Iraq's Refugee Crisis Worsens

Every day, thousands of war-weary, frightened, and desperate Iraqis stream across the border into Syria - which, until now, has been one of the few countries that have opened their doors to the refugees.

The wave of exiles has poured into the streets of Damascus. The Iraqi presence is everywhere from the vegetable market to the corner shop to the local baker. One neighborhood is known as "Little Baghdad."

But despite the signs of normalcy, life is anything but for the 1.5 million refugees who live there now.

"It's very hard," says Sybella Wilkes of the U.N. Refugee Agency. "We know for the vast majority, based on our research, their savings are running out. They're living several families to an apartment, and for all of them, if they had a choice, they would go back home."

As is often the case in war, the greatest casualties are the children.

Because it's illegal for their parents to work in Syria, children are often forced into menial jobs to support their families. They are unable to go to school and are on the brink of becoming a lost generation.

"It's particularly tough on the children, isn't it," asks CBS Evening News anchor and managing editor Katie Couric.

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"It is. For many of the children we see here in Syria, they're not going to school. Many are obliged to work. and most of these children were going to school back in Iraq. They've also seen terrible things, and the trauma that they've gone through defines the way that their families are living." Wilkes says.

Mohammed, who is 11, fled his home in Iraq with 13 members of his family after insurgents kidnapped and killed two family members and their neighborhood came under daily mortar fire. He makes $2 a day selling combs and mirrors to passers-by. It's a small reflection of the greater tragedy here.

His family, who asked CBS News to conceal their identities because they still live in fear, recently registered with the United Nations in hopes of becoming eligible for food aid and an official visa - some relief from their hopelessness.

They showed Couric around their modest three-room apartment where, every night, six adults and seven children cram themselves into two rooms to sleep.

"Do you feel a lot of pressure being the only person working and having to support your whole family?" Couric asks Mohammed.

Through a translator he replied, "Yes, they're all living off everything I bring every day. So I leave sometimes at 12 and don't get back until 11 at night."

With the massive influx of refugees, Syria is starting to feel the strain.

"There's a huge impact for a country of 20 million people to receive a million and half within a few months. There is a huge burden on our services: medical, school, infrastructure - everything," says Minister of Expatriates Buthania Shaaban.

As a result of the increasing stress from the refugee crisis, the Syrian government recently announced a new visa policy which, as of Sept. 10, will only allow professionals to enter the country - effectively shutting out thousands of people.

So, in a sad twist, with their welcome worn out in Syria and increasingly desperate, many Iraqis are now boarding buses to go back to the chaos and violence of their homeland.

Says one Iraq woman with children: "I didn't want to return to Baghdad, because it's very dangerous there and we can't - it's very hard for the children. They've suffered too much."

  • CBSNews

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