DAMASCUS — Salim Hamad, 33, glances at the sprawling buildings of the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus and sees business. He has set up a small tea shop at the camp.
Salim, a railways worker in Baghdad, sold his car and furniture to raise money to bring his wife and three children to Damascus five months ago. Syria it had to be, because by then the Jordan government was no more letting in men his age.
He found the money to get to Syria, and he has all of a tea shop now, and that makes him one of the luckier Iraqis who could flee.
Yarmouk refugee camp, on the outskirts of Damascus, has for long been home to more than 100,000 Palestinian refugees. It is a set of tall apartment buildings separated by small alleys stuffed with shops.
It is one of the better refugee camps. Most refugees have running water, electricity and other basic services.
Now tens of thousands of Iraqis have flooded into Yarmouk. The exact number is unknown.
Iraqis also head for the Jaramana and the Sayada Zainab camps, besides countless other areas where they gather to live in smaller groups. The refugees are not allowed to work by law, and most have to live off their savings, and are desperate for assistance.
“I left Baghdad in order to keep my family alive,” Qasim Jubouri, who was a banker, told IPS. “Of course we all fled with none of our belongings.”
Now the money he brought is running out, and he has no idea how he will feed his family beyond survival at a camp.
“I ask all nations, particularly the United States, to do all that they can to help us,” he said. “Since the U.S. government caused all of this, shouldn’t they also be responsible for helping us now?”
Thus far the Bush administration has issued visas to 466 Iraqis since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
A report released Mar. 22 by the group Refugees International calls the flight of Iraqis from war-torn Iraq “the world’s fastest growing displacement crisis.” Displacement is taking place within Iraq as well.
The United Nations estimates there are now 1.9 million internally displaced Iraqis. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says about 12 percent of Iraq’s population of about 25 million will be displaced by the end of the year.
The UNHCR says also that about two million Iraqis have fled the country, mostly to Syria, Jordan, Iran, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen and Turkey. More than 1.5 million have fled to Syria alone.
And almost all came with nothing except what cash they could find to take.
After militiamen fired at his car in the once upmarket Mansoor district of Baghdad, Ali fled to Jordan. He returned but his car was attacked again. Six men from his company were killed in the attack. And that was not all.
“We had 11 engineers from one company detained by the Mehdi Army (the militia of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr),” he said. “We never heard from them again. I knew then that I had to drop everything and run for my life.”
Ali does not see himself returning soon. “I don’t expect to go back for at least 15-20 years. I have left everything behind, and now I have nothing but a small food store I run here. But it is not enough. Not the UN, nor any government, least of all the Iraqi government, is doing enough to help us.”
Short of both funds and staff, the UNHCR is unable to provide adequate assistance to Iraqi refugees. The agency lacks the resources even to process refugees’ documentation.
The UNHCR budget in Syria for Iraqis in 2006 was 700,000 dollars, less than one dollar per refugee. It is the only UN agency assisting Iraqis in Lebanon and Jordan.
The most desperate Iraqi refugees receive food, but there is no cash available for distribution.