Iraqis registering at a Syrian immigration center (UNHCR)
Syria and the United Nations have said that between 1.2 million to 1.5 million Iraqis came to the country from 2003-2009, but that’s now disputed. From February 2006 to October 2007 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) claimed that up to 600,000 Iraqis entered the country. From 2003-2010 however, the UNHCR had only registered around 260,000. Damascus has also always acknowledged a constant flow of people back and forth between the two nations. In February 2007, the UNHCR for example, reported that a Syrian immigration official told them that 1,200 Iraqis had entered Syria in January, but around 700 went back at the same time. In 2010 that led the United Nations to revise its number of Iraqis refugees in the country. People that didn’t contact the UNHCR offices for four months or did not pick up food vouchers for two months were dropped from its rosters. That led to 58,000 being eliminated. By April 2010 the U.N. only had 165,493 Iraqi refugees on its books in Syria. Returns, deaths, and moves to other countries were reasons given for the decline. The United Nations and other aid agencies believe that there are more Iraqis in the country than are registered, but not many more. In a March 2008 survey, the UNHCR found that 86% of refugees had signed up with them. Despite the changes in the U.N. numbers, the Syrian government has stuck with its own figures.
Iraqis at aid agency offices in Amman, Jordan (New York Times)
Jordan’s experience with Iraqi refugees has been almost the same as Syria’s. Amman claimed that around 500,000 Iraqis had fled to their country, but the UNHCR only registered 65,000. In 2007, the Norwegian Institute Fafo conducted a survey of Iraqis in Jordan and estimated that 161,000 were there. The Jordanian government disagreed with the findings, delayed the release of the paper, and when it did finally come out, had the government’s official number of 450,000-500,000 included in it. In 2007 Jordan opened its schools to Iraqi students and expected 50,000 to show up. Instead, less than 12,000 arrived, and in 2008 the Jordanian Education Ministry issued a report saying that the actual number was even less than that. Just like Syria, Amman continues to claim that around half a million Iraqi refugees are still in their country.
There are a couple reasons offered for why Syria and Jordan have stuck with the high numbers, but the main culprit appears to be that both governments have used the refugees crisis for their own benefit. When both countries have asked for assistance with Iraqi refugees, they have included the demands of their own publics within the requests. The governments claim they need to provide something for their own people so that they don’t turn on the Iraqis. Jordan for example has received around $400 million to help Iraqis. Most of that went directly to the Jordanian government who spent it on schools, hospitals, water and sanitation projects. With far fewer Iraqis in the country than the government claims however, that means most of this aid went to poor Jordanians rather than refugees. To maintain this aid Amman and Damascus have refused to revise their estimates for Iraqi refugees in their countries.
The state of Iraqi refugees has changed over the last couple years. Many have returned to Iraq, while others have moved on to Western Europe, the United States and other industrial countries. Host countries in the region continue to claim that there are around 1.5 million refugees, but Refugees International recently estimated that there may be only 500,000. Originally, the international community and aid groups were caught by surprise by the flood of Iraqis out of the country due to the civil war. Without adequate studies of the event, the U.N., aid groups, and the media began calling it a crisis. Syria, Jordan, and others took advantage of the situation by claiming hundreds of thousands of refugees had come to them. They requested and received huge amounts of aid as a result that they mostly spent on their own people rather than Iraqis. Not wanting to loose that assistance, they have continued to talk of the costs Iraqis impose on them. The question now is whether aid will shift to be more targeted towards Iraqis or whether it will eventually wither as world attention focuses on other crisis points because there are still large communities of Iraqis throughout the Middle East that need help.
Cohen, Robert, “Iraq’s Displaced: Where To Turn?” American University International Law Review, Fall 2008
Dagher, Sam, “In quieter Baghdad, perils still lurk,” Christian Science Monitor, 12/24/07
International Crisis Group, “Failed Responsibility: Iraqi Refugees In Syria, Jordan and Lebanon,” 7/10/08
International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, “Middle East: Population Displaced from Iraq,” 4/29/10
IRIN, “MIDDLE EAST: Iraqi refugees – interpreting the statistics,” 12/28/10
- “SYRIA: Number of Iraqi refugees revised downwards,” 6/20/10
Refugees International, “Iraq: Preventing the Point of No Return,” 4/9/09
Seeley, Nicholas, “In Jordan, aid for Iraqi refugees is often redirected,” Christian Science Monitor, 7/2/08
- “The Politics of Aid to Iraqi Refugees in Jordan,” Middle East Report, Fall 2010
UNHCR Briefing Notes, “Iraq: Latest return survey shows few intending to go home soon,” UNHCR, 4/29/08
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “UNHCR Syria Update on Iraqi Refugees,” February 2007
United Nations Security Council, “Report of the Secretary-General pursuant to paragraph 6 of resolution 1770 (2007),” 1/14/08
United States Government Accountability Office, “Iraqi Refugee Assistance Improvements Needed in Measuring Progress, Assessing Needs, Tracking Funds, and Developing an International Strategic Plan,” April 2009