Caught in the Crossfire in Syria

Image courtesy of Democratic Underground

As the conflict in Syria escalates, hundreds (if not thousands) of noncombatants are getting caught in the crossfire, including refugees from Iraq. According to UNHCR, Syria hosts one of the largest urban-based populations of refugees and asylum-seekers in the world. As many as one million are Iraqi, representing the largest population of displaced Iraqis outside of Iraq and comprising a large majority of Syria’s refugee population.

Having survived a precarious way of life, working odd jobs and dodging deportation, Iraqi refugees now find themselves caught in a situation that increasingly resembles the one from which they escaped.

Why have so many Iraqis sought refuge in Syria above other neighboring countries? According to a report released by the Brookings Institution, until the end of 2007, Syria had no visa requirements and Iraqis could come and go across the border freely. They were able to enroll their children in Syrian schools, and allowed many of the public services available to Syrian citizens, including access to health care. Furthermore, the cost of living in Syria had been lower than other neighboring countries, allowing a family to survive for longer on their savings. Interviews conducted by the authors of the same report have also revealed that Syrians have a better reputation with Iraqis than other Arabs; a kind of brotherly affection or high esteem. Iraqis have also been encouraged by the refugee communities in Syria and the prospect of keeping ties to their homeland.

There have been two waves of Iraqi refugees into Syria in the past few decades. The first wave came in the 1970s to the 1980s. Then, refugees were mostly those who had fallen out of favor with Saddam’s regime. The border was closed throughout the 1990s in political response to the actions of the Iraqi government and was only reopened in 2001 for trade purposes. The reopening paved the way for the second wave of Iraqi refugees, which began trickling in in 2003, but flowed in earnest in 2006, following the rise in sectarian violence. By 2007, the Syrian economy was crushed under a weight of as many as 1.5 million refugees, in a country of only 22.5 million people!

At the start of the influx, Syria had had an open door policy for refugees. By 2007, Syria was facing an economic crisis, much of which was blamed on refugees. The cost of rent, groceries, and transportation rose dramatically. Syrians faced extra competition for jobs, many of which were lost to Iraqis who were willing to work at a lower wage. Demand for government subsidized goods and services also rose dramatically, putting significant strain on national finances. But, despite these dramatic increases, the actual effect of Iraqi refugees is difficult to gauge, as Syria struggled with many of these problems for years prior, and because Iraqi refugees often brought money into the country.

For more information on the friction resulting from the surge of refugees, please watch this video by Refugees International.

Since 2007, Iraqi refugees have faced increasing restrictions on their entry and mobility within the country. Legally barred from working, if Iraqis could find work, it was often unreliable. Most simply lived off their savings with some help from charities and public assistance. An article by Reuters from 2007 shared the struggles of Iraqi refugees who had fallen into ‘the poverty trap.’ Another article by IRIN, also from 2007, states that many Iraqis had been forced back because of their financial and legal circumstances, i.e. they had run out of money or had been deported by Syria. However, according to an article by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as of 2010, most Iraqis in Syria were still unwilling to voluntarily return home because of the still unstable security situation, low levels of aid to returnees, extremely high unemployment, and the loss of their homes in Iraq, which they were forced to abandon when they fled Syria.

A UNHCR staff member talks with an Iraqi refugee family in the one-room apartment shared between 13 extended family members. Image courtesy of UNHCR. Photo by B. Heger. August 2007


More than 7,500 people have died since the regime of President Bashar Assad launched a brutal crackdown against protesters last March, and the number of retuning Iraqis has risen.

An Iraqi soldier guards returnees as the unload their belongings. Image courtesy of Epoch Times

In a recent NPR article, Zeena Ibrahim, a 33-year-old pregnant mother of two voiced the feelings of many returning Iraqis when she said “It is better to die in our own country than to die abroad.” Zeena returned with her husband from Damascus, where they have lived since 2006. Her husband used to be in the Iraqi army, but after receiving repeated threats and attending funerals almost every day for fellow soldiers, the couple decided to flee to the safety of Syria.

For some, like Zeena and her family, return to Iraq has been the answer. Others still believe Syria to be safer than Iraq, however, according to The List Projectthe Syrian government has tried to blame the uprisings on Salafis and foreign elements, claiming that Iraqis are bringing weapons into the country and arming the anti-government protesters. Iraqis have reported to The List Project that they have received threats from the Syrian populace. Similar reports have been made to NPR, describing Iraqis in Syria being targeted with violence, being killed or robbed, and having their neighborhoods plastered with threatening graffiti since the start of the conflict. Those who are unable or unwilling to leave remain in their homes and try to keep out of harm’s way.

To learn more, we recommend the International Rescue Committee as an important resource, advocate, and resettlement agency for Iraqis in crisis.