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Report: Iraqi refugees cause problems in Syria

The influx of Iraqi refugees is triggering a sharp rise in prices of housing and goods and is overcrowding schools in Syria, according to a Wednesday report in the Al-Baath daily newspaper.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The influx of Iraqi refugees is triggering a sharp rise in prices of housing and goods and is overcrowding schools in Syria, a state-run newspaper warned on Wednesday.

The report in the Al-Baath daily was an unusual complaint, as Syrian state media rarely comment on the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have taken refuge here. It follows reports earlier this month that Syrian authorities imposed stricter residency rules on Iraqis.

Al-Baath cited the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees agency figure that the number of Iraqis fleeing their homeland is increasing from 30,000 to 40,000 a month — almost double the rate from only a few months ago.

The newspaper called it a “real crisis.”

Al-Baath said about 75,000 Iraqi students have enrolled in Syrian schools, adding that this has “overburdened the education sector and overcrowded schools.” In some schools, about 60 students are cramped into each classroom, it said.

The Associated Press could not confirm the figures.

The paper also complained of soaring food prices, which rose three times, and oil derivatives, which increased by 17 percent. Residential rental fees have increased six times and real estates value tripled, it said.

The newspaper did not give a time period for the increases, but it likely involved the last two years when the number of Iraqis fleeing the rising violence in their country sharply increased.

Ministry: 800,000 Iraqis admitted
The Interior Ministry said in December that Syria has admitted more than 800,000 Iraqis who have fled the violence raging in their country. Unofficial statistics have put the number at about 1.5 million refugees.

Iraqi refugees are also increasingly complaining about Syrian authorities, who they say are now giving them only a 15-day permit upon arrival. The permit can later be extended to a three-month period, renewable only once. Afterward, unless they are students or businessmen, they say they have to leave Syria for at least 30 days before being allowed back in.

Syrian officials have refused to publicly confirm these new rules but have pledged not to deport any Iraqis.

However, Iraqis have recently been lining up in large numbers in front of the U.N. offices in Damascus to seek international refugee status. Many say they are seeking it as a guarantee they would have somewhere to go if forced to leave Syria.

Wednesday’s public disclosure about the Iraqi refugees in the tightly controlled Syrian press comes amid an argument between Washington and Damascus over the issue.

U.S. diplomat to discuss problem with Syria
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently authorized the top U.S. diplomat in Syria, Charge d’Affaires Michael Corbin, to discuss the Iraqi refugee problem here with the Syrian government, apparently in an effort to provide help.

But Syria rejected that, saying it would only talk with the U.S. if the two countries spoke about all regional issues. Al-Thawra newspaper has said that Syria wants talks to include the Palestinian problem, Iraq and the stalled Middle East peace process.

U.S.-Syrian relations have been poor for years over Damascus’ support for Palestinian militant groups and the Lebanese Hezbollah. The U.S. also accuses Syria of not doing enough to prevent militants from crossing its border into Iraq. Syria has denied the allegations.