Source AP ©

Iraq's finance minister gives Syria 15 million dollars for refugees

Iraq's finance minister assisted Syria. Bayan Jabr has granted US$15 million (€10.1 million) from his government to help Syrian authorities cope with the burden of hosting over a million Iraqi refugees.

During the visit, Bayan Jabr is also expected to resolve the issue of Iraqi assets Saddam Hussein's regime had entrusted in Syrian banks. The issue of the assets has long weighed on the relations between Iraq and Syria.

Jabr's visit comes as the U.N. refugee agency in Damascus announced in a statement that some 60,000 Iraqi refugees have returned from Syria to Iraq since Oct. 1.

The Damascus U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees office said the Iraqis were going back for several reasons, including improved security at home, Syria's new visa restrictions and lack of job opportunities for the Iraqis in Syria.

With the violence ebbing across Iraq, thousands of Iraqis have recently been heading home from Syria and Jordan every day, Jabr said.

The Iraqi embassy in Damascus has also started organizing free trips for those who want to go home but can't pay their way, with the first free convoy scheduled for next Monday.

As he arrived, Jabr told reporters his government sent him with "US$15 million as a first payment of assistance" for the Syrian government, to help it meet the needs of Iraqis.

Syria has about 1.5 million Iraqis refugees and says their influx has strained its education, health and housing systems, pushing the government to tighten visa requirements and to call for international assistance.

Bayan Jabr (pbs.org)
Bayan Jabr (pbs.org)

Damascus has said the cost of the Iraqi refugees' stay in Syria is estimated at US$1.6 billion (€1.07 billion) a year.

Jabr, who came with a financial delegation including customs, taxes, banks and transportation officials, said the visit is aimed to facilitate banking transactions between Syria and Iraq, as well as improving customs relations.

A customs agreement and another for double tax exemptions are to be signed during the visit, Jabr said.

Estimates of Iraqi assets in Syria have been put at between US$300 million (€202 million) and US$500 million (€337 million), but some Iraqi officials have claimed the figure is over US$1 billion (€673 million).

For its part, Syria has said Iraq owes money to its public and private sectors for transactions between the two countries during Saddam's era and under the U.N.-supervised oil-for-food program. Syria's Chamber of Commerce estimates the debt at US$500 million (€336 million).

Jabr said that he will also discuss the possible opening of Iraq's state-owned Rafidain Bank in Damascus, to transfer funds and especially pensions to Iraqi refugees here.

Syrian Finance Minister Mohammad Hussein said his Iraqi counterpart's visit was "very import to solve all these issues that pose a stumbling block in the way of commercial and economic cooperation" between the countries.

In 2005, Syria transferred to Iraq some US$262 millions (€176.5 million) worth of frozen assets in the Commercial Bank of Syria. The remaining funds were withheld until an audit is settled with Iraqi officials.

Hussein said Syria is "keen to close this file once and forever" on the outstanding issues.

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