Iraqi refugees in Syria hit by increased food and fuel prices

Life gets worse for Iraqi refugees in Syria. Soaring fuel and food prices mean that prosperous Iraqi professionals are joining queues for food aid.

Meals on Wheels: A Syrian Arab Red Crescent worker brings a trolley-load of food to a distribution point in Damascus.   © UNHCR Syria

DAMASCUS, Syria, April 25 (UNHCR) - Life is steadily becoming even worse for Iraqi refugees in Syria. Soaring global fuel and food prices mean that once prosperous Iraqi professionals are now joining daily queues for food assistance.

The food lines have been growing since late last year as thousands of Iraqi refugees began running out of savings after months, or years, in exile. The rising prices have made tens of thousands more Iraqis dependent on help from the UN refugee agency and its sister organization, the World Food Programme (WFP).

Earlier this week, daily food assistance was stepped up to include more than 150,000 people, which compares to the 33,000 Iraqis who were being helped by UNHCR and WFP in September. The hand-outs, organized with the help of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, include rations of rice, oil, sugar, tomato paste and other essential food items.

Among the refugees coming to the distribution for the first time in the past week were doctors, engineers and teachers, who say they never imagined that one day they would have to queue to receive food. "I am surviving on rice and beans. No meat. No milk products. Life has no pleasure any more," said one man, who used to own a food-filled grocery story in Baghdad.

Waiting in line was George,* a Christian from Baghdad. "We thank God for this food," he said. "Our survival completely depends upon it." Formerly a soldier in Iraq, his career came to an abrupt end when the Iraqi armed forces were dissolved in 2003 by the U.S.-led military coalition that overthrew President Saddam Hussein's regime.

He and his family fled to Syria in 2006 after being threatened by militiamen. "We have no family or friends to turn to. Everyone is poor and getting poorer. We are dependent on this help," George explained.

Nearby stood Hussam,* who spent his career in the food and beverage business, working as director of the Pepsi Cola factory in Baghdad. He never used to think about the cost of food, but in recent weeks it has become his main concern. "A few weeks ago we used to be able to buy a litre of oil for 15 Syrian pounds (30 US cents). Now I have to pay 30," he complained.

Hussam is counting on the sale of his house in Baghdad to keep the family going for a while, but fellow-Iraqi Mohamed* has exhausted all his reserves. In a fax sent to UNHCR last weekend, he wrote: "Because of unbearable costs in Damascus I am moving to the north of the country. During the last two years we have exhausted our savings. We are a respectable family. It is hard to beg. I will need to sell my phone before we move and I am hoping against hope that you can call me before I do this. Please help me with food."

Luckily Mohamed included his e-mail address because he had already sold his phone when the UNHCR hotline team tried calling.

According to the World Bank, global food prices have increased by 83 percent over the past three years. This trend is having a severe affect on refugees, who are watching their savings run out. A recent UNHCR and WFP briefing for representatives of donor countries emphasized the increased cost of procuring food and other aid items for refugees.

The agencies stressed that increased donor commitment would be essential to maintain food assistance at current levels. "It will hurt the refugees if we had to scale down our assistance. As it is, we are providing the bare minimum for people to survive on," said Zahra Mirghani, a senior community service officer for UNHCR.

Mirghani added that during the past three months her team of community workers and outreach volunteers had come across several families who were unable to afford more than one meal a day.

UNHCR Senior Community Services Clerk Jida Malad returned on Thursday from a meeting with refugees in the crowded suburb of Seyida Zeinab reporting that all the Iraqis she met were facing increasing hardship. In some cases they were planning to move to areas of Syria where the cost of living was cheaper, in other cases families were doubling up in apartments.

She said that some families were going back to Iraq, adding that in many cases some members of the family did not want to leave Syria and divisions had opened up between relatives. "In some cases the father will take the risk of returning, but won't let the whole family take the risk," she said, adding that several men had disappeared or been killed after going back.

* Names have been changed for protection reasons

By Aline Jaccottet, Hussam Mukhtar, Carole Lalève and Sybella Wilkes in Damascus, Syria