Red tape and Iraqi refugees in Syria
Oshana Khamo is one of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have taken refuge in Syria from the violence at home and have been kept waiting for years to be resettled elsewhere to start a new life.
He recalls how the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) summoned him in 2009 to sort out the formalities of his moving to Germany.
But he says his fresh start has been repeatedly delayed by red tape.
"Each time, they give different reasons," says Khamo, 49, who fled to Syria in 2004 and has since been trying in vain to find a third country that will accept him as a permanent resident.
He accuses UNHCR staff in Syria, where Iraqis complain of declining living standards, of having failed in their mission.
Since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, nearly two million Iraqis have left their native land to settle in neighboring countries.
The UNHCR says some 1.5 million of them are in Syria, but that only around 150,000 are registered.
Shamiran Yussef Agha Khan, 45, is one of those people hoping to leave Syria.
The UNHCR "chose me for relocation to the United States a year and a half ago, but now they have given up because supposedly I do not qualify," Shamiran complains.
She says she was refused resettlement to a third country by the UNHCR in Syria, but that her brother, who left Iraq after her, and applied through Lebanon is already in the United States.
Roula Nasrallah, UNHCR communications officer in Damascus, says that "since 2007, more than 22,600 Iraqi refugees have left Syria and settled in different countries."
"There are still refugees, of course, waiting their turn, but not everyone will go to settle in third countries, and UNHCR will consider these requests case by case," she says.
Last June, UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres said the body had referred 100,000 Iraqi refugees in the Middle East for resettlement in third countries since 2007.
On a visit to Syria, he said "100,000 submissions of Iraqi refugees is a tremendous achievement. Many have been living in limbo for years."
Of those 100,000 refugees 52,173 people left the Middle East up to May 2010, the UNHCR said in its statement. In 2007, 3,500 Iraqis departed for third countries from the region.
"Lengthy security checks and the time it has taken for state processing mechanisms to be established have led to considerable delays in the departure of refugees to their new homes," the statement said.
The acceptance rate by resettlement countries of UNHCR's referrals now stands at 80 percent, of which nearly 76 percent have been accepted by the United States, the UNHCR said.
While they wait, Iraqi refugees in Syria pay regular visits to the UN's World Food Program (WFP) offices near Damascus for food assistance.
Houda, 20, says she prefers to sell her rations to buy the things she needs.
Suraya Ghazi, 56, complains that her stipend of 7,000 Syrian pounds (112 euros) per month is not nearly enough to live. "Now, I don't have much left to live," she says, after paying rent of 5,000 pounds.
In 2010, the WFP spent 32 million dollars in food assistance to cover the needs of Iraqis registered with the UNHCR.
"We calculate the daily needs of each family in calories," said Muzammil Selly, a member of the press office of the WFP.
According to a survey of Iraqis by the Central Statistics Office in Syria, 52 percent say they are desperate and 7.8 percent admit they have contemplated suicide.
Earlier this year, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Fayssal Mekdad accused Iraq of failing to provide financial aid to Iraqi refugees in Syria.
"Ever since the Iraqi refugees began arriving in Syria in 2003, the Iraqi government, despite having the means, only gave 15 million dollars to help its citizens in Syria," Mekdad said.
"This is a small sum in comparison with the number of Iraqi refugees who number more than 1.5 million in Syria, and with the enormous capacity of the Iraqi government," he told a conference organized by the UN refugee agency.
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