Closing the Door to Iraqis


Iraqi refugees in Syria register with the United Nations.


For the past few years, Syria has been a vital refuge for Iraqis fleeing across the border, whether to escape targeted death threats or broader sectarian violence. But among the nearly 1.5 million Iraqi refugees estimated to be living in Syria, there is growing alarm that the Syrian government may be preparing to deport many of them back to Iraq.

On October 1, Syria effectively closed its border to new refugees, imposing stringent visa requirements that have cut off the flow of Iraqis almost completely. The move also stranded some family members on the wrong side of the border. Iman is a 45-year-old Iraqi woman currently living in Syria with her son, but her husband remains in Iraq to collect his pension. "If I go back to see my husband, that means I can't come back to see my son," she says, adding that the situation "leaves me to choose between being a mother or a wife." Even worse, rumors are circulating among Iraqis in Syria that police in Damascus have begun spot checks of visas (which can be renewed only by leaving the country).

Promises. The Syrian government has told United Nations officials that it will not deport Iraqis who are already in Syria. But this has done little to reassure Iraqi refugees. "Iraqis are right to fear that the worst has not happened," says Kristele Younes, a Lebanon-based advocate for Refugees International, a nonprofit group. "If the government changes its mind tomorrow, there is nobody to protect them."

For Syria, the influx has put an intense strain on a government that was already struggling to deliver key services. In the Damascus neighborhoods where many Iraqis have settled, there are serious shortages of safe drinking water and electricity, prompting warnings about epidemics. And Syria has received little help from other countries, particularly the United States, which has accused Syria of backing Iraqi insurgents.

The closure of the Syrian border also means that Iraqis who remain in their country no longer have an escape route. "There are no borders open to them," says Younes. "So many more people would like to leave but can't because they have nowhere to go."

With Amer Saleh in Syria