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SYRIA: Iraqi refugee woes

October 31, 2007 |  7:25 pm

In the bustling streets of Damascus, Syrians have something new to grumble about — the increasing frequency in which they say they hear the Iraqi accents of their neighbors who have fled the war and come to Syria.

Best estimates put the Iraqi refugee population in Syria (population 18.5 million) at anywhere from 1.5 million to 2 million, an influx that clearly has been felt by all segments of Syrian society.

For the poor, there is competition for entry-level jobs such as janitors, waiters and laborers, with Iraqis willing to flout the law and their refugee status to earn a living. This, however, pushes Syrians out of this kind of work. And the situation has been made worse because the influx of Iraqis is driving up the prices for apartments and  other rentals.

While the wave of petty crimes such as thefts and burglaries that many connected with the early refugee influx has ebbed, Syrians remain unhappy that Iraqis take on illegal employment and that some have been linked to kidnappings for ransom, particularly in Aleppo, in northern Syria.

Meantime, for even middle-class and affluent Syrians, the Iraqi deluge has strained supplies of water, power, fuel and housing; the government says that water use has gone up by 20%, while that of electricity rose 27%. Because the government subsidizes some commodity costs, Syrians resent that their taxes will go up because of the increased Iraqi refugees' consumption.

Further, in every day life, Syrians see a group of elite and wealthy Iraqis who have moved into the Damascus suburbs; some have opened fancy stores and restaurants with distinctly Iraqi goods and cuisine. This has provoked xenophobia among some Syrians, who also fear that the Iraqi refugees may become a permanent part of life in Syria, which, historically, already has seen a flow of Armenians, Kurds, Lebanese, Kuwaitis and Palestinians.

The government has taken note of Syrians' unhappiness with the Iraqi refugees. Officials hope to find new ways to ensure that only Syrians can benefit from government-subsidzed goods, especially bread and fuel. But this may mean that Iraqis then will have to pay more for these items — and that can only worsen the situation for the Iraqi poor.

— Ramy Mansour in Damascus

Mansour is an ICFJ-Daniel Pearl Fellow at The Times