More than 5,000 Iraqis, fearful of being deported under Syrian immigration regulations, queued up outside the United Nations refugee agency office in Damascus today to register.
“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,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Representative Laurens Jolles said.
Iraqis first began lining up outside the downtown building on Saturday night, hours after UN 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 they would not be forced back across the border into their violence-torn homeland.
By this afternoon, UNHCR had handed out registration application papers to several thousand and arranged follow-up appointments. “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,” Mr. Jolles said.
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,” one Iraqi man waiting in the queue said. “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.”
The Government has begun stricter implementation of regulations. People from Iraq get a 15-day permit on arrival after which they must apply for a three-month permit that can be renewed once. Before the expiry of their residence permits, they have to leave the country for one month before they can enter 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 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,” she said.
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 $60 million appeal to fund its programmes this year to help hundred of thousands of refugees and internally displaced people affected by the conflict.