Iraqis with old vendettas have taken advantage of the chaos and instability in Syria to pursue Iraqi refugees there, with a string of kidnappings in recent months, according to an official with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
“We’ve seen a rise in serious protection incidents,” said Paul Stromberg, deputy representative of the UNCHR in Syria. “There are people benefiting from the increase in lawlessness,” he told IRIN.
He said UNHCR was aware of about a dozen separate cases - one in October, the rest in 2012 - of Iraqi refugees being kidnapped “where there is a clear link with Iraq” - either by people coming from Iraq or perhaps by people within Syria itself.
Most cases are resolved, he said, but the worst case involved the father of one refugee family who had worked for former Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein’s intelligence service. The family had already lost a family member in Iraq before fleeing to Syria. In recent months, Stromberg said, their son was kidnapped, tortured and killed - despite a ransom paid.
“That seems to be a clear spillover of some grudge from Iraq.”
One Iraqi refugee, who told IRIN her story in April, said she feared being hunted down in Syria by the same people who killed nine members of her family at the height of sectarian warfare in Iraq in 2006-7.
Effects of crisis
Syria is home to the largest Iraqi refugee population in the world. Tens of thousands have returned to Iraq since the conflict in Syria began, but at least 88,000 remain registered with UNHCR there.
Until recently, Iraqi refugees - while complaining of tough economic times, traumatic memories, and delays in resettlement - did not feel they were at direct physical risk because of the Syrian conflict. This may be beginning to change.
And while antagonists in the Syrian conflict have not targeted Iraqi refugees specifically, Stromberg said relations between the two communities have started to falter.
“When you have a situation where jobs are scarce, prices are going up, and accommodation is harder to find, the `other’ is always blamed for more than their share of trouble. We’ve seen the bond between the Syrian and Iraqi communities fray in some situations. It’s the kind of thing you’d see anywhere.”
Refugees have also been caught in the cross-fire. A nine-year-old Sudanese girl was killed recently, he said, when her family’s car came under fire as they were trying to flee Douma, a small town north of the capital Damascus.