Monday, October 22, 2007

Iraq's Refugees

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) now estimates that 4.4 million Iraqis have fled their homes. Roughly half, 2.2 million, are displaced within Iraq:

More than 2 million Iraqis are displaced inside Iraq, with over 1 million displaced since the February 2006 Samarra bombings. While most of the security incidents happen in the centre and south of the country, the displaced are not confined to these regions. In the north, there are more than 780,000 displaced Iraqis, over 650,000 in the centre of the country, and 790,000 in the south. Many are barely surviving in makeshift camps, inaccessible to aid workers for security reasons.

Iraq: Rate of displacement rising

As the UNHCR report notes, many of these refugees are housed in camps that are largely inaccessible to relief workers due to security concerns.

The remaining refugees, estimated to be another 2.2 million people, are now in foreign countries. Most, including a young Iraqi woman who blogs as Riverbend, are in Syria or Jordan. As I noted last month, she left Iraq for neighboring Syria, as have an estimated 1.2 to 1.4 million Iraqis. As Riverbend notes:

Within a month of our being here, we began hearing talk about Syria requiring visas from Iraqis, like most other countries. Apparently, our esteemed puppets in power met with Syrian and Jordanian authorities and decided they wanted to take away the last two safe havens remaining for Iraqis- Damascus and Amman. The talk began in late August and was only talk until recently- early October. Iraqis entering Syria now need a visa from the Syrian consulate or embassy in the country they are currently in. In the case of Iraqis still in Iraq, it is said that an approval from the Ministry of Interior is also required (which kind of makes it difficult for people running away from militias OF the Ministry of Interior…). Today, there’s talk of a possible fifty dollar visa at the border.

Bloggers Without Borders...

As you might imagine, the welcome mat is being rolled up in Syria and Jordan. With estimated populations of nineteen million and six million, respectively, Syria and Jordan are housing roughly 2 million refugees, according to UNHCR. That's a tremendous burden, especially considering that they are among the region's poorest countries. According to the CIA World Factbook, Syria has an unemployment rate of over twelve percent. Jordan's is fifteen percent. Neither is in a position to support a refugee population that is one tenth the size of their native population. UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond explained this in rather blunt language in September:

Despite all of the expressions of support and concern from governments during the UNHCR-sponsored Iraq displacement conference here in Geneva in April, the two countries caring for the biggest proportion of Iraqi refugees – Syria and Jordan – have still received next to nothing in bilateral help from the world community.

Syria and Jordan, with an estimated 2 million Iraqi refugees between them, are struggling to cope. Syria continues to receive about 2,000 Iraqis a day, and about 30,000 a month end up staying. The growing refugee population and the communities that host them are facing enormous hardships that will only get worse if the international community doesn't put its money where its mouth is.

Iraq displacement: Generous host countries left in the lurch

[emphasis mine]. No wonder Riverbend and her countrymen are increasingly viewed as a burden by Syria.

In Syria, for example, only 32,000 of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugee children in the country are actually in school. Syria, with 1.4 million Iraqis, is the only country in the region that allows free public school access for all Iraqi children. But there simply isn't enough space to take them all in. To try to cope, Syrian education officials have been forced to convert scores of public schools back to the double-shift system that the country had expected under a long-term national development plan to end by 2010.

Iraq displacement: Generous host countries left in the lurch

The report also notes that the Syrian medical system is undergoing similar strain.

Riverbend noted the change in Syrian policies this way:

Iraqis who entered Syria before the visa was implemented were getting a one month visitation visa at the border. As soon as that month was over, you could take your passport and visit the local immigration bureau. If you were lucky, they would give you an additional month or two. When talk about visas from the Syrian embassy began, they stopped giving an extension on the initial border visa. We, as a family, had a brilliant idea. Before the commotion of visas began, and before we started needing a renewal, we decided to go to one of the border crossings, cross into Iraq, and come back into Syria- everyone was doing it. It would buy us some time- at least 2 months.

Bloggers Without Borders...

I'm sure that right now Syria would rather have people do this than have to send them back to Iraq, but this situation probably won't last long:

For the first time in months, if not years, UNHCR field workers visiting the Syrian-Iraq border yesterday found the crossing point virtually empty. Yesterday was the first day of new visa restrictions that the Syrian government is imposing on all Iraqis wishing to enter Syria – with the exception of certain professional categories.
UNHCR has received assurances from various government authorities that Syria will not forcibly return Iraqi refugees currently residing in the country. Syria, of course, has been extremely generous in accepting some 1.4 million Iraqis with only limited international support.

UNHCR fears for safety of fleeing Iraqis as Syrian visa restrictions bite

Then what? The logical thing would be to try to resettle some elsewhere, and to increase aid to the countries that are shouldering most of the burden. So far, neither has happened. The chart at the top of this article, which comes from UNHCR's September report on Iraqi refugees (PDF), illustrates the issue - the world outside of the Middle East has taken in less than five percent of the the refugees. The lion's share of those have been taken in by Europe. This table from that report shows a disturbing trend among other Western nations:

Resettlement of Iraqi Refugees 1992-1998 (Government Figures)
United States3,4404,6104,9803,4802,5302,6801,410

Resettlement of Iraqi Refugees 1999-2005 (Government Figures)
United States1,9603,1502,47046030070200

The remaining countries in the table had taken in so few refugees as to be statistically insignificant. Nevertheless, a pattern is obvious. Since the war began, refugee influx to the most likely destination countries, particularly the United States, has slowed to a trickle. If anything, it should have changed by orders of magnitude in the opposite direction given the number of refugees the war has created.

Refugees are people without a home. Those who are refugees in a foreign country have an additional burden:

By the time we had reentered the Syrian border and were headed back to the cab ready to take us into Kameshli, I had resigned myself to the fact that we were refugees. I read about refugees on the Internet daily… in the newspapers… hear about them on TV. I hear about the estimated 1.5 million plus Iraqi refugees in Syria and shake my head, never really considering myself or my family as one of them. After all, refugees are people who sleep in tents and have no potable water or plumbing, right? Refugees carry their belongings in bags instead of suitcases and they don’t have cell phones or Internet access, right? Grasping my passport in my hand like my life depended on it, with two extra months in Syria stamped inside, it hit me how wrong I was. We were all refugees. I was suddenly a number. No matter how wealthy or educated or comfortable, a refugee is a refugee. A refugee is someone who isn’t really welcome in any country- including their own... especially their own.

Bloggers Without Borders...

She's a number, and part of a number. That number, the people who have been displaced by the war, is huge, and it's growing. We in the United States are doing almost nothing to help resettle people. It almost seems as though we don't want to see the problem. Riverbend's article concludes:

The first evening we arrived, exhausted, dragging suitcases behind us, morale a little bit bruised, the Kurdish family sent over their representative – a 9 year old boy missing two front teeth, holding a lopsided cake, “We’re Abu Mohammed’s house- across from you- mama says if you need anything, just ask- this is our number. Abu Dalia’s family live upstairs, this is their number. We’re all Iraqi too... Welcome to the building.”

I cried that night because for the first time in a long time, so far away from home, I felt the unity that had been stolen from us in 2003.

Bloggers Without Borders...

Out of a country of 27 million people, we've managed to displace or kill more than five million. As incredible as it seems given the state the country was in before we arrived, we've accomplished one thing in Iraq - we broke it. Sooner or later, we're going to have to help fix it. We can start by accepting refugees here at the rate we did when it was politically expedient.

UPDATE (Oct. 23): First of all, I'll point out that this article has gone through several minor edits, and one that corrected the tables. If you have any doubts about the accuracy of the table, please follow the link to the source. Let me know if you find a problem.

Hopefully, it's finished now.

Second, one of the most troubling aspects of our sudden reduction in immigration from Iraq has been our treatment of Iraqis who worked for us as translators. Needless to say, their helping us has now put their own lives in danger. The Department of Homeland (In)Security has been congratulating itself on making it easier to get them here, but as NPR reports:

A new system of security checks for Iraqi refugees who want to settle in the United States was rolled out by the Department of Homeland Security this week. The government hopes the procedures will help it meet a pledge to take in 7,000 refugees from Iraq by Sept. 30. So far, only a fraction of that number have made it into the United States.

New U.S. Security Checks for Iraqis Seeking Asylum

Effectively, we've abandoned the very people who were trying to help us make Iraq a better place. It's not our biggest failure in Iraq, but I think it illustrates the length the people who run our country will go to deny that what they've done in Iraq is fail, and fail spectacularly.

UPDATE 2 (Oct. 28): This article has been cross-posted to


HopeSpringsATurtle said...

Sickening and scary. Nice reportage Cujo.

Cujo359 said...

Thanks, HopeSpringsATurtle. Good to "see" you around again.

Reading Riverbend's latest entry just got me to thinking. There are so many of these people now, and every one of them has a tale or two like hers to tell.

Anonymous said...

'Need to know' information, in nice digestible pieces - thanks.