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Iraq’s Forgotten Refugees

Author: Greg Bruno
October 16, 2007

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Ghaith Mubarak and Eenas Alkaissi are among the lucky ones. Death threats and kidnappings forced them to flee Iraq in 2006. When they landed in Fort Worth, Texas, last month, they became two of only sixteen-hundred Iraqis granted asylum in the United States this year. “It was a desperate situation, seeing people die every day,” Mubarak told the Star-Telegram, his new hometown newspaper, in October 2007. Yet protection is increasingly hard to come by for Iraq’s war-ravaged citizenry. Syria and Jordan have changed visa rules, effectively cutting off their states to fleeing Iraqis. Doors are closing internally (Guardian) as well, with ten of eighteen provinces “denying entry to civilians” trying to escape sectarian violence. Even European countries, quick to take in refugees in past years, now are returning asylum seekers to Iraq. Only Sweden, it seems, is willing (Reuters) to keep its doors open, albeit temporarily.  

At the center of the growing refugee storm is the United States which, despite relying on thousands of Iraqis for contracted services in the country, maintains a bureaucratic resettlement program criticized (AFP) by human rights groups as slow. Amnesty International, which calls the situation in Iraq “the fastest-growing displacement crisis in the world,” took a not-so-veiled swipe at the United States in a September 2007 report (PDF). The humanitarian plight of Iraqis “has been largely ignored by the rest of the world,” the report said, “including states whose military involvement in Iraq has played a part in creating the situation.” Amelia Templeton, of Human Rights First, was more direct: “People believe the U.S. has a special responsibility to deal with this crisis. But we’re doing nothing” (Reuters).

The Bush administration challenges such views. In October 2007, the administration announced plans to increase (AP) the number of refugees admitted into the United States each month, for an annual total of twelve-thousand. At a U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom hearing a month before the announcement, Assistant Secretary of State Ellen Sauerbrey said the United States has “a moral obligation to protect Iraqi refugees.” She added the United States is expanding its resettlement program with money and resources, gains that will continue through next year. Washington remains the world’s largest financial contributor to Iraqi refugee assistance programs, says the State Department. Since 2003, nearly $1 billion has been pledged to humanitarian programs.

But that may not be enough. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates more than two million Iraqis have fled their country, with the vast majority relocating to Syria (1.4 million) and Jordan (at least 500,000). Another two million Iraqis have been displaced internally (Reuters), though some experts believe the actual numbers may be even higher.

Stemming the population flow will not be easy. A former top U.S. diplomat to the UN, Ambassador Gerald B. Helman, writes that the refugee problem is “the most sensitive barometer” for the country’s stability. Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst, writes in Dar al-Hayat that in his country Iraqi refugees have “been a drain” on health care, education, and social services. Refugees International, a U.S.-based advocacy group, estimates Washington needs to pledge “at least $1.4 billion in addition funding” to turn the crisis around. The group says the money is needed to pay for food, shelter, health care, and sanitation costs in Iraq, and aid to states harboring Iraqi refugees.

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