Syrians' welcome to Iraqis cools

An Iraqi refugee shows his passport as he waits to register at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees center in the Damascus suburb of Duma last April.

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Kai Ryssdal: The United Nations' Security Council voted on Friday to expand its operations in Iraq. A good part of the mission will focus on the growing number of Iraqi refugees.

Neighboring countries like Jordan have tightened their visa and passport requirements. So the only country in the world right now that willingly admits Iraqi refugees is Syria.

So far, roughly a million and a half Iraqis have fled there, but some Syrians want the welcome mat to be rolled up. Jennifer Glasse reports from Damascus.


Jennifer Glasse: Tensions are running high outside the Damascus office of the U.N. refugee agency, the UNHCR. People wait in the sweltering sun to get paperwork they need for aid, or to be eligible for resettlement. They say no one is doing enough for them.

Iraqi Refugee (interpreter): All these organizations should do a lot more for people who left their job, their life in Iraq, everything they have.

These people are only a fraction of the refugees here. Less than 10 percent of Iraqis are registered with the UNHCR. The agency doesn't have the capacity to process everyone, and some Iraqis are too scared or mistrustful of the U.N.

Working quietly and coolly inside the UNHCR building is Laurens Jolles. The agency director knows what's happening outside, and he's concerned. The problems in Syria are growing as the refugees keep coming.

Laurens Jolles: We can very confidently say that it's the biggest refugee crisis since the Palestinians came through in 1948. We're talking about overcrowded schools, we're talking about more difficulties in accessing the health system, about difficulties in finding apartments, about rents that have increased.

It's hard to say exactly what this costs Syria, but the Syrian government says the Iraqis are costing them a billion dollars a year.

Jolles: There are huge expenses. They haven't all yet been documented in a way that perhaps would be easy to see.

Syrian political analyst Samir Altaqi says it is easy to see that 10 percent more people means:

Samir Altaqi: Ten percent increase in the burden of the health system, the education system, and even regarding foods. We have some essential foods that are subsidized by the government. Some services are beginning to crack.

Education and health care are free. But Salah Salem and his wife, Mona, haven't been able to find a place in school for their 5-year-old daughter, Dalia. She's the reason they came. They fled Iraq after she was kidnapped. Mona cries often.

Mona: I'm crying because I don't want this life for us, and for my kids. They're still very young, and they're suffering, even to go to school. The simplest things are very hard here, that is why we're saying there's no stability here, and we want to leave. Because everything is very, very hard.

Like many Iraqis, they are living off their savings, and don't know what will happen when the money runs out. Salem can't legally work, and black-market jobs don't pay much.

Like the first waves of most refugees, the first to hit Syria's borders were the wealthiest and best connected. They had money and bought properties and businesses.

In this northeastern town of Qamishly, Syrians initially prospered, selling satellite dishes and food across the border. But now, poor, desperate Iraqis are coming here at the Hotel Qamishly. Syrian goodwill is running out.

Ahmed Hussein's father owns the place.

Ahmed Hussein: Three years ago, people were happy when the Iraqis came, because they were like, "Yeah, more money, more work." And now it's like, "Oh s**t." They want few of them to go now.

Last year, the United States took in 200 Iraqi refugees. This year, it says it will accept 7,000.

Syria feels it feels stuck with the mess America made. The United States is reluctant to directly help Syria, because it believes it's sheltering terrorists and helping to stir problems in Iraq.

But there may be a tipping point. Syria could decide the cost of the Iraqis is too high, and close its borders.

In Damascus, I'm Jennifer Glasse for Marketplace.

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