SYRIA: Number of Iraqi refugees revised downwards


The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has revised downwards the number of Iraqi refugees it has registered in Syria.

"In 2010 we issued revised figures for the number of registered Iraqi refugees based on the verification of their presence in Syria throughout 2009," said Wafa Amr, a spokesperson for UNHCR in Damascus.

Those refugees who did not make contact with the office for more than four months and did not pick up food vouchers for two months had their files deactivated, according to UNHCR.

More than a quarter of the Iraqi population registered in Syria was deregistered - 58,000 files were deactivated - leaving 165,493 registered refugees at end-April this year. However, if a deregistered refugee re-approaches the agency, UNHCR says their file "may be reactivated after an in-depth assessment".

UNHCR attributes the revision of its numbers to "returns, deaths and departures for third countries".

Since the start of the war, UNHCR Syria has registered more than 260,000 Iraqi refugees. UNHCR has assisted 1,200 refugees to return, while around 21,000 Iraqis have left the country without the agency's assistance.

Funding problems

The true number of Iraqi refugees is considered to be higher than UNHCR registrations, although significantly lower than the 1.2 million figure given by the Syrian authorities.

Many refugees did not want to register or have been hard for UNHCR to reach in their urban setting.

"If we look at the numbers officially registered, such a small minority has been reached," said Elizabeth Campbell, a senior advocate at Refugees International, a US advocacy group. "Not many refugees are returning."

Funding has been an issue for refugee agencies owing to the global financial crisis. At the same time, budgetary requirements have risen; at the end of 2009, UNHCR requested a US$10 billion budget for all its programmes, the largest ever.

However, UNHCR said the revision was not connected to financial considerations. "This revision has nothing to do with donors' pressure to reduce funding; rather it is about UNHCR's credibility in using more accurate numbers," said Amr.

Several other factors are at work, which makes determining the refugee status of Iraqis harder than in other cases. Syria is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, meaning they are regarded as visitors by Syria - the same as economic migrants.

Many of the refugees came with funds and received remittances from Baghdad. This, say some agencies, made donors less inclined to view them as refugees.

With Iraqis settling in urban areas rather than a camp setting it has been hard for agencies to reach them to register them.

In addition, the mobility of the Iraqi community - often commuting back home - has caused some to challenge their status as refugees.

"There's nothing unique about Iraqi refugees going and coming back to test the waters," said Campbell. "Mobility is essential for economic or personal reasons; it doesn't mean they don't still need protection."

"Iraqis registered with UNHCR who commute between Syria and Iraq are still considered refugees in need of protection and assistance," said Amr. "Many return to Iraq to assess the security situation and have not deactivated their files."

Iraqi refugees in Syria said it made sense to deactivate files of people who had left but were concerned that their trips back to Iraq often take longer than expected, causing them to be out of touch for long periods.

"Sometimes we think we will go back just for a month to see the situation, but then the possibility of coming back to Syria can change or something may happen with our family," said one man from Baghdad, who asked not to be named.

Campbell said that if the reduced numbers did not match the picture in the field, many refugees could be put in a difficult position: "If money and support is disappearing, the refugees will have to make difficult decisions - a life of poverty in Syria or an unsafe return to Iraq."