Syria is host to the third largest number of refugees in the world, and the greatest number in the Arab world. Will that situation last, asks Bassel Oudat in Damascus

A decade ago, the UN General Assembly chose 20 June to mark World Refugee Day. On that day we are encouraged to focus on the problems and issues of refugees and others internally displaced in their home countries. According to statistics from the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, Syria is first among Arab country and number three worldwide — following Iran and Pakistan — in terms of hosting refugees. At present it accounts for six per cent of the world’s refugees, mostly Palestinians and Iraqis, but also from Sudan, Afghanistan and Somalia. In fact, 10 per cent of Syria’s population are refugees.

Ten years after opening its doors to Arab refugees, especially Palestinians and Iraqis, these communities have noticeably grown in number inside Syria, putting strain on those providing them with assistance. Over the years, especially during tough times, these communities have been a burden on the Syrian government in terms of assimilating them and meeting their basic needs.

The first wave of refugees to Syria was in 1948 after the creation of the State of Israel, when hundreds of thousands left or were forced to leave Palestine. Syria received 85,000 Palestinian refugees at the time, according to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). This was followed by several waves of refugees after the 1967 war, bloating the number of Palestinians in Syria to more than 450,000.

Syria was also host to tens of thousands of the Iraqi opposition who fled Saddam Hussein’s regime. Starting in 2003, after Saddam’s regime was toppled, Syria became the destination of 1.5 million Iraqi refugees who were either fleeing the US war and unsafe conditions in Iraq or fleeing persecution and arbitrary detention.

Over the past few decades, several thousand refugees from a variety of other Arab states have entered Syria, including Sudan and Somalia. A few hundred Afghanis and Ahwaz from Iran also sought refuge in Syria, bringing the number of refugees to nearly two million. The problems of Arab refugees in Syria are directly connected to their home countries, and their numbers fluctuate depending on security conditions back home. Palestinian refugees, for example, are directly linked to Arab-Israeli peace and inter-Palestinian relations. As for Iraqi refugees, their situation depends on the security situation in Iraq and political conflicts amongst Iraqis.

The Syrian government has dealt with the issue of refugees in a special way, taking into consideration national bonds and humanitarian conditions on the one hand and political interests on the other. Meanwhile, Syria’s security apparatus closely monitors the movements of all refugees within its borders.

Palestinian refugees are prohibited from acquiring the Syrian nationality in order to uphold Palestinian identity. Around 25 per cent of these refugees live in 10 official refugee camps, while another 25 per cent reside in three unofficial camps that Syrian security forces are in charge of guarding. The remaining 50 per cent of refugees live in various Syrian cities. Palestinian refugees have the right to attend government schools and universities for free, and are entitled to free healthcare in government hospitals. They are permitted to work in both the public and private sectors, and become civil servants. They perform their military service with the Palestine Liberation Army, in liaison with the Syrian armed forces. They are allowed to own one residence, but no agricultural land. Altogether, they have almost all the rights of Syrian citizens, including holding senior government posts other than political positions. Damascus has also given them permanent residency without the need for renewal, as well as special passports making Syria their guarantor while travelling abroad.

The Iraqis, on the other hand, are allowed to own property and invest in the economy, but they are not given permanent residency and they are required to renew their stay every three months and in some exceptional cases once a year. Iraqi students can attended Syrian schools for free, and are eligible for free healthcare in government hospitals. However, they need work permits for employment. The UNHCR has opened special offices to assist them in all aspects of life. In fact, the UNHCR opened the largest refugee camp in the world in Duma in eastern Damascus.

Syria is also responsible for ensuring the proper infrastructure is in place to support two million transient residents. Consequently, it has endured electricity and water shortages as a result of large numbers of Iraqis arriving over a short period of time. Meanwhile, the education and job sectors have suffered from an overload of large numbers of unexpected beneficiaries.

While Syria’s rationale for taking in Arab refugees who have suffered from wars is rooted in humanitarian and Arab nationalist reasoning, Damascus has tried to reap some political gains from this. It wants to become a regional powerhouse with influence on issues pertaining to these refugees. On the Palestinian issue, it has become a main player, especially that the leaders of most political and military Palestinian factions chose to set up shop in Damascus. These include the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and general leadership, and later Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian resistance groups. Most of these groups, with the exception of the PLO, closely coordinate their political and public policies with Damascus.

Syria has rejected US pressure to expel the leadership of Palestinian resistance groups from its land, insisting that their media, political and social work in Syria is part of their expression of the ambitions of the Palestinian refugee community. Syria has also hosted leading figures from Iraq’s Baath Party that oppose the US occupation of Iraq and the incumbent Iraqi regime. Also, a large number of Iraqi tribal elders and senior officers from the dissolved Iraqi armed forces were allowed to continue their activities in Syria, and remain politically coordinated with Damascus once they returned to Iraq to participate in the political process there.

Today, Syria has influential allies inside Iraq, and has vehemently refused to hand over to the incumbent Baghdad government any members of the Iraqi Baath Party or leaders of the former Iraqi army that are accused of plotting military operations inside Iraq.

No doubt, Syria has carried the burden of hosting two million Arab refugees and has given some of them rights that they would not receive in any other country. It welcomed them with open arms and did not force them to leave, despite their large volume that has strained the Syrian economy and living conditions.

The return of the Palestinian refugees from Syria to Palestine has become a complicated issue, and their case represents an uphill struggle towards any possible solution. The same is true of Iraqi refugees, some who have been in Syria for seven years. The Syrian burden continues to grow, and although Syrian hospitality has been extended, this does not mean that Damascus may not change its posture towards them. This is especially true if their continued presence threatens Syria’s national security.