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Life in Syria for Iraqi Refugees

Over at The Washington Note last week, an anonymous journalist in Syria presented a chilling depiction of the increasingly strained predicament of Iraqi refugees in the country.
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Housing has proved to be a major issue. Few building owners were willing to rent [a man named Ahmed] an apartment outside of the overwhelmingly Iraqi neighborhoods of Sayyida Zeinab and Jeramanah. Many landlords suspected that Ahmed and his family would prove troublesome, stealing from neighbors or engaging in other acts of criminality. He was eventually able to rent a small, unfurnished apartment, but only by concealing his nationality from the apartment's owner. Ahmed and his wife have also confronted the daunting task of finding work, since Iraqis are not legally allowed to hold jobs. They have been turned down from even the most low-paying of jobs, and have been forced to fall back on begging and other handouts. But it's not just the legal issues that are preventing Syrians from hiring them; many employers doubt the couple's trustworthiness and character based on their nationality alone. Ahmed's situation is shared by many Iraqis in Syria, and it suggests that social prejudices and xenophobia, in addition to legal barriers, are proving increasingly problematic for refugees. Some Syrians have begun to use the term "dirty" to describe their Iraqi neighbors. I noticed the term used on multiple occasions, often coupled with descriptions of the refugees as being cheaters, thieves, and prostitutes. Not surprisingly, some Iraqis (though not all) describe feeling unwelcome as well; many lie about their country of origin, explaining away their unusual accent as a product of a village upbringing. It's a falsehood that allows them to get a job or rent an apartment or, at the very least, escape various degrees of social ostracization.
This dynamic, of course, is not simply attributable to racism. With a substantial refugee presence for over five years, coupled with the job-tightening of the global economic downturn, the situation of many Syrians is unenviable. But so too is that of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees, still living in a country not their own, but not yet able to return. Read the whole piece; it is fascinating. And for those of you in DC, tonight Refugees International is hosting a presentation of Betrayed, George Packer's play about the difficult experiences of Iraqis who worked with Americans in the country. (image of an Iraqi refugee in Syria, from flickr user catholicrlf under a Creative Commons license)
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Natan Sharansky Doesn’t Know What the Meaning of Refugee Is

The UN refugee agency occupies itself with over 30 million refugees across the world. In about the only words worth quoting positively from Natan Sharansky's otherwise galling op-ed in The Wall Street Journal today, the organization "works tirelessly to improve [refugees'] conditions, to relocate them, and to help them rebuild their lives as quickly as possible." However, in Sharansky's sickening formulation, the UN refugee program in Gaza is also responsible for perpetuating the vast suffering of Palestinian refugees.
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Sharansky's problem, it seems, is that the UN program in Gaza, known as the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), has not been forceful enough in clearing the estimated 1 million refugees (out of a population of about 1.4 million) out of camps in Gaza. He takes particular umbrage at the perfectly legitimate question raised to him by Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas: "How can we move [the refugees] if we do not know where they will live?" The Gaza strip, it bears reminding, is about one-seventh the size of the state of Rhode Island. With 1.4 million people. The job of a refugee agency is not to force people to their homes -- even presuming they have homes to return to. On the contrary, the UN operates under humanitarian law that explicitly upholds the rights of refugees not to face forced return to places where their lives are in danger. And while Sharansky may claim that leaving camps would not endanger refugees' lives, the situation in Gaza right now, coupled with Mr. Abbas' very pertinent question, makes this contention, at the least, deeply unsettling. The UN is not abetting terrorists in Gaza. It is helping address what, by any account, is a dire humanitarian emergency, and it, unlike Mr. Sharansky, unequivocally considers every refugee's life -- Palestinian or Israeli -- equally worthy of protection. (map from Wikimedia Commons)
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Phone Calls from Camps

Over the past week, 60,000 Congolese have fled across the border into Uganda. Nearly all of them have left loved ones behind and, with only impromptu infrastructure in camps, would have no way to communicate with them. Fortunately, the remarkable Telecoms sans Frontieres (TSF) -- whose excellent work we have highlighted before -- has been able to deploy practically immediately, providing free phone calls for families displaced by the recent violence. Check out this fascinating video of TSF on the ground, helping the 10,000 refugees in the town of Matanda, Uganda. See more at Boing Boing, Non-Profit Tech Blog, and GOOD blog.
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UN Suspends Food Distribution to Gaza

Renewed fighting has forced the the United Nations agency that oversees humanitarian operations in the Palestinian territories to suspend food shipments to Gaza. A six month-old Egyptian-brokered ceasefire between rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, and between Hamas and Israel, is set to expire on Friday. Fighting, though, has already renewed, creating an impossible operating environment for humanitarian workers.
Due to the ongoing crisis with irregular border access and the lack of wheat flour in Gaza, UNRWA has exhausted all stocks of flour in its warehouses. Wheat supplies scheduled to arrive in Gaza the 9-10 December were unable to enter due to rocket fire, hence the mills have run out of flour and UNRWA has been forced to suspend food distribution. Food distribution for both emergency and regular programs will be suspended from Thurs 18th December until further notice. All crossings for goods into the Strip are closed and no humanitarian supplies, fuel and other needed commodities are being allowed to enter. A total of 750,000 refugees out of a population of 1.5 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip depend on food assistance from UNRWA. On average, the Agency distributes food to about 20,000 refugees per day. Once the supply of flour resumes, UNRWA will work as quickly as it can to clear the backlog and get back on schedule.