Now, these refugees must choose between two bad options: return to an unstable Iraq or hunker down in Syria and hope for the best.
Between last summer and the first months of this year, about 70,000 Iraqis headed back home, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In roughly the same period, as violence has flared in Iraq, about 41,000 Iraqis entered Syria.
The numbers indicate a seesaw movement of people caught between two countries wracked by vicious sectarian wars that are increasingly spilling over their borders.
“Refugees from Iraq share all the vulnerabilities and all the problems that Syrians are facing because of the conflict,” said Reem Alsalem, a regional spokeswoman for UNHCR. “They are even more vulnerable because Syrians have at least some support from extended family members or tribe members or networks.”
Although Iraqis have migrated to Syria for decades, the pace quickened dramatically during the peak of the Iraqi civil war between 2006 and 2009, when the Damascus government reported that about 2 million Iraqis were in Syria. Thousands of Iraqis also flooded into Jordan and Lebanon.
The UNHCR lists about 63,500 Iraqis who have formally registered as refugees in Syria, most living in cities rather than in camps. Some observers say the Syrian government’s count of nearly a half-million Iraqi refugees in the country is inflated, driven by a desire to get more international aid.
The majority of refugees who arrived in recent years settled in Damascus, the capital, and brought with them all the trauma of the Iraq war: About 1 in 10 had been a victim of torture, according to the UNHCR. More than 60 percent of them were Sunni Muslims, according to U.N. figures, but a sizable community of Shiite Iraqis also settled in Sayyida Zeinab, a southern suburb of Damascus known for a prominent Shiite shrine.
The cost of living was relatively low in Syria, and children were allowed to attend school for free. But the Iraqi refugees were not allowed to work, effectively making the entire community either depend on aid from nongovernmental organizations or scramble for odd jobs that could bring a little pocket cash. Prostitution among Iraqi women in Syria soared at the time.
When the Syrian conflict spread, thousands of Iraqi refugees were trapped because they did not have the money to leave the country or move to safer neighborhoods.
“There are certain neighborhoods that are safer than others, and the rent in those neighborhoods has skyrocketed,” said Becca Heller, director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, a nongovernmental organization that helps Iraqis with resettlement. “So refugees are literally being forced into battle zones because they can’t pay the increasing rent in the safer areas.”