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Plight of refugees worsens as Syria, Jordan impose restrictions

An Iraqi refugee looks out over Amman. Of the estimated two million Iraqis who have fled their homeland, some 700,000 are currently sheltering in Jordan, with the majority living in Amman. P.Sands/UNHCR
Scores of Iraqi men, women and children gathered on the pavement of Baghdad's central Salihiyah area waiting for the big grey bus to take them to neighbouring Syria and help them flee their country's violence.

"Staying in Iraq is like committing suicide," said Hala Numan Jabre, a 41-year-old mother of three girls as she threw her six coloured bags onto the bus.

"There is no safe life in Iraq, it's like a jungle. There are no public services, there is no rule of law, and everywhere there is killing and kidnapping. That is why we've decided to take our daughters away until things get better, God willing," Hala, a teacher of English, said.

Every month, tens of thousands of Iraqis flee to Jordan and Syria - the only two neighbouring countries which have opened their borders to Iraqi refugees.

"The situation in Iraq continues to worsen," the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said in a statement on 5 June, and "the number of Iraqis fleeing to neighbouring countries remains high”. At least 2.2 million Iraqis are sheltering in Jordan and Syria.
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Other countries with common borders with Iraq - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Turkey and Iran - have allowed in very few Iraqis. Early this year, the UNHCR called for international support to help Jordan and Syria cope with the influx of Iraqi refugees.

"Calls for increased international support for governments in the region have so far had few results," the UNHCR added.

Syria, Jordan impose restrictions

Since then, new entry and residency conditions have been imposed in Jordan and Syria, resulting in tens of thousands of refugees being stranded on Iraq's borders and families being divided according to their age and the type of passport they hold.

To enter Jordan, Iraqi refugees must be over 40 or under 20, must prove they have sufficient funds to support themselves in the kingdom and, most importantly, must hold a new 'G' generation passport.

"Going to Amman is like gambling," said Ammar Yassin Khalid, a 22-year-old student at the University of Baghdad who was denied entry four months ago as he had the older 'S' series passport. Now, Khalid has his new 'G' series passport after paying US$400 in bribes.

Nasser Hikmat Jaafar's family was disappointed when half his family was denied entry to Jordan. They reached the border with the Kingdom on 11 June at sunset after having driven about 900km from Baghdad.

"They allowed entry just for my wife and two daughters and denied me and my three sons. They didn't tell us the reasons, but just said they are fed up with men of such ages [between 20 and 40 years old]," Jaafar, a 58-year-old government employee, told IRIN on 14 June as he was heading with all his family to the Syrian border, which is about 500km from Iraq’s Jordanian border.

''Staying in Iraq is like committing suicide. There is no safe life in Iraq, it's like a jungle. There are no public services, there is no rule of law, and everywhere there is killing and kidnapping.''
"We spent last night at the border. My wife and daughters slept inside the GMC suburban we are hiring and me, my three sons and the driver slept on the pavement," he added. "I can't leave my daughters and wife alone so I'm taking them to Syria instead where entry for Iraqis is still easy."

Entering Syria is easier but residency conditions have been imposed: Refugees can stay a maximum of three months and then they have to renew their residency by leaving the country and returning.

"What can we do? Leaving Iraq is a must for us and we have to accept their [Jordan's and Syria's] rules as we have no other choice," said Yahya Hassan, a 38-year-old supermarket owner who was kidnapped two weeks ago and freed after paying a ransom of $50,000.

"If we stay in Iraq we will definitely be killed. Outside [Iraq] we will suffer but at least we will feel safe and secure," Hassan said as he queued with his children to get the bus to Syria.

Citing Iraqi government figures, the UNHCR said some 1.4 million Iraqis are now in Syria, up to 750,000 in Jordan, 80,000 in Egypt and some 200,000 in the Gulf region. Syria alone receives a minimum of 30,000 Iraqis a month, according to the agency.

Resettlement of most vulnerable refugees

According to UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis, since the beginning of the year, UNHCR offices in countries around Iraq have registered more than 130,000 Iraqi refugees. By the end of May, they had interviewed some 7,000 of the most vulnerable Iraqis and sent their dossiers to potential resettlement countries.

Photo: UNHCR
A map showing the numbers of Iraqis who have fled to neighbouring countries, according to UNHCR, as of 12 April 2007

"The UNHCR urged these countries to make rapid decisions and facilitate the departure of those most in need. Resettlement, however, remains an option for only a few of the most vulnerable Iraqis. UNHCR's goal is to provide up to 20,000 Iraqi resettlement cases to governments this year," Pagonis said.

The UNHCR statement said in Syria alone about 47,000 of the 88,447 refugees registered since the beginning of 2007 are in need of special assistance. Of them, about a quarter require legal or protection assistance, including many victims of torture; about 19 percent have serious medical conditions.

The UNHCR statement added that the number of Iraqis accepted for residence in various countries outside the Middle East, particularly in Europe, remained low.

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