The Deputy Minister of Displacement and Migration has been busy in the Iraqi border town of Qaim, where the Iraqi government is coping with an influx of thousands of Syrians fleeing fighting in their homeland.
The border crossing in the Anbar province, about 400 kilometres north west of Baghdad re-opened this week, with the Iraqi government promising to allow refugees in – although it was putting the priority on women, children, elderly and injured and was trying to exclude younger men.
Minister Salam al-Al-Khafaji talks to NIQASH about how the refugee camps are being run, whether any of the refugees are dissidents in disguise and if there is any truth to the rumours that Iraqi citizens are being targeted by Syrians because of perceived Iraqi government support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
NIQASH: What has Iraq done for the refugees coming from Syria?
Salam al-Khafaji: In July, the Iraqi government formed a committee to be chaired by the Ministry of Displacement and Migration to look into this matter properly because of the thousands of Syrian refugees coming into Iraq through the border crossing at Qaim [in the Anbar province, around 400 kilometres northwest of Baghdad].
We have started building camps for these refugees and we have spent around IQD3 billion (over US$2.5 million) on them. It has actually also had a positive impact on Anbar city – it’s created job opportunities for unemployed Iraqis and many of the Syrian refugees have also found jobs in Anbar.
NIQASH: But some Syrian refugees are still living in Iraqi school buildings.
Al-Khafaji: That’s because at first we didn’t have any other options: there were so many of them, we had to house the refugees in schools. And at one stage, there were 17 schools with refugees living in them. But many of the refugees have since been transferred to the refugee camps and there are now only four schools still occupied. Before the new school year begins, these Syrians will be moved to the camps too.
NIQASH: Apparently there were some problems though. We heard that a lot of the Syrian refugees had relatives in Iraq and wanted to go straight to their homes. But they were not allowed to do so. What happened?
Al-Khafaji: This was a problem right from the start. Everyone is aware of the kinship ties and relationships-by-marriage that exist between Iraqis and Syrians in these border areas. And some of the Syrians that came over wanted to go straight to their families in the cities of Anbar and Qaim.
In fact, they refused to live in the schools. However because of security and because of our need to collect information and get their details, we simply couldn’t allow them to move around freely straight away. To solve this we arranged for well known local leaders and clerics to meet with them and they convinced the refugees to stay in the camps for the time being. Everything was resolved peacefully in the end.
Around 700 refugees have now gone to stay with close or distant relatives, where the families were able to guarantee their Syrian relative’s status. And the restrictions on movement are not permanent. We are waiting until the UNHCR [the UN’s refugee agency] finishes registering them and gives them IDs, after which they will be able to move around more freely.
NIQASH: How many refugees are in Anbar at the moment and how many camps?
Al-Khafaji: There are about 4,284 refugees in Anbar. With help from the UNHCR, the governmental committee has erected 500 tents that comply with international standards. Each tent has air conditioning, cold water, sanitation and electricity. There are also 11 kitchens working around the clock to provide food for the refugees and the Iraqi government is also covering the cost of medical services for the refugees, some of whom have had to be transferred to city hospitals.
There also plans to expand the camp, building about another 1,000 tents to the same standards. This is to cope with the new wave of refugees we expect to receive from Syria.
NIQASH: So why was the Qaim border crossing, which was opened again this week, closed last month – was it for technical or political reasons?
Al-Khafaji: We needed to prepare for the refugees – we were not prepared for them earlier. Now we have the camps. But it’s up to the Iraqi government. We only deal with technical issues, not the political ones.
NIQASH: Are you aware that there might have been Syrian dissidents – that is, those who are opposed to the current Syrian regime – or other extremist militants, among the refugees?
Al-Khafaji: We really don’t know about that and we don’t ask the refugees questions like that. In general, most of the refugees are peaceful, often they’re women and children. However reports we’ve received don’t seem to indicate that those kinds of elements are coming into Iraq as refugees.
NIQASH: There have also been reports of Syrian military bombing Iraqi territory near the shared border. Do you have any experience of this?
Al-Khafaji: One of the Syrian planes did cross into the Iraqi airspace and bombed a Syrian border town, Albu Kamal. A number of bombs have also fallen near the refugee camps and near to where my Ministry’s employees, are working at the camps. I was in Qaim city at the time but I’ll be going back to the camp area shortly.
NIQASH: And what about the Syrian refugees flooding into the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan?
Al-Khafaji: We’re not responsible for them. The authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan are.
NIQASH: What about Iraqi nationals who are returning from Syria?
Al-Khafaji: There are approximately 32,000 Iraqi returnees – most of them, around 25,477, came by land and 6,000 returned on the Iraqi Ministry of Transport’s flights. Each returned family was given IQD4 million (around US$3,500) too. And recently we received a message from the Iraqi embassy in Damascus asking us to help evacuate more Iraqis from the country.
NIQASH: Finally, do you believe it is true that Iraqis living in Syria have been targeted for attacks and violence because of the perception that the Iraqi government supports the Syrian regime?
Al-Khafaji: I don’t have accurate information on this subject, but I doubt these reports. The violence in Syria is affecting everyone there. Iraqi returnees who’ve come back have told us that both the Syrian military and the Syrian rebel forces have allowed them to pass freely. There have been occasional clashes between passengers on buses, where both Iraqis and Syrians are travelling on the bus, and there have been some clashes at checkpoints. But that is to be expected. Violence in Syria is targeting everybody and is certainly not limited to Iraqis.