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Survey: Many Iraqis in Syria fled during U.S. troop buildup

Some Iraqi refugees, seen here in Syria, return to Baghdad.
Some Iraqi refugees, seen here in Syria, return to Baghdad. Hannah Allam / MCT

CAIRO, Egypt — One in five Iraqi refugees in Syria has been tortured or suffered from other violence, and more than a third fled their homeland between July and October, at the height of the U.S. troop buildup that was intended to quell sectarian violence in Baghdad, preliminary data from a new United Nations study show.

The survey also found that the refugee population is highly educated — nearly a third have university degrees, including master's and doctorates — and that many refugees are only weeks away from exhausting their savings.

The survey, which the IPSOS market research firm conducted in October and November, is the most comprehensive study to date of the 1.5 million Iraqis who've sought safety in Syria from the sectarian violence at home. The results are based on interviews with 754 refugees, who were asked detailed questions that ranged from whether they'd been hit by grenades to how they treat their children's illnesses. Full results are expected in early January.

The U.N. survey includes special questions about trauma that researchers from Harvard University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hope will help them determine for the first time the extent to which the violence in Iraq has damaged the mental health and stability of the war's survivors.

The survey may provide some insight into the impact of U.S. actions. The preliminary results suggest that as American forces moved into Baghdad's neighborhoods to establish security, large numbers of Iraqis moved out.

Of the refugees polled, 78 percent said they'd come from Baghdad, which has been the focus of military operations since the U.S. troop buildup began last February. Thirty-five percent said they'd fled between July and October, when U.S. troop strength peaked. Another 30 percent said they'd fled to Syria last year, as violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims intensified.

More than half the survey's participants said they'd received direct threats or had lived through bombings. Eleven percent had been assaulted and 6 percent had been kidnapped.

The number of refugees with missing or dead relatives has risen steadily in the past four years; 54 percent had dead or missing family members this year, up from 22 percent last year. Murder was cited as the No. 1 cause of death, listed in 78 percent of the cases in the U.N. survey. A majority of respondents, 62 percent, blamed sectarian militias for the deaths. Twenty-eight percent listed "unknown" and 2 percent listed "al Qaida."

Sybella Wilkes, the Damascus-based U.N. spokeswoman on refugee issues, said the survey's results on financial instability confirmed the observations of field workers, who'd noticed new levels of desperation among the most recent Iraqi refugees. Forty percent have been living in Syria for less than a year, according to the survey, and they're finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.

"We've seen the poorest of the poor here," Wilkes said. "We're seeing more homelessness, child labor, survival sex, early marriage and temporary marriage. The floodgates opened in 2006, and the Iraqis who've come since then have been much poorer" than earlier waves of refugees.

Thirty-three percent of the Iraqis surveyed predicted that they'd run out of money within three months, while a quarter of the refugees depend on remittances from relatives in Iraq or abroad. Nearly all refugees are renters, and 71 percent of them live with other family members in apartments with two to four rooms. Nearly a quarter of respondents lived in one-room housing.

Groceries are a top expense, and most respondents said they hadn't received any food assistance from the U.N. or other agencies. Rice and lentils were listed as the most-needed staples. As of November, 51,000 Iraqis in Syria receive monthly food baskets from the U.N.'s World Food Program.

Education is another troubling issue. Less than 3 percent of the Iraqi adults surveyed were illiterate, and 35 percent of them had attended universities. But dropout rates among school-aged refugees have more than doubled since May, from 21 percent to 46 percent. Of those who've dropped out, 19 percent are working.

Health care also is precarious. Although an estimated 19,000 refugees registered with the U.N. have chronic illnesses, 19 percent aren't taking medication because they can't afford it.

The survey indicates that Iraqis are losing faith in their prospects of resettlement abroad and are focusing more on survival in Syria. The number of refugees who said they'd registered with the U.N. primarily for the chance of resettlement dropped from 27 percent last May to 15 percent in November. About half now say their main reason for registering is to obtain refugee certificates, which help them gain food assistance and school vouchers in Syria.

ON THE WEB

The preliminary U.N. survey data: http://media.mcclatchydc.com/smedia/2007/12/14/16/IPSOS-II-Survey-Dec07.source.prod_affiliate.91.pdf

Hannah Allam's blog, "Middle East Diary": http://washingtonbureau.typepad.com/cairo

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