Starving to survive: Iraqi refugees resort to desperate measures

Iraqi Fatima Ahmaji earns money to feed her family in Damascus by starving herself.

Living with her two children in a bare room in Sayeda Zeinab, the Iraqi-majority suburb of Damascus, Fatima does not eat from dawn until dusk on behalf of people who have missed days of fasting during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

“I am here in Syria jobless,” she told IRIN. “How can I survive and look after my children? I should and must work.”

Since September Fatima has been fasting, receiving 3,000 Syrian pounds (about US$60) each month from Gulf and Iraqi clients. She says the work is taking its toll on her physical health.

“I feel very weak, I’m exhausted and I suffer especially from headaches. Some days I have to eat and make up the fast later, but I shouldn’t because I’ve given my oath.”

Fatima escaped the violence of Iraq in 2006 with her children after her husband was killed. Like many Iraqi refugees in Syria she has been forced to take extreme measures to make ends meet as the price of basic commodities and rents in Syria continue to soar.

“Harmful practices”

''People are finding themselves in extreme situations and at the worst end we’re seeing child labour, early marriage and survival sex.''

The Syrian government does not allow the estimated 1.5 million Iraqis in Syria to work legally and an increasing number of refugees have taken up “harmful practices”, from prolonged fasting to prostitution, in order to survive.

“People are finding themselves in extreme situations and at the worst end we’re seeing child labour, early marriage and survival sex,” said Sybella Wilkes, spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Syria. “This is something that these families would never have resorted to in Iraq. They’re facing drastic measures in order to keep some semblance of quality of life.”

According to the latest survey by the UNHCR of 754 Iraqi families in Syria, 33 percent say their financial resources will last for three months or less, while 24 percent are relying on remittances from family abroad to survive.

Some refugees are choosing not to stick it out.

Tens of thousands of Iraqis have returned from Syria since mid-August, though the figures are disputed. The UNHCR said staff in Syria had received reports that 128,000 Iraqis were recorded as leaving, though figures from the Iraqi Red Crescent Organisation released on 3 December said between 25,000 and 28,000 Iraqi refugees had come home from Syria since mid-September. Initial Iraqi government figures said up to 60,000 had returned.

According to a UNHCR study, 46 percent, by far the largest component, left because they could no longer afford life in Syria.

Children


Photo: Julien Lennert/IRIN
UNICEF estimates that 80 percent of Iraqi children in Syria do not attend school and that at least 10 percent of Iraqi children are being forced to work for an average daily income of US $1 or less

Iraqi children have in particular borne a disproportionate burden of the harsh economic reality. The UN Children’s Agency (UNICEF) estimates that 80 percent of Iraqi children in Syria do not attend school and that at least 10 percent of Iraqi children are being forced to work for an average daily income of US$1 or less.

Imad and Sajad, 12-years-old and 13-years-old respectively, sell Iraqi date jam from a cart on Iraqi Street in Sayeda Zeinab. They have been in Syria for two years, having fled the violence of Baghdad.

“We need to live” they both exclaimed. “Our money’s finished and we have to work.” Educational needs, they say, come second to helping their families survive.

The European Union on 13 December said it was granting a total of 50 million euros ($73.4m) to Syria and Jordan to help pay for schools and hospitals hosting Iraqi refugees.

Prostitution and marrying off of young daughters, even for short periods in a practice known as pleasure marriages, are also on the increase with young girls increasingly vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

Night clubs filled with Iraqi women have sprung up on the outskirts of Damascus.

Humanitarian workers confirm the increasing desperation of refugees, but say that because much of the information on these illicit practices is anecdotal, the situation is very hard to address directly.

Iraqi refugees in Syria

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 Iraqi refugees in Syria talk about their poor living conditions and uncertain future (03:18)


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Precise statistics on Iraqi employment and “harmful practices” are impossible to compile because of the ban on Iraqi employment, as well as the fact that there are no significant social networks running through the Iraqi refugee community through which to gather information.

The Syrian Ministry of Social Welfare does not include Iraqi refugees in its remit, which means that there is no government body directly dealing with issues of social protection such as child exploitation.

Moreover, the Syrian government says it cannot offer more financial assistance.

Vast subsidies available to Iraqis that span the economy ranging from basic food items to diesel, as well as free education and healthcare are costing the Syrian government over US1 billion per year, say officials.

Free food

Several measures have been introduced in recent months by agencies in order to deal with the growing financial desperation.

Free food is currently being distributed to 51,000 refugees by the UN World Food Programme (WFP), the UNHCR and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), with 17,000 new refugees being added every 10 weeks. Distribution of non-food items such as heaters and blankets will be launched in January for over 100,000 people.


Photo: Julien Lennert/IRIN
Three Iraqi clowns, part of an exiled Baghdad clown group, have started working with the UNHCR putting on shows for Iraqi children in Syria.

The number of Iraqi refugees in Syria who rely on food aid will surge to 114,000 by April, said WFP in early December.

“We think the food and financial assistance is a major prevention activity for the worst consequences of people running out of savings. But we’re very concerned,” said the UNHCR’s Wilkes.

The UNHCR is also providing financial assistance for the most needy. Seven thousand families now receive between $100 and $200 per month each in support and are soon to be issued with ATM cards from Syrian banks in order to facilitate ease of access.

Amid such desolation, there have been a few happier moments.

Three Iraqi clowns, part of an exiled Baghdad clown group, have started working with the UNHCR putting on shows for Iraqi children, encouraging them to enrol in Syrian schools as part of the UNHCR's Back to School Campaign.

"We don't do it for money but because we're clowns," said Rahman Eidi. "We just want to make the children happy in order to remove the fears and memories of bombs and bad days."

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