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A file picture taken on March 6, 2014 shows displaced Iraqis, who fled their hometown of Fallujah due to unrest between government forces and militants in the flashpoint Anbar province, west of Baghdad, walking in the Kurdish town of Shaqlawa, 45 kilometers north of Arbil, where they sought refugee. (Photo: AFP-Safin Hamed)

By: Yazan al-Saadi

Published Friday, April 11, 2014

Since 2003, the largest refugee population in the region – other than the Palestinians – were Iraqis, many of whom fled war and disarray in Iraq to the safety of Syria. Today, the Iraqi refugees find themselves in a terrible bind, trapped in a country that is imploding, and returning home to Iraq is equally risky as violence has been escalating.

The illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq by Anglo-American forces in 2003 was one of the greatest tragedies of our time. The country was already decimated by sanctions in force throughout the 1990s that killed more than a million Iraqi civilians.

Further destruction followed in 2003 as America and its allies implemented a devastating military strategy, shamelessly called “shock and awe.” Another million would perish, and more than four million became refugees.Between 2003 and 2006, nearly 100 thousand Iraqis per month fled to neighboring Syria and Jordan to escape the violence of the occupation, and the subsequent outbreak of a low-level civil war between various sectarian groups and political factions. Syria’s open-door policy for Iraqi refugees allowed it to become the most attractive place for refugees, even after restrictions for entry were implemented by the Syrian government in 2007.

Indeed, Syria as a hosting country has had a fairly decent reputation in regards to caring for refugees, and was one of the key hubs for refugees in the region; particularly Palestinian refugees who were given rights on par with Syrian nationals. Jordan, meanwhile, had sealed its borders with Iraq, firmly closing it off as an escape route.

According to various — and heavily disputed – estimates, Iraqi refugees in Syria numbered between one to three million by 2007, the vast majority living in Damascus and its surrounding countryside. They were from an array of backgrounds, a compilation of different economic classes, creeds, ethnicity, and political ideologies.

Despite the fact the Syrian government did not signed the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and has no asylum law to relegate the status of refugees, their presence were tolerated and support was offered. Iraqi refugees had been granted territory, documentation, residence permits, work, free mobility, and were allowed access to numerous services that include health and education.

Even so, around ten percent of the refugee population were either financially well-off or extremely wealthy, while the rest faced abject poverty and numerous hardships, and heavily relied on aid from international and local NGOs. Tens of thousands of Iraqi women and girls, who lacked a breadwinner in the family, were forced into prostitution to survive and provide for themselves and their families.

Decades of Displacement

According to UNHCR, there were 141,157 registered Iraqi refugees living in Syria before March 2011. On the other hand, according to the Syrian Red Crescent (SRC) the actual number of Iraqi refugees prior to March 2011 was marked at 1.2 million.

The discrepancy in the number of Iraqis in Syria can be explained by the fact that many Iraqis were not very keen to register with UNHCR due to a heightened sense of vulnerability.

As Serene Assir reported in March 2012 for Al-Akhbar:

But the majority of Iraqi refugees in Syria did not register with the UN. According to Souad al-Azzawi, an Iraqi environmental engineer, human rights activist, and herself a refugee, many of those who failed to register chose to lie low because they ‘sensed danger in handing over their personal information to the UNHCR. Some had been illegally detained by US occupation forces, or kidnapped, or feared assassination’ by pro-Iran militias infiltrating the Iraqi-Syrian border, she said.

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