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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 September 2007, 17:17 GMT 18:17 UK
Syria struggles with Iraqi influx
By Andrew North
BBC News, Damascus

Iraqis queue at UNHCR centre in Damascus (photo Andrew North)
The UN refugee agency is struggling to meet demand in Damascus

It is after midnight in a dimly lit square in the Damascus suburb of Sayyida Zeinab.

A bus rolls up, then another and another. Tired, bewildered faces step out, sleeping children on their shoulders as they pull their few belongings from the luggage holds below. They are Iraqi refugees.

Every night it is the same scene here. Some 2,000 arrive each day as the exodus from Iraq continues, four years after the US and British invasion.

At least 1.5m have come to Syria, more than to any other country in the region.

But what the United Nations calls the biggest refugee crisis in Middle East since the flight of the Palestinians is still getting little attention from the outside world.

Camp threat

With the massive loss of trained and educated people from Iraq, many fear it could even further set back Iraq's chances.

Now the situation in Iraq is like that in 1970. All the educational progress made in the 1970s and 1980s has melted away
Professor Hikmet al-Shaarbaf

And with no end in sight, the influx is already having serious consequences for Syria. Its population has grown by nearly 10% because of the refugees - the equivalent of six million people settling in the UK in just a few years.

As Syrian authorities have so far allowed the refugees to live freely rather than in camps, it has led to overcrowding in many parts of Damascus.

Basic services like power, water and sewage are under severe strain. Complaints are beginning to be heard from Syrians about the impact on their already stretched economy.

Isolated because of its disagreements with the US, the authoritarian government hoped it would win some international credit for looking after the Iraqis - and more help.

It has not come, and with no end in sight the authorities have told the BBC they are now having to tighten up. They may set up refugee camps near the Iraqi border.

Dr Feisal Mekdad derides the help he says has been offered so far by the US.

"We hear they have donated $17m," he told the BBC. "But frankly compared to what they are spending in Iraq this is pocket money."

So many have settled in Sayyida Zeinab, it is now known as Little Baghdad.

The main road is now called Iraqi Street, full of shops and cafes catering to Iraqi tastes and with names like Fallujah restaurant and Baghdad bakery.

Brain drain

There I met 14-year-old Saif, who fled southern Baghdad with his family three years ago. He has not been to school since then.

This is one of the biggest concerns now, that so many refugee children are not getting an education.

At the moment, he works in his father Yussuf's streetside cafe.

Iraqi refugee Yussuf and son Saif in Damascus, Syria (photo Andrew North)
Yussuf (R) says he cannot afford to pay for his children's education

"I'd like all my children to be educated," he says. "But we can't afford it. If Saif went to school, I'd have no-one here to help me."

A lucky few, the children of richer Iraqi families, do have opportunities. We visited a private university set up by an Iraqi businessman where more than half the students are Iraqis.

In the engineering department, Mohammed told me he planned to study next in Europe for a master's degree. Eventually he wants to be an oil engineer, "but not in Iraq", he says firmly.

It is all part of a catastrophic brain drain.

"Now the situation in Iraq is like that in 1970," says Professor Hikmet al-Shaarbaf, the dean of medicine, who left a similar post in Baghdad two years ago.

"All the educational progress made in the 1970s and 1980s has melted away."

Hope amid despair

The UN's refugee agency (UNHCR) set up a new reception centre this year to handle the growing numbers. Its existing office in the city centre could not cope. But even with a large converted warehouse and more staff, it is struggling.

When we visited, hundreds of people were waiting to get an appointment for an interview.

Bus station in Damascus, Syria (photo Andrew North)
Thousands of Iraqi refugees arrive every night in Syria

All will be told they have to wait at least six months for their claim for refugee status to be considered. But many Iraqis are not applying, still hoping that they may eventually be able to return.

"The problem is that there doesn't seem to be an end to it," says Lawrence Jolles, head of the UNHCR office in Damascus. "Neither the refugees nor the authorities here know when it is going to stop."

In another part of Damascus, I met one recent arrival I know well. Mohammed and I used to work together in Baghdad.

Two months ago, Shia militia took over his apartment building. If they discovered he worked with foreigners, he was at extreme risk.

He had a good, well-paid job. He did not want to go. But he decided he had no choice.

"At any time someone could come and kick in my door, kill me or kidnap one of my kids.

"It was either my job or my life and my family's life."

However, like many Iraqis we met, he said so far he had seen no sign of the sectarian tensions still tearing parts of Iraq apart.

"All Iraqis live here together," he says. "Shia, Sunni, even Christians."

It is one sign of hope amid growing despair.

Inside 'little Baghdad' in Damascus

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