Syria's border closure hits Iraqi refugees

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SAIDA ZEINAB, Syria, Oct 19 (Reuters) Suffering kidney disease and living in a Damascus slum, Amal Jabar lost her only means of support when Syria closed its borders to Iraqi refugees a few weeks ago.

''My son Mostafa used to come and bring me whatever little he scraped together from odd jobs in Baghdad. I would be starving now if it wasn't for charity,'' said Jabar, who fled from the al-Amel district in Baghdad, a focus of sectarian fighting.

''The area is swamped with militias and Mostafa's life is in danger. He was planning to move to Syria, but now he cannot and I haven't heard from him,'' she said.

Syria's decision on October 1 to shut its borders to Iraqi nationals, except merchants and academics, has disrupted lives of refugees, separated families and trapped thousands amid killings and upheaval, according to refugees and aid agencies.

With an estimated 1.4-2 million refugees constituting up to 10 percent of Syria's population, the government said it could no longer absorb more Iraqis, although thousands were crossing the border every day.

Isra Khdayer, another refugee, was separated from her mother and five sisters by the new regulations just when they were planning to follow her to Syria.

The family was driven out by sectarian threats from the Shaab neighbourhood of the Iraqi capital and initially fled to the town of Khan Bani Saad in the province of Diyala to the northeast.

''My family is not safe there. We thought Diyala would be better than Baghdad, but we were wrong. Every facility is virtually closed and with militias and Americans everywhere no road is safe,'' she said.

Khdayer's only brother remains in Iraq and does not plan to leave since he would not be able to work in Syria, she said.

Like many refugees, her savings are running out but she found a rare job at a local magazine.

''There was no way I could return to work in Baghdad. I am Sunni and the school I used to teach at before the invasion is in a Shiite area,'' she said.

PUBLIC OPINION Sectarian killings and deportations were a major factor behind a huge movement of Iraqis to Syria and Jordan after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 that removed Saddam Hussein from power and led to civil strife.

Jordan introduced laws barring Iraqis from entering years ago, leaving Syria as the main escape route open to refugees.

Jean-Jacques Fresard, operations head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Syria, said missions to the border had confirmed that the refugee flow had been cut.

''It seems that they are not even making the long journey to the border to try and get into Syria after news of the closure spread, although there is considerable commercial traffic from Syria to Iraq,'' Fresard told Reuters.

''Syrian public sentiment has turned against the refugees, especially since a larger proportion of poor Iraqis have come in lately,'' he said.

Syrians remain largely sympathetic to the plight of refugees, but limited economic opportunities and double digit inflation have caused some resentment toward the newcomers.

''You go now to certain quarters in Damascus and Iraqi accents are almost all you hear. The Iraqis complain that they are without jobs but there is massive unemployment among Syrians,'' said Jumana Houri, a housewife.

''The Iraqis are getting abused when they are hired for long hours for 80 dollars a month, but the tragedy is that Syrians are also after these jobs,'' said a teacher who gave her name as Rim.

Sybella Wilkes, an official at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said the agency had been inundated with calls from refugees concerned about the fate of relatives in Iraq and their own status in Syria after the new rules.

''It has become very tough for them. It is rare for entire families to leave Iraq. Usually the elderly are left behind or wage earners stay but travel back and forth,'' she said.

Wilkes said the UNHCR had not received a response from the Syrian government to its call to issue humanitarian visas.

''The hope is that Syria would grant a massive reprieve from the new visa rules like it did during Ramadan,'' she said.

The Damascus government introduced the tougher regulations last month, citing pressure on its infrastructure and public services, but lifted them for two weeks a few days later as a temporary gesture for the start of the holy month of Ramadan.

Syrian officials have not indicated an intention to relax the rules again.

The UNHCR estimates that 2,000 Iraqis are forced to abandon their homes in Iraq every day.

REUTERS SYU KP0846

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