Syrians crossed into Qaim, in Iraq’s Anbar Province, last week.
July 29, 2012
QAIM, Iraq — Muhammed Muafak decided he had had enough when Syrian Army mortar shells struck near his house while his family was having the iftar meal to end the daily Ramadan fast. He packed up his 10-member household in Bukamal, the Syrian border town where they lived, and fled here to this Iraqi border town.
He expected a warm welcome. After all, his country had taken in 1.2 million Iraqis during their recent war, far more than any of Iraq’s other neighbors, and had allowed them to work, send their children to public schools and receive state medical care.
Instead, Mr. Muafak found himself and his family locked up in a school under guard with several hundred other Syrians, forbidden to leave to visit relatives in Iraq or to do anything else.
"We wish to go back to Syria and die there instead of living here in this prison," said Abdul Hay Majeed, another Syrian held in a school building, along with 11 family members. Mr. Majeed was refused permission for that either, he and other refugees said.
Alone among Syria’s Muslim neighbors, Iraq is resisting receiving refugees from the conflict, and is making those who do arrive anything but comfortable. Baghdad is worried about the fighters of a newly resurgent Al Qaeda flowing both ways across the border, and about the Sunni opponents of the two governments making common cause.
The Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki in Iraq, while officially neutral, has been supportive of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, whose ruling Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Last week, for instance, Iraq abstained from supporting a resolution by the Arab League calling for Mr. Assad to step down, calling it unwarranted interference in Syria’s internal affairs.
Though Syrians have been fleeing the unrest in their country for months, Iraq did not open its borders to refugees until last week, after protests from the Sunni tribes in Anbar Province. The Bukamal border crossing, near this city, is the most problematic one for Iraq, with the Syrian side now under the control of opposition forces.
The restrictions Baghdad has imposed on refugees proved so severe that on Friday, representatives of the Anbar tribes and hundreds of followers took to the streets in the 125-degree midday heat to protest the treatment of the newly arriving Syrians, many of whom have family and tribal connections with Iraqis here.
"We can’t even go see them," said Mohamed Hassan, an Iraqi sheik who took part in the protest. Like many others, Mr. Hassan complained that the refugees were being treated like criminals, kept under military guard in 11 school buildings and one mosque and denied any visitors or permission to leave the centers.
"We want to welcome them in our homes," Mr. Hassan said. "We want to offer them food and a good place to stay, just as they did for us when we were in Syria." Another protester shouted, "We will sleep in the street and let them stay inside our houses — why are you scared to let them out?"
Officially, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, António Guterres, has thanked all of Syria’s Muslim neighbors, including Iraq, for taking in refugees. The agency has registered 120,000 Syrian refugees but acknowledges that there are probably many more. Iraq, the country with the longest Syrian border, has received the fewest, just 8,445 in the United Nations count. Jordan says it has already taken in 140,000, and Turkey has registered 88,000 by the United Nation’s reckoning.
"I am extremely grateful Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey have maintained open borders," Mr. Guterres said.
In Qaim, United Nations workers said refugees were being treated properly, but that only those who have Iraqi passports or visas were being allowed to leave the school. "I can only assume that some of the Syrians are distraught, suspicious and do not understand why they are asked to stay in the school as compared to the others, who have passports and can thus go to family and friends," one United Nations official in Qaim wrote in an e-mail to the refugee commissioner’s headquarters in Geneva, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times with the sender’s name deleted.
On Wednesday, the first day after the Iraqis opened the border, about 800 Syrians crossed over here, but the following day only 60 did so, apparently because the Syrian rebel forces on the other side began warning people of the unpleasant reception awaiting them, Iraqi officials said.
The contrast with the situation during the war in Iraq is stark. Syria took in more Iraqis than any other neighbor, and was more hospitable than Jordan, which imposed tight restrictions on its 750,000 refugees’ freedom to work and use public services. Most of the Iraqis who took refuge in Syria have returned by now, although the United Nations counts 88,000 still in the country, most of them in Damascus.
The differences have everything to do with the changing fortunes of the two neighbors. In the height of the Iraq war, Mr. Assad had firm control of his country, and an interest in destabilizing Iraq and undercutting its American allies. Syria routinely helped Al Qaeda to infiltrate fighters and suicide bombers into Iraq.
Now, American troops have left Iraq, and Al Qaeda has switched sides, taking up arms against the Assad government.
"Everyone knows that the Iraqis who are returning are wanted people and bad people," said Sheik Salman Musleh, who heads a center in Qaim that tries to help arriving Syrians. "The Syrians are families, and we want to take care of them; they will not affect the security situation in Iraq. We need to give them what they deserve, the way they supported us during our crises."
Mr. Musleh said Iraqi volunteers had sent truckloads of supplies for the refugees in Qaim, but Iraqi officials had stopped them from being delivered.
Majeed Khalil, 48, came from Syria with his wife and 13 other family members the day the border opened. Since his wife was an Iraqi citizen, he expected to enter freely, but the Iraqi authorities allowed only her to leave custody; he and the children remain in a school building under guard.
"If they don’t want us here, they should let us go back to our country," said Thafir Khalel, who came Thursday. "It’s better to die there than be humiliated here."
Iraqi officials visiting the refugees were stung by their criticism. "We were not ready to receive this number of Syrian brothers," said Dindar Najman, the Iraqi minister in charge of refugee affairs, after a visit to Qaim on Friday. "We promise them that we will prepare good places for them soon."
The Iraqi finance minister, Rafi al Esawi, also visited here on Friday, and said the government was surprised by the requests from refugees to visit Iraqi relatives and, in many cases, to return to Syria. "We will return to Baghdad and study this matter," Mr. Esawi said. "All the security and services ministries will discuss and decide who will stay and who will leave the centers."
Duraid Adnan reported from Qaim, and Rod Nordland from Cairo.