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Cablegate: Scene Setter for Amb Foley: Ebbs and Flows of Refugee Assistance/Resettlement in Syria

VZCZCXYZ0006
PP RUEHWEB

DE RUEHDM #0442/01 1711420
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 191420Z JUN 08
FM AMEMBASSY DAMASCUS
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 5101
INFO RUEHAM/AMEMBASSY AMMAN PRIORITY 7336
RUEHAK/AMEMBASSY ANKARA PRIORITY 5590
RUEHGB/AMEMBASSY BAGHDAD PRIORITY 0878
RUEHLB/AMEMBASSY BEIRUT PRIORITY 4936
RUEHEG/AMEMBASSY CAIRO PRIORITY 3662
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC PRIORITY
RHEFDIA/DIA WASHDC PRIORITY
RUEAHLC/HOMELAND SECURITY CENTER WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RUEHGVA/USMISSION GENEVA PRIORITY 0625
RUCNDT/USMISSION USUN NEW YORK PRIORITY 0428

UNCLAS DAMASCUS 000442

SIPDIS

NEA/ELA; ANKARA FOR FOLEY; AMMAN FOR NUTZMAN

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PREF PHUM PREL SY IZ
SUBJECT: SCENE SETTER FOR AMB FOLEY: EBBS AND FLOWS OF REFUGEE ASSISTANCE/RESETTLEMENT IN SYRIA

1. (SBU) Summary: Since your October 2007 visit to Damascus,
there have been significant changes, both positive and
negative, with respect to how international organizations and
the SARG are coping with the Iraqi refugee population.
Assistance continues to flow in and the UN country team, in
coordination with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and
international NGOs, has stepped up programs and assistance to
Iraqi refugees. Resettlement of the most vulnerable Iraqis
to the United States, as well as other countries, continues
at a swift pace and UNHCR and IOM expect to hit resettlement
targets before the end of the fiscal year. At the same time,
a recent UN study and anecdotal evidence suggests life for
Iraqi refugees in Syria has become more difficult than in
previous years. Refugee anxiety is up over ever-changing
visa requirements, with SARG ambiguity on the matter fueling
concern. Global fuel and food inflation has been exacerbated
by the SARG's recent decision to significantly reduce diesel
subsidies. The resulting across-the-board increase in prices
for nearly all goods and services has strained the refugee
community's dwindling resources, causing additional stress on
families and prompting some to return to Iraq. End Summary.


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Assistance
-----------

2. (SBU) UNHCR & INGOs: UNHCR staffing and organization
increased significantly from 2007 to 2008. Additionally,
UNHCR implemented new registration strategies, cash and food
assistance aid, and sought to establish more clinics and
registration centers throughout Syria.

3. (SBU) As of June 2008, UNHCR had registered 203,982 Iraqis
and is targeting 300,000 by the end of the year. UNHCR
officials admit that the target is ambitious, and anticipate
actually registering about 270,000 by year's end.

4. (SBU) As of April, three major INGOs had received SARG
permission to operate in Syria ) International Medical Corps
(IMC), Danish Refugee Council (DRC), and Premier Urgence.
IMC has opened one clinic, with plans to open two more in the
coming months. The DRC and Premiere Urgence have also
started operations in support of UNHCR community services and
education programs. More than a dozen other INGOs are
actively exploring options to work with Iraqi refugees in
Syria, and the SARC's newly drafted MOU on NGOs -- which
dropped some of the more onerous requirements -- may
facilitate their entry into Syria. UNHCR, accompanied by
other members of the UN country team, now conducts monthly
coordination meetings with all organizations involved in
Iraqi refugee relief efforts. These meetings serve as an
excellent forum to share information, dispel myth and
direct/deconflict aid assistance.

5. (SBU) UNHCR and WFP food distribution to Iraqi refugees
was interrupted in April when the main distribution site in
central Damascus was closed. UNHCR representatives reported
that the SARG had informed them near the start of the year
that they were looking to reclaim the land being used by the
distribution center for one of the Syrian First Lady's
"Discovery Zone" projects - play areas for children. UNHCR
was able to continue food distribution outside of Damascus
and plans to reopen a new food distribution center, to be
located at the current registration center in Duma, sometime
before the end of June. While the new site will be less
convenient for Iraqis to reach, UNHCR representatives believe
a combined registration/food distribution site will, in
effect, offer &one stop shopping8 for Iraqis seeking
assistance. The addition of a food distribution center to
the Duma registration center adds to the already substantial
development of the registration complex. Over the past six
months the Duma registration center has undergone a
metamorphosis, with the creation of child-friendly spaces, a
snack bar, and additional interview and meetings rooms.
UHNCR has been able to create a space that provides a measure
of dignity for waiting refugees while increasing the
efficiency and number of UNHCR staff at the same time. Wait
times for registration continue to decline, with the time it
takes for the completion of registration hovering around two
months, down from the six-month wait one could have expected
in early 2007.

6. (SBU) As many Iraqi refugees have melted discreetly into
Syria's urban neighborhoods, UNHCR has sought to expand its
outreach activities and contact those individuals who might
not be aware of assistance options. This year, UNHCR also
established a mobile registration program in an effort to
assist refugees with minimal ability to travel to the Duma
registration center. Additionally, there are currently 47
outreach workers (drawn from the Iraqi community) working
with UNHCR in greater Damascus to locate and provide
assistance to Iraqis who have yet to register with UNHCR.
Among the most vulnerable, nearly 250 survivors of
gender-based sexual violence have been identified in 2008.

7. (SBU) Direct assistance from UNHCR is now available in two
forms:

Cash Assistance:

- In December 2007, UNHCR started distributing ATM cards to
Iraqi refugees that were identified as urgently needing
financial assistance. To date, 13,245 individuals are
receiving financial assistance through the ATM card system.

Food and Non-Food Item Assistance:

- UNHCR in partnership with WFP have expanded their criteria
for food and non-food item assistance to include over 90
percent of registered refugees as of the beginning of 2008.
Already, 128,357 people in Damascus, Aleppo, and Hassakeh
have received food assistance since early 2008.
(Note: Refugees residing in Syria since before 2003 are not
eligible to receive this assistance. End note.)

8. (SBU) Education: The SARG claims to provide free education
to all Iraqis in Syria.

-Though numbers vary and the school year has ended, an
estimated 50,000 Iraqi children are registered in Syrian
schools. Many Iraqi children are either not enrolled or are
dropping out of school because of a lack of documentation
(especially for grades 7-12), overcrowded schools, financial
difficulties, problems with the Syrian national curriculum or
psychological trauma.

-In 2008, UNHCR's Education Program established new
partnerships with local and international partners while
remaining committed to supporting the Ministry of Education,
its largest partner for education.

9. (SBU) Health Care: UNHCR,s main implementing partner to
date is the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC). In 2008, UNHCR
signed an agreement with the SARC for over USD 5,256,543 for
emergency assistance to Iraqi refugees, and another agreement
for health care. SARC operates 11 clinics across Syria, with
seven located in the greater Damascus area.

-Health care continues to be the biggest drain on UNHCR
budgeting, as medical assistance is provided to many with
chronic illnesses or that require costly operations -)
assistance not traditionally provided to refugee populations.

-In March 2008, UNHCR and WHO conducted a joint program for
30 psychiatrists to "train-the-trainers" to identify refugees
with mental health problems. This program is expected to
support 70 primary health care clinics in providing mental
health care for Iraqi refugees.

-All refugees who apply for a UNHCR registration appointment,
or who are already registered with UNHCR are eligible for
subsidized health care at SARC clinics.

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Resettlement
------------

10. (SBU) UNHCR: In April, DHS switched to a Monday-Friday
work week to give UNHCR an additional work-week day to use
the shared interviewing rooms. UNHCR continues to be
interested in moving DHS interviews to their Duma
registration center, but this location does not meet USG
security standards. In the mean time UNHCR is conducting
(limited) construction at their Kfar Souseh location to add
interview rooms and increase processing capacity.

11. (SBU) Panel Physicians: Post organized monthly
coordination meetings improved case flow between IOM and the
physicians. Distribution of cases between physicians is now
more equitable and IOM is giving caseload projections farther
out. Operational issues (typos on documentation, scheduling
extended families together) are being resolved.

12. (SBU) DHS: Modifications to DHS interview booths in
April 2008 improved the quality of interviews. The current
"circuit ride" is on target to interview 580-600 cases by
July 9. Next circuit ride is scheduled for Aug 9 ) Sept 20,
although these circuit riders have not yet been granted
visas.

13. (SBU) Over the last six months, IOM Damascus standardized
its processes and reports that all staff members are now
fully trained on WRAPS and all applicant information is
processed into WRAPS. IOM has prepared and scheduled all
cases for the current DHS circuit ride through July 9.
However, no cases for the DHS circuit ride beginning August 9
are ready, as IOM is waiting for cases from UNHCR. IOM
currently has six of its IOM Cairo staff working on the IOM
Damascus caseload. Additionally, IOM Damascus provided four
staffers to IOM Amman to assist with Amman's casework and
interviewing. IOM Damascus established better interaction
with air carriers to guarantee flights for resettlement, as
all individuals departing in June and July have reservations
while August and September departures are almost all
reserved. IOM would like to use the summer "slow" season to
provide additional management training for team leaders, with
Amman being preferable to Cairo as a training site due to its
proximity. By the end of the fiscal year, IOM expects that
roughly 4,000 Iraqis will have departed Damascus for the
United States.

--------------
Iraqi Returns
----------------

14. (SBU) The number of Iraqis returning home has increased
this year, although the determining factors behind their
decision to leave Syria seem largely financially-based. A
UNHCR flash survey of 110 Iraqis at their Damascus
registration center revealed that 46.1 percent of respondents
justified their return to Iraq because they felt they could
no longer afford to live in Syria.

15. (SBU) Visa expiration is also a factor in Iraqi returns.
The SARG and the top levels of the MFA have been amenable on
the issue of visa extensions, especially in the cases of
parents with children attending school in Syria. The SARG
recently began issuing one to three month residency visas to
permit such families to remain over the summer and until the
beginning of the next school year. While there seems to be
support for Iraqi refugees at the higher levels of the MFA,
with senior SARG officials giving UNHCR assurances that there
will be no forced repatriation of Iraqi refugees, reports
indicate that lower level employees at points of entry are
turning away Iraqi visa applicants despite SARG policy.
UNHCR reports a rising anxiety among Iraqi refugees on the
issue of visa renewals, and the possibility that the SARG
might not honor its commitment to continue to allow Iraqis to
maintain a legal presence in Syria.

16. (SBU) UNHCR survey data suggests that refugees seeking to
return to Iraq due to a perceived improvement of the security
situation in Iraq accounted for 14 percent of respondents.
UNHCR remains prepared to facilitate voluntary returns, but
is not encouraging or promoting returns at this time.

-------------------------------
Palestinian Iraqi Refugees

-------------------------------

17. (SBU) Resident representatives of donor countries
continue to seek a solution for the nearly 2,000 Palestinians
in Al-Walid and 750 in Al-Tanf. According to UNHCR, neither
the Al-Tanf nor the Al-Walid camps have sufficient
infrastructure for sustained human settlement. Chile
resettled 116 Iraqi Palestinians living in the Al-Tanf camp
in April and May. The Swedish government interviewed several
Palestinian refugees in Al-Tanf in May, and will likely
accept a similar number as Chile for resettlement in Sweden.
While resettlement to a third country remains an option, it
would be preferable for the Syrian government to permit these
Iraqi Palestinians to settle elsewhere within Syria.

CORBIN

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