Some 5,000 Iraqis queue outside UNHCR's Damascus office to register
DAMASCUS, Syria, February 12 (UNHCR) - More than 5,000 Iraqis, fearful of being deported under Syrian immigration regulations, queued outside the UNHCR office in Damascus on Monday to register with the refugee agency.
Iraqis first began lining up outside the downtown building on Saturday night, hours after High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres ended a visit to the Syrian capital where he heard the concerns of some of the up to 1 million displaced Iraqis in the country and received assurances from the Syrian government that the Iraqis would not be forced back across the border.
By Monday afternoon, UNHCR had handed out registration application papers to several thousand Iraqis and arranged follow-up appointments. "We hadn't expected a crowd quite that big, so all staff - including our drivers - dropped what they were doing and became involved in distributing applications and scheduling appointments," said UNHCR Representative in Syria Laurens Jolles.
UNHCR has significantly increased its capacity to register the thousands of Iraqis approaching the Damascus office and created three hotline numbers that Iraqis can ring if they or their immediate family members are facing deportation.
"We are approaching UNHCR because we are so afraid that we will be deported back to Iraq as our visas expired and they [the Syrian government] want us to leave for Iraq for one month," said one Iraqi man waiting in the queue on Monday. "We are living with the fear of someone knocking on our door and taking us back to Iraq. Many of my neighbours were deported because they overstayed their visas."
UNHCR's Jolles added that "the huge crowd we have seen over the last two days is an example of how Iraqis are worried and anxious about their stay in Syria and the need to be reassured with regards to their residence permits."
The Syrian government has begun stricter implementation of regulations governing the stay of Iraqis. People from Iraq get a 15-day permit on arrival after which they must apply to immigration authorities for a three-month permit that can be renewed once. Before the expiry of their residence permits, Iraqis have to leave the country for one month before they can enter the country again. Various categories of people, including students and businessmen, are exempt.
In former times, many Iraqis drove to the border and had their passports stamped with an exit visa and then re-entered Syria on the same day.
Concern about the regulations is widespread. Fighting back tears, a 35-year-old woman explained that when she approached the immigration authorities, she received an exit stamp on her passport which means that she has to leave Syria in three days. "I am a widow with four children. How can I go back to Iraq? This is a death sentence for me and my children."
An estimated 1.8 million Iraqis are currently displaced within their country, while another 2 million are believed to have fled to nearby nations - mainly Syria and Jordan. Last month, UNHCR launched a US$60 million appeal to fund its programmes this year aimed at helping hundred of thousands of refugees and internally displaced people affected by the conflict in Iraq.
By Abeer Etefa in Damascus, Syria