Despite new rules aimed at stemming the flow of people across the border, Syria wouldn’t expel refugees from Iraq by force, the U.N. refugee agency said Friday.
But the question of what happens when Iraqis seek to renew their three-month visas remains unclear, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said. Damascus imposed new rules this week restricting visas for Iraqis entering Syria to professional groups.
"We have had verbal assurances from the Syrians, I believe it was the Foreign Ministry, that they (Iraqis) will not be forcibly returned," Ron Redmond told reporters in Geneva.
"The most pressing concern for Iraqi refugees at present is what they should do when their visa expires," Redmond said. Previously they would have to visit the border to renew their permit, but now they feared they might be deported, he said.
UNHCR hopes Syria will establish centers within the country where refugees could renew their visas, Redmond said.
Syria, which has taken in the largest number of Iraqi refugees fleeing violence and economic insecurity in their homeland, has long demanded greater international support to handle the strain placed on its housing, health care and education system.
"They deserve more support from the international community in taking care of these people," Redmond said.
New rules imposed Monday limit visas to those Iraqis traveling for commercial, transport, scientific or education reasons, and require them to apply at the Syrian embassy in the volatile Baghdad district of Al-Mansour.
Redmond said the Syrian restrictions had effectively closed the last refuge in the region for Iraqis. Jordan - the other main destination - has prevented Iraqis from entering for some time.
UNHCR advises governments to consider all people fleeing from central and southern Iraq as refugees, and to review asylum applications by Iraqis from the safer areas in the north on a case-by-case basis.
About 2.2 million Iraqis have fled to neighboring countries, mostly since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Some have gone further afield, with almost 20,000 Iraqis requesting asylum in Europe, North America, Japan, Australia and New Zealand during the first six months of this year.
UNHCR said this number would likely increase during the second half of the year as Iraqis find they cannot go to Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and other countries in the region anymore.
Growing numbers are also heading for makeshift camps elsewhere inside Iraq now that borders are closed, Redmond said.