World Refugee Survey 2009: Syria
By year’s end, Syria hosted around 1.2 million Iraqi refugees, more than 550,000 Palestinian refugees, and around 6,000 other refugees and asylum seekers. Roughly 197,000 Iraqi refugees had registered with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Syria confined around 1,100 Palestinian refugees from Iraq to two camps; Al Hol, which is in its territory, and Al Tanf, over which it exercises some jurisdiction even though it is adjacent to the border. Al Hol held 330 Palestinians, and Al Tanf 830. Other Palestinians remained in a third camp on the Iraqi side of the border.
2008 Events Summary
From late 2007 through February 2008, Amnesty International identified the refoulement of 10 Iraqis registered with UNHCR, including one 16-year-old girl deported from a detention center in late January. Also in February, Syria arrested a 40-year-old Iraqi refugee as he tried to reenter Syria after returning to Iraq to collect school and medical records for his family, deporting him to Iraq two days later.
Syria deported seven Ahwazi Arabs to Iran, including the September deportation wife of an Ahwazi holding refugee status in Denmark and her five children, and one Danish citizen.
Syria arrested 318 refugees and asylum seekers during 2008, including 228 Iraqis and 56 Somalis, and it was holding 67 at the end of the year. It arrested most for crimes including forging documents, illegal entry, prostitution, and smuggling, but arrested some out of security concerns. It often held them administratively, without referring them to the courts or formally charging them with crimes, especially those held for security concerns.
During 2008, UNHCR visited more than 70 Iraqi women in Douama Prison and seven Iraqi girls aged 12 to 17 in Syria’s Juvenile and Rehabilitation Centre, most of whom were victims of rape or forced prostitution. UNHCR worked with other UN agencies to assist the detained women.
UNHCR established a hotline for refugees threatened with deportation and provides them with legal assistance. Although Syria generally does not deport Iraqis, UNCHR reports that those arrested for security reasons, without identity documents, entered Syria illegally, or have been involved in prostitution or other crimes are most likely to be deported. Syria also reportedly returned some Palestinians from Iraq to the camp at Al Tanf after they entered Syria and attempted to mix in with the Palestinian population.
On average during 2008, 144,900 refugees received monthly food and other material assistance from UNHCR and the World Food Programme (WFP). They removed 29,000 Iraqis from the program after they did not pick up their aid for two consecutive distributions, under the assumption the refugees had left the country. More than 13,300 families (38,200 individuals) received monthly monetary assistance from UNHCR in the form of ATM cards.
Roughly 32,400 Iraqi children attended Syrian schools in the 2008-09 school year, but many others had to work to help support their families.
In September, Syria returned an Ahwazi woman and her five children aged 4 to 14 to Iran, where security forces detained them immediately.
Syrian security forces reportedly killed a Palestinian refugee who was married to the daughter of a Fatah al-Islam leader in October.
Around 400 Iraqi Christians crossed into Syria in October, fleeing attacks in Mosul, Iraq.
As of November, the wait time for interviews with UNHCR was eight weeks for first-time interviewees, ten weeks for renewal appointments. Among the registered Iraqi population, there were nearly 40,000 suffering from serious medical problems and more than 25,700 who were victims of violence or torture in Iraq.
In November, more than 47,000 Iraqis did not receive their rice rations because Government inspectors found too many cracked grains in a shipment of Vietnamese rice, and blocked its entry into the country. Officials rejected the shipment shortly after a U.S. forces in Iraq struck the Syrian town of Abu Kamal, killing seven Syrians.
By year’s end, there were 12 international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) officially accredited to work with Iraqi refugees. Syria does not permit Syrian NGOs to assist Iraqis.
Law and Policy
Visas were initially available only at the Syrian embassy in Baghdad, but are currently available at border posts. At the start of the year, Iraqis generally could squeeze into one of the 13 categories and gain access to the country, but since May 2008 Syria has strictly enforced the categories and rejected more applicants in an attempt to limit access to the country. Iraqis who leave after spending three months in Syria cannot return without permission from the head of the immigration department.
The 1973 Constitution prohibits the extradition of “political refugees” because of “their political principles or their defense of freedom.” The treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in Syria relies on informal cooperation between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Immigration Department of the Ministry of Interior, and UNHCR. As a result, Syria tacitly allows UNHCR to conduct its refugee status determination procedure. Since December 2007, UNHCR has granted refugee status prima facie to Iraqis from the central and southern portions of the country and issued asylum seeker certificates to those from the Kurdish-controlled north.
Syria is a party to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Although a 1956 law provides that “Palestinians residing in the Syrian Arab Republic territories are considered as Syrians by origin in Syria, in all matters pertaining to the laws and regulations,” it does not include rights to naturalize or to vote.
In October 2006, the Government formed the National Asylum Law Committee to draft an asylum law, and Committee members have traveled to UNHCR headquarters to discuss this process. During 2008, the Swiss government offered to work with UNHCR and Syria to craft a refugee policy.
Detention/Access to Courts
UNHCR can visit most detained refugees and asylum seekers, but Syrian security forces held some in separate facilities with no access. It is not possible for UNHCR to determine if it has access to all detained refugees. UNHCR must formally request permission to visit a detainee, and the Government often responds slowly and occasionally imposes conditions that violate the confidentiality of the visit. While UNHCR-supplied lawyers can represent refugees and asylum seekers in courts
While Syrian immigration laws do not acknowledge UNHCR recognition policies, UNHCR-issued certificates help refugees receive residency permits, aid from government-associated organizations, and UNHCR intervention in case of detention. Heads of households and persons over 18 years receive the refugee certificates, which include the names of all family members.
Foreigners can obtain residence permits if they obtain written permission from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour, a clean HIV test, a residence certificate from their district’s mayor, a lease agreement or ownership of property, and a valid passport or identification card. Iraqis who fall into certain categories, including those with children in Syrian schools, with medical conditions certified by Syrian hospitals, with Syrian ancestry, or owning property in Syria, could obtain residence permits that Syria renews monthly or every three months, depending on its level of security concerns with the applicant. Syria’s security apparatus reviews all residence applications.
Occasionally, Syria’s Iraqi Affairs Office, a branch of the National Leadership of the Ba’ath Party, grants Iraqi ID Cards to Iraqi refugees.
Palestinians refugees from Iraq, while remaining under the UNHCR mandate, receive temporary eligibility cards from UNRWA. Long-term Palestinian refugees enjoy the same access as nationals to courts.
Al Hol residents cannot leave the camps without permission, except to attend school, and Al Tanf camp residents cannot enter Syria except to obtain medical treatment, after which they have to return the camp.
A 1963 law entitles Palestinian refugees to Syrian travel documents if they register with the General Authority for Palestinian Arab Refugees and hold Syrian provisional identity cards. The documents are valid for six years, renewable at Syrian consular offices abroad, and allow return to Syria without a visa. Additionally, long-term Palestinian refugees can travel between Syria and Lebanon using state-issued identity cards or Arab League travel documents. Those from Iraq cannot travel.
The Syrian Constitution limits to citizens the rights to free movement and choice of residence.
Syria’s Labor Law of 1959 restricts work permits for foreigners to those with residence permits who obtain the permission of the Ministry of Social and Labour and whose countries allow Syrians to work. The law also prohibits employing foreigners without work permits and bans foreigners from working in positions other than the one for which they obtained a permit. Foreigners holding work permits are subject to the same protection as Syrian nationals under the country’s labor laws and are eligible for social security.
Very few refugees obtain work permits, relegating most to low-paying jobs in the informal sector or dependence on aid.
In June 2008, Syria passed a law allowing foreigners to purchase real estate, provided they use it as their primary residence, obtain permission from the Ministry of the Interior, it is at least 200 square meters, and they do not attempt to rent or resell it within five years of purchase. If the property passes to a non-Syrian via inheritance, they must transfer it to a Syrian within one year or the property will revert to the state. Foreigners and foreign companies can rent property for business purposes for a non-renewable maximum of 15 years.
Refugees and asylum seekers generally cannot own businesses or property. Long-term Palestinian refugees can own only one house or plot of land, unlike citizens, but in rural and unregulated residential areas they can own more than one property.
UNHCR supports ten SARC clinics in Syria – seven in Damascus (one administered by the French Red Cross) and one each in Aleppo, Homs, and Idlib. Up to eighty percent of medical costs, including prescriptions, for all registered refugees are covered by the UNHCR. Complete coverage is available to those identified by an established committee.
The Danish Refugee Council operates eight community centers for refugees in partnership with UNHCR. The Centers provide English, French, Arabic, and computer classes; services for the disabled; libraries; and tutoring for Iraqi children in Syrian schools.
Generally, Arab refugees and asylum seekers holding valid visas or residency permits can receive primary health services, while emergency hospital care is available for a small fee. Recognized Iraqi refugees and asylum seekers pay reduced fees for SARC health services.
Long-term Palestinian refugees generally use UNRWA health services. They are referred to Syrian hospitals for urgent services, which they receive at subsidized rates. Al Hol camp residents have access to Syrian schools and medical services.
Syria allows Arab refugee children to attend public schools free or for minimal fees. UNHCR gives uniforms to Iraqi students, funds schools, and helps the education ministry refurbish school buildings. UNHCR also offers Arabic classes for non-Arab refugee children, to allow them to follow the Syrian school curriculum.
Primary education is free for Palestinian children, who can attend the 118 UNRWA elementary and preparatory schools as well as Syrian elementary schools. UNRWA also operates a vocational training center for Palestinian refugees. UNHCR and UNRWA provide education for children in Al Hol and Al Tanf.
International NGOs wishing to work in Syria must partner with SARC, which imposes strict conditions on the partnerships, including, as of March 2008, includes a shared bank account with SARC from which both parties must approve any disbursement and a payment of two percent of the NGO’s budget to SARC to cover its expenses in the partnership.