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Iraqi Refugees in Syria Fear Deportation


The United Nations estimates nearly one million Iraqis have fled violence in their homeland to neighboring Syria, and 30,000 to 40,000 new arrivals come every month. Compared to other countries in the region, Syria has had a generous open-door policy for refugees, but many Iraqis now fear restrictions will be enforced that could mean they will be deported. VOA's Sonja Pace reports from Damascus.

Several-hundred Iraqis crowd around the entrance to the U.N. refugee agency in Damascus - angry, fearful and often desperate. Most are Sunni Muslims, some have been here for months or longer, others are new arrivals. The crowd includes young and old, men, women and a few small children.

This woman does not give her name, but is determined to air her grievance. She has come from Baghdad and says she was driven from her home by Shiite militias.

She says the militia of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr drove her family out and she says there is no help from the Iraqi government, which she accuses of being a mere puppet of Iran.

Others nod their head in agreement. They say they thought they were safe here in Syria, now they are not sure.

Laurens Jolles, the representative in Syria of the U.N. refugee agency, says he understands the refugees' anger and concern.

"Things are becoming much more difficult and it's not sort of - everyone who comes can stay without much problem," he said. "There are really tough regulations that seem to be in force."

Jolles says it seems the Syrians are beginning to enforce existing regulations to stem the tide of refugees coming in. Early on, he says, everyone was welcome. Iraqis could come in, get a visa for three months, then easily renew for another three months by crossing the border back into Iraq and coming back to Syria the same day.

Now, it appears new arrivals are being granted only a 15-day visa and must go to immigration. Many are then being told they must return to Iraq for one month before applying again. Those who have been here longer are told when their visa expires, they too must go back for a month and then re-apply.

That says Jolles is causing a great deal of anxiety.

"They [the refugees] are here, they think they are safe, their children might be in school, some people are sick, you have got victims of torture, you've got all sorts of very desperate cases, who then have to go back to Iraq for a month and be confronted again with the same insecurity and problems and then try to come back again and hope they will be allowed to stay on," he added.

Jolles says Syria gets high marks for its open-door policy, but he says the flow of refugees has put a severe strain on the government's ability to provide for them and its own people, especially in areas of health and education.

But, that explanation is of little comfort to the refugees gathered outside. Some like Zeinab al Melah blame the Americans for what has happened to them.

"Where shall I go? I am asking Mr. Bush, where shall I go, what shall I do?" she said.

Melah came here with her husband and three children seven months ago. She says they fled Baghdad because Shiite militias threatened to kill them. Her husband had a stroke, she says and is partially paralyzed, her children have yet to go to school here. None of this would have happened, she says if the Americans had not invaded.

"Mr. Bush will accept us in USA? Will he take us in his country for the safety of our children and our family? Where shall I go?" she asked.

Much of the anger here is mixed with fear and sadness - fear that if they are forced to go back to Iraq they will be killed and sadness because they see little hope of returning home in safety anytime in the foreseeable future.