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Cablegate: Damascus Refugee Sitrep 7

VZCZCXYZ0018
PP RUEHWEB

DE RUEHDM #0779/01 3091511
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 041511Z NOV 08
FM AMEMBASSY DAMASCUS
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 5533
INFO RUEHAM/AMEMBASSY AMMAN PRIORITY 7446
RUEHAK/AMEMBASSY ANKARA PRIORITY 5656
RUEHGB/AMEMBASSY BAGHDAD PRIORITY 0954
RUEHLB/AMEMBASSY BEIRUT PRIORITY 5029
RUEHEG/AMEMBASSY CAIRO PRIORITY 3751
RUEHIT/AMCONSUL ISTANBUL PRIORITY 0379
RUEHGVA/USMISSION GENEVA PRIORITY 0648

UNCLAS DAMASCUS 000779

SIPDIS

DEPARTMENT FOR PRM F/O, NEA/ELA, NEA/I

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PHUM PREL SY IZ
SUBJECT: DAMASCUS REFUGEE SITREP 7

REF: DAMASCUS 575

1. (SBU) CIRCUIT RIDE WRAP-UP: IOM reports that for the
circuit ride 9 August - 25 September, DHS/USCIS approved 480
cases (1359 individuals) and denied 43 cases (152
individuals). No decision was made in 89 cases (312
individuals). DHS team leader Frank Minnick said that this
approval rate of 81.5% was much higher than anticipated.
Minnick expressed surprise at the high incidence of medical
problems among the cases during this circuit ride.

2. (SBU) DHS/USCIS FACILITIES: The nine member DHS/USCIS
refugee processing team arrived October 29 without incident
and started interviewing November 2. Renovations to the new
UNHCR building are near completion. The new facilities
include space for 11 interview rooms (the current team will
only utilize seven). The DHS/USCIS team arriving in January
2009 plans to make use of all available interviewing space.

3. (SBU) PANEL PHYSICIANS: Our consular section is now
reviewing resumes and coordinating with the Center for
Disease Control to identify qualified doctors and expand the
number of approved panel physicians. These physicians will
work with refugee processing only. They will not assist with
Post's regular medical examinations for immigration visas.
Contracts for post's current three physicians were renewed
for FY2009.

4. (SBU) REFUGEES "TAKE FLIGHT" FROM SYRIA: Poloff monitored
the first free flight ferrying Iraqi refugees back to Baghdad
on October 15. Roughly 200 Iraqis participated in this
repatriation program organized and carried out by the Iraqi
Embassy in Syria. Many of the returnees were children, and
all appeared in good health and spirit. According to
diplomatic contacts in the Iraqi Embassy, the charted Cham
Wings flight cost the Iraqi government nearly 100,000 USD.
The refugees gathered at the Iraqi Embassy, where five
coaches were stationed to transport them to the Damascus
International Airport. Several print media and news outlets
monitored the departure. According to Iraqi Embassy contacts,
a second flight took place on October 25, carrying a similar
load of returnees.

5. (SBU) GOI PRESSURES FOR IRAQI RETURNS: Iraqi Embassy
contacts report the Iraqi MFA has been "pressuring" them to
push forward with a more robust returnee program and claim
UNHCR is "not doing enough" to assist with the return of
refugees. Iraqi Embassy representatives also criticized SARG
"obstacles" to the Iraqi government's return program, such as
not allowing the Iraqi government to advertise the return
program in print or television media. UNHCR representatives
report that UNHCR is not actively encouraging returns, but it
will assist any Iraqi who wishes voluntarily to return to
Iraqi. UNHCR representatives report the establishment of a
return desk at the UNHCR registration site in Duma, where
those seeking to return can receive detailed information on
the program. UNHCR says that several hundred Iraqis have
approached the return desk seeking information.

6. (SBU) UNHCR DIRECTOR: Charge met with UNHCR's Radhoune
Nouicer, Director for North Africa and the Middle East on 19
October. Nouicer said that there was no pressure or
interference from the SARG on UNHCR Syria, and that the SARG
is providing acceptable protection space for the refugees.
Nouicer also said the GOI is most likely pressuring refugees
to return, though he assessed Iraq was not sufficiently
prepared to absorb them. Laurens Jolles, UNHCR chief in
Syria, added that UNHCR does work with the GOI, but some
Iraqi officials in the Iraqi Ministry of Migration and
Displacement have their own agenda and are seeking to
publicize mass returns, though actual returns have been much
smaller. Noucier and Jolles commented that an October 19
GOI-arranged return by air (19 October) went more smoothly
than the previous attempt by bus in November 2007. Jolles
also reported UNHCR was preparing contingency plans in case
UNHCR to begins to observe mass returns to Iraq, adding that
UNHCR wants to be forward leaning on this sensitive issue.

7. (SBU) UNHCR CAP PREVIEW: On October 22, the UN Country
Team presented an estimate of its 2009 Consolidated Appeals
Process (CAP) funding request for Syria. Final numbers are
set to be released sometime in December 2008. For calendar
year 2009, the UN will be seeking to spend roughly 217
million USD on a wide range of assistance programs targeting
the Iraqi refugee population in Syria. UNHCR reports there
have been some "grumbles" from European donors about the
price tag of the 2009 CAP.

8. (SBU) CHRISTIAN IRAQIS SEEK REFUGE IN SYRIA: UNHCR Public
Information Officer Sybella Wilkes reported UNHCR had
information on 45 Christian families (roughly 200 people) who
fled the Mosul area of Iraq in search of protection in Syria
in the wake of reported violent activity in the area. UNHCR
staff members had reportedly traveled up north to monitor the
situation and register these families. Wilkes added that
UNHCR had received reports that Iraqi Christians who tried to
enter Syria experienced difficulties in acquiring Syrian
entry visas - with many of the families not having the
necessary paperwork to enter. Wilkes surmised that there are
many more who wanted to enter and were unable to do so
because of visa restrictions.

9. (SBU) AL-TANF CONDITIONS WORSEN: According to UNHCR
representatives, the dire humanitarian situation in the Iraqi
Palestinian camp of Al-Tanf became even more acute after
severe flooding. Heavy rains drenched the tents of some 800
Iraqi Palestinians. Raw sewage leaked throughout the camp
and electricity supplies were cut. The UN dispatched
emergency workers and supplies, and UN contacts report they
have the necessary funding to assist these desperate
refugees. UNHCR continues to work with prospective
resettlement countries.

10. (SBU) SAVE THE CHILDREN U.S. OPTIMISTIC ABOUT OPENING IN
SYRIA: A/DCM Novinger and Poloff met October 28 with Save
the Children U.S. Middle East/Eurasia Area Director Tom
Tauras and heard about the organization's plan to establish
operations in Damascus. During his visit, Tauras met with
Syrian Arab Red Crescent President Attar and the UN Country
Team. Tauras expressed optimism about opening a Damascus
office and believed the SARG appeared willing to grant the
necessary licenses, which could come within six to eight
weeks. Tauras noted Save the Children Sweden, in
coordination with the Swedish Ambassador, had been
instrumental in erasing the ill-will that followed the abrupt
departure of Save the Children U.K. earlier in the year.
Tauras reported Save the Children U.S. would be working under
the auspices of Save the Children Sweden and planned to focus
its efforts on early childhood education (children under 6
years of age) as well as addressing child exploitation issues
among the Iraqi refugee community. UNHCR Representative
Jolles told Tauras the UN would have funds available for
these programs based on the spending proposals outlined in
the 2009 CAP.

11. (SBU) VISITORS: Post recently supported the visits of
Sharon Waxman from Senator Kennedy's office and is grateful
to PRM for lending us Adrienne Nutzman. We also met with
International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) President
John Klink and ICMC Secretary General Johan Ketelers. UNHCR
is hosting a delegation from EU member states this week. The
delegation is comprised of EU-country immigration authorities
here to gather facts on resettlement needs, with the aim of
recommending an Iraqi refugee resettlement an EU target
number that EU members would seek to fill on a voluntary
basis.
CONNELLY

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