadth of the violence in Iraq. The refugees’ current situation in Syria is stable but precarious. While many are running out of funds, perhaps more importantly, most see no possibility in returning to Iraq in the near term.”

Of the more than four million Iraqis who have fled their homes since the US-led invasion in 2003, more than two million people are estimated to have crossed into neighboring countries and at least 1.2 million have come to Syria. The vast majority of Iraqi refugees in Syria are now situated in the greater Damascus metropolitan area.

The Syrian state offers public services to Iraqis, including free access to schools and emergency health care. No evidence was found to show that some groups received preferential service. Fortunately, for the time being, sectarianism has not spilled over the Iraqi-Syrian border. Except for the predominantly Shi’a district of Sayyida Zeinab, most Iraqis live in mixed neighborhoods.

Key findings:

  • Since the February 2006 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, sectarian violence has reached deeper into Iraqi society. The level of assassinations, kidnappings and generalized violence has made many neighborhoods unlivable and has forced many to flee their homes. Minority groups such as Christians, Sabean-Mandeans and Palestinians are especially vulnerable.
  • Although sectarian violence is the primary cause for displacement, a significant number of Iraqis continue to be forced from their homes due to fighting between insurgents and the Multinational Force allied with the Iraqi Army.
  • Syria is attractive to Iraqi refugees because, unlike in other neighboring countries, no visas are required, entire families can cross the border, Iraqi communities have begun to form, public services are available, and the cost of living is relatively low.
  • The roads to Syria cross Anbar province and remain extremely dangerous, especially for Shi’a. Even Sunnis without strong tribal ties are at risk, and are often forced to pay bandits an “insurgency tax.” These harsh travel conditions have the double effect of preventing many Iraqis from venturing to Syria, and inhibiting those already in Syria from returning.
  • The Syrian government estimates that almost 80% of Iraqi refugees settle in Damascus and its suburbs. As many of the Iraq refugees come from urban areas, Damascus provides a familiar setting. The large city also offers a degree of anonymity many Iraqis seek and access to embassies and international organization for those seeking asylum.
  • Iraqis, as with all Arab citizens, can enter Syria without visas. However, the basic entry stamp precludes legal employment, placing an increased financial burden on families. Those who have managed to find work are working in diverse fields; among the interviewed were barbers, bakers, beauticians, imams, art dealers and others. However, many, if not most Iraqis in Syria are unemployed. Some are able to draw on Iraqi pensions, others arrange for agents in Iraq sell off property.
  • The sudden population influx has created a drastic increase in demand for goods and services. As many basic needs are subsidized by the state, the refugee crisis has placed a large financial burden on the Syrian government. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in 2006 the state had to foot the bill for a 35% increase in subsidized bread ($34 million) and the influx of 30,000 Iraqi students ($18 million).
  • Many Syrians blame the Iraqi refugees for recent rises in unemployment, the cost of basic goods and, above all, rent prices. In some Damascus neighborhoods apartment rental prices have doubled or even tripled since the outbreak of the war. The perceived impact of the Iraqi refugees is such that many Syrians in everyday conversation will say that there are between three and six million Iraqis in Syria.
  • Most Iraqis in Syria view their prospects for returning in the near term as dim. Many have no homes or livelihoods to return to and very few see the security situation as improving soon – and doubt even if it is improved whether it can be sustained.
  • The number of Iraqi refugees in Syria is widely estimated to be over one million, but many knowledgeable sources have begun to place the figure closer to 1.5 million.

The report is based on two months of field research including several hundred interviews and conversations with Iraqis living in Syria. The Iraqi team members must remain anonymous out of concern for their security. Co-author Victor Tanner is a consultant who has worked with civil society groups in Iraq and conducts assessments, evaluations and field-based research specializing in violence conflict. Sophia Hoffmann is a London-based researcher and writer who specializes in human rights issues and Middle Eastern affairs. Ashraf al-Khalidi is the pseudonym of an Iraqi researcher and civil society activist.

The report is the third of the Brookings-Bern Project’s occasional papers on Iraq. The first, The Internally Displaced People of Iraq, by John Fawcett and Victor Tanner, published in October 2002, found that more than one million (Kurds from the North; Shi’a, including March Arabs, from the Center/South; and minority Turkmen and Assyrian Christians) had been deliberately expelled from their homes by the state policies of Saddam Hussein. The second study, Sectarian Violence: Radical Groups Drive Internal Displacement in Iraq, found that the heightened activity of sectarian militias in the wake of the February 2006 bombing of the Shi’a mosque in Samarra was polarizing neighborhoods and pushing families from their homes.