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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 December 2006, 10:09 GMT
Iraq violence sparks exodus to Syria
By Chris Morris
BBC News, Damascus

A child looks at a burnt-out car after a blast in Baghdad in July 2005
More and more families are leaving amid escalating violence
On the desert border between Syria and Iraq, a group of tents clings to the shifting sands. This is a desolate place at the best of times.

Now it has become an unwanted home to more than 300 Palestinian refugees. They fled from violence in Baghdad seven months ago, only to get stuck in no-man's land.

As Palestinians, they do not have proper passports - so Syria will not let them in; and it is too dangerous to go back into Iraq.

Amin Ramadan left his neighbourhood and his elderly mother when sectarian violence made it too dangerous for him to stay. Now he is trapped again.

"It's getting really cold here at night," he said. "We have to break the ice on top of the water in the mornings. Many people are sick. We can't stay here for a long time."

The United Nations is providing basic food and shelter, and the Syrians grant temporary access to urgent medical cases. But it is a bleak situation.

And while the Palestinians say they would like to go to Europe or Canada, there is hardly a queue of countries willing to help.

"We're desperately trying to find a more durable solution," admits Laurens Jolles, the UNHCR representative in Damascus, "to find someone prepared to take them in. The least favoured option is for them to remain in limbo between two countries."

'Everyone is leaving'

But as sad as it is, the dusty Palestinian camp is just a small statistic - part of a mass movement of people, an exodus from Iraq.

Map of Syria and Iraq

Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 as many as two million civilians searching for sanctuary have fled into neighbouring countries like Syria, Jordan and Iran.

They are ill-equipped to cope. The pressure group Refugees International calls it the fastest growing humanitarian crisis in the world.

Just up the road from the stranded Palestinians, the Syrian border crossing at al-Tanaf feels like a safe haven for Iraqis who make it this far.

Cars and trucks are packed with possessions. But for most people, escaping into exile, the future is uncertain.

"I'll find a place to stay, anywhere I can afford," Mohammed Abu Muhy says. "Everyone is leaving Iraq."

And they bring everything they can carry. Expressionless faces look on as border guards rummage through their worldly goods.

The numbers are staggering - at least three quarters of a million Iraqis have fled to Syria alone. And every month the rate of arrival is higher than it has been before.

'No-one's helping'

Many people head to the capital, Damascus, slowly changing the character of entire neighbourhoods.

In Sayida Zeinab, out towards the city's airport, the music blaring from loudspeakers in the market comes from Iraq. And posters on the wall back the Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr.

They took my house, they killed my father and my two brothers. I had no choice - there is only death in Iraq.
Refugee Nathir Rahim

Jalil Abu Mohammed arrived here a month ago with his wife and four children. He wants to buy a small food stall, but he cannot afford it. It is a familiar story.

"I must find a job in order to survive and to stay here," he tells me. "I simply have to. We sold everything we had back in Iraq and came here with our families. We sacrificed everything - houses, furniture, everything we owned."

As we talk, a crowd quickly gathers around us. Nearly all of them are from Iraq. Everyone is careful to thank the Syrian regime, but they are close to despair.

"Look at these children," Anwar says. "What have they done wrong? I can't begin to describe to an outsider what's really happening inside Iraq."

"No-one's helping," he adds angrily, "not the Arab countries, nor the western countries. It's all lies. The whole thing is lies."

Voting with their feet

The latest arrivals from Iraq register at the Damascus office of the UN refugee agency. Tens of thousands need urgent financial or medical assistance, or trauma counselling.

An Iraqi man queues outside the reopened Iraqi embassy in Damascus on 11 December 2006
A growing number of Iraqis are in the Syrian capital

But who is prepared to pay to help them?

"The funds we have at the moment are not sufficient," says Laurens Jolles. "We are asking for more, we're approaching individual countries to contribute. This is quite a small office and in no way capable of dealing with the numbers that are here."

But still they come. Nathir Rahim is sitting at a café in what's become known as the Street of the Iraqis. It is Baghdad in exile, just a few minutes drive from the centre of Damascus.

"They took my house," Nathir says, "they killed my father and my two brothers. I had no choice. There is only death in Iraq."

And there is a knock-on effect in Syria as well. People see what is happening in Iraq and many draw their own conclusions. If this is what the promise of western-style democracy brings, they argue, then we are happy with the system we have.

Some see the situation as a choice between stable authoritarianism in Syria, and dangerous, frightening chaos and violence in Iraq.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have already voted with their feet.

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