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To date, the UNHCR has registered at most one-fifth of the Iraqis in Syria, of which only a small fraction have qualified as “refugees” under international law. In 2007, for instance, the UNHCR in Syria determined that only 7,852 of all the Iraqis it registered had a legitimate claim to asylum. The agency, in turn, submitted these files to countries in Europe, North America and Oceania for potential resettlement. In the end, only 833 of the 7,852 received offers for resettlement and left Syria.

The resettlement numbers increased significantly in 2008: In July alone, 1,033 Iraqis in Syria were resettled in Western countries, mostly in the United States. Yet, given the size of the refugee population in Syria, the odds remain slim – more akin to winning the lottery – that an individual or family will be resettled in a Western country. For most Iraqis in Syria, resettlement is more a dream than a realistic hope. Still, many see it as their only option.

Iraq’s Christians have paid a high price for the war. Prior to 2003, about a million Christians lived in Iraq, accounting for some 5 percent of the country’s 23 million people. But as violence intensified, reaching a crescendo in 2006, extremist groups began targeting Christians. Living in small pockets within predominantly Muslim communities, and without organized militias to protect them, Christians proved especially vulnerable. Moreover, extremists increasingly viewed Iraqi Christians as collaborators with the Western “Christian” occupying forces.

Fleeing the sectarian violence that has engulfed Baghdad, Basra, Mosul and areas where Christians have lived for centuries, an estimated 400,000 of Iraq’s Christians have sought refuge in neighboring countries or further afield. Of the roughly half million who remain in Iraq, more than half are internally displaced, many having migrated north to the autonomous Kurdish region, which remains relatively stable.

Today, Christians make up as much as 15 to 20 percent of all Iraqi refugees, a disproportionately high number given that they make up a relatively small percentage of the country’s total population.

Christians, of course, are not the only Iraqis whom the war has hit hard. Sunni Muslims, too, have fled targeted violence in disproportionate numbers. Prior to the invasion, Sunni Muslims constituted roughly 35 percent of Iraq’s total population. Today, Sunnis represent by far the majority of refugees, accounting for nearly 60 percent of those registered with UNHCR in Syria.

Hailing from Fallujah, Omar and his family are among the many Sunnis who have settled in Damascus’s predominantly Iraqi Saida Zainab neighborhood. In 2005, Omar took a bus in Baghdad heading for Damascus. But before the bus could reach the highway, uniformed Iraqi police officers stopped it, boarded and began checking passengers’ identification cards. When Omar presented his papers, they hauled the then 19-year-old off the bus in handcuffs. (According to Omar, his first name clearly identifies him as Sunni.) The police officers, Shiites, arrested and imprisoned him. Omar does not recall the police officers ever documenting or recording his arrest.

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Tags: Syria Iraq Refugees Iraqi Christians Jordan