Iraqi refugees in Syria have been thrown into a state of fear and uncertainty following the Iraqi government's announcement that Syria will be introducing new visa restrictions on Iraqis entering the country.
According to the Iraqi Foreign Ministry, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem told his Iraqi counterpart Hoshyar Zebari that as of 10 September Iraqis will require visas before entering the country.
Precise details have not been released and it remains uncertain how the new regulations will affect Iraqis seeking to enter Syria as refugees or renew their residency status in the country. However, according to the Syrian daily Al-Watan, visas will only be granted to those with a particular business or educational purpose.
Besides restricting access for new refugees into Syria, Iraqi refugees in the country are worried that the new system will force them to return to Iraq, with reports suggesting visas will only be accessible through the Syrian embassy in Baghdad.
"It is a very big problem for many Iraqis," said Lina Afaad, an Iraqi refugee living in Damascus, indicating her fear as her own visa expires in two weeks. "Some of the Iraqis can never go back to Baghdad because they are threatened or they have no home."
"We are escaping from something in Baghdad - it is too dangerous for us. How can we go back?" said Wissam Tariq, another Iraqi in Syria.
UNHCR trying to obtain clarification
Syrian government officials were unable to provide specific details and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said it had made attempts to obtain clarification on the matter.
"We're as anxious as everyone else is to have a clear picture but so far the [Syrian] government hasn't communicated on this one," said Sybella Wilkes, UNHCR spokesperson in Syria.
Erika Feller, the UNHCR deputy high commissioner, currently visiting Syria, was expected to have high-level meetings with Syrian government officials on 2 September to discuss the situation.
It is not the first time that the Iraqi refugee community has been pushed into a state of anxiety over their status in Syria. In January of this year the Syrian government introduced new visa measures forcing Iraqis to apply for residency permits within 15 days of arriving in Syria and then having to renew them every three months by leaving Syria.
The government subsequently scrapped the decision, reverting to a system whereby Iraqis may take a three-month residency permit on entry into Syria, instantly renewable at a border crossing.
Syria remains the last country not to have imposed harsh regulations on the entry of Iraqi refugees. Jordan, which houses an estimated 750,000 Iraqis, has largely closed its borders to new arrivals, while other regional countries have strict visa regulations in place.
Some reports suggest up to 2,000 Iraqis enter Syria every day, adding to the estimated 1.5 million refugees already in the country. The Syrian government recently calculated that the refugee population will cost them US$1 billion per year.
Photo: Julien Lennert/IRIN
|Syria's subsidised commodities, such as bread, are under threat after massive increases in demand from Iraqi refugees|
Food distribution programme
The uncertainty over visas comes as the UNHCR and the Syria Red Crescent launched a massive food distribution programme aimed at meeting the growing needs of the most vulnerable members of the refugee population.
"People are coming to us every day telling us they don't have enough food to eat," said Wilkes.
Over 33,000 of the neediest Iraqis have been invited to collect food packages that include a variety of foods such as rice, lentils, sugar, cheese, canned meat, oil and tea.
UNHCR officials expect the number to increase to at least 50,000 by the end of the year and have pledged about US $4 million to funding the programme up until the end of the year.
The Saudi Arabian government has also announced that it will donate two kilos of dates to each of the 33,000 neediest Iraqis.