At the UN compound in Douma, a neighborhood in northern Damascus, men, women, and children sit in crowded warehouse-like buildings. These refugees from Iraq wait for the UNHCR food rations that will keep them from starving. Despite its occasional pariah status, Syria is used to accepting downtrodden neighbors. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians settled there after 1948, and the country provided a temporary home to Lebanese fleeing the Israeli bombardment in 2006.
Now Syria has accepted the burden of another humanitarian disaster. These Iraqis in Douma represent just a handful of the 1.1 million people that crossed the border into Syria as the violence peaked during 2006 and 2007. Now, in Syria, the majority find themselves unable or unwilling to return to their homes in Iraq. They are living in poverty, often without family members lost to the brutal, post-Saddam years. As with the Palestinian exodus of 1948, Syria has accepted (if not exactly welcomed) its neighbors, only to find that international help has not been particularly forthcoming.
Next door in Iraq, the talk has been of recovery and resurgence. But there is a feeling that the Iraqi government, awash in oil receipts, is not doing enough to help its displaced nationals. The figures for returning Iraqis are low, and huge swaths of Iraq's middle class, vital for the rebuilding of the country, remain in Syria and Jordan, many intent on resettlement to Europe or America.
Yet resettlement numbers are also very low. Only around 12,000 people have been resettled since 2007. With funds running out and Iraq too dangerous to return to, the refugee population is becoming increasingly desperate. Some have voiced strong criticism of both the resettlement system and the UN High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) in general.
However, the UNHCR is faced with a tough task. Over 200,000 refugees want resettlement. "There are not very good odds (for resettlement) and everybody has a compelling story," comments Sybella Wilkes, Public Information Officer at the UNHCR in Syria. "Ninety percent of those interviewed have experienced traumatic events, the population has lost a lot."
With resettlement and returns low, the majority are forced to stay put in Syria, struggling for their existence and reliant on benefits from the UN and a Syrian government stretched to breaking point.
"We are very clear with the donors," Wilkes says. "If they cut our programs then there are going to be devastating consequences."
Thomas James has lived and worked in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq as a freelance journalist. He is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.