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Christians in the Muslim World

Interview to Abdelhamid El Ouali Unhcr's representative in Damascus

The temporary protection system was introduced in order to remedy what was thought to be a provisional situation: the threat of war in Iraq. But now that the situation has instead deteriorated, the need to develop a different system has become urgent. Otherwise we will find ourselves unable to face the many problems that Iraqi refugees have». These are the words of the Moroccan Abdelhamid El Ouali, representative of the UN's High Commission for Refugees (Unhcr) in Damascus. «During the war we expected a large exodus, but this phenomenon did not take place. On the contrary, after the fall of the regime many refugees asked for our help in returning to Iraq. Now we are again seeing the opposite movement out of the country, much more consistently than before».



Can you give us some numbers?



Between 250 and 500 thousand, compared with 70 to 80 thousand in the period before the war. Some have left because of the lack of security, others because they are linked to the old regime or the Baath party. Many intellectuals have left in order to avoid being accused of collaboration with the Americans. I know five university professors who live in just one room here in Damascus.



How many cases have you seen up to now, and how many of these are Christians?



From December 2003 to August 2004 we examined 8,372 cases. The percentage of Christians is constantly increasing. In the last period, 50% of the 200 cases examined dealt with Christians. Many people have realized that the current protection regime is no longer sufficient and they have stopped coming here.



Do they want to obtain refugee status?



Yes, justly so. Especially for the Christians. On the other hand, giving them refugee status means encouraging them to leave. This is why I believe that finding a formula that allows us to help them more efficiently is urgent. For this reason the international community must consider it a priority to establish peace in Iraq.



Why this concentration in Syria?



Unlike other countries in the region, Syria did not close its borders to the refugees.