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Iraq’s Refugees in Waiting

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
April 2, 2007

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Jordanians call Mecca Mall, a bustling shopping center near downtown Amman, the Baghdad Mall. The bulk of its shoppers are Iraqis, one small manifestation of the region’s largest refugee crisis to unfold since 1948. Over one million Iraqis remain internally displaced, while more than 2 million have fled their homeland for safety abroad to wait out the war, spilling into neighboring states (WashPost) like Syria and Jordan. For the most part, they have been welcomed by locals. But tensions are brewing beneath the surface as government resources become increasingly strained.

In Amman, some Jordanians resent the Iraqi refugees because many of them have snapped up expensive real estate, driving up local housing prices (CSMonitor). Others have taken black market jobs, undercutting the wages of average Jordanians. Then there are security concerns as suspicions linger after the November 2005 attack by Iraqi suicide bombers at a string of hotels in Amman left sixty dead. Jordan and Iraq have long enjoyed strong relations, as Scott Lasensky of the U.S. Institute of Peace writes. But some Jordanian officials fear Iraq may export sectarian extremism and upset Jordan’s normally tranquil and relatively moderate society. Dana Moss writes in the Guardian that refugee populations, from Palestinians in Lebanon to Rwandans in Zaire, have proven historically prone to radicalization.

A country of less than six million, Jordan is stretched thin to handle the estimated one million Iraqis (Anna Husarska of the International Rescue Committee writes in Slate that would be proportionate to 38 million refugees entering the United States), to say nothing of the millions of Palestinians who have already settled in refugee camps clustered around Amman. Hundreds of thousands of the Iraqis lack proper documentation and remain under the radar. The others are considered “guests,” not refugees, and therefore not accorded certain rights, like access to education or medical care. Jordan is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention. And without legal work, many Iraqis fear they will run out of money or, worse, be sent back to Iraq. Unlike the first wave of Iraqi refugees that fled after the 2003 invasion, the recent arrivals are poorer and often without contacts in Jordan (RFE/RL), according to Kristele Younes of Refugees International.

The international community has failed to pick up the slack, say human rights groups. For example, the United States has granted visas to less than five hundred Iraqis since the 2003 invasion. Though it promises to step up that number to 7,000 this year, Jordanian officials say that will not do much to alleviate the refugee crisis. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) called that number “paltry” (IHT) compared to the 180,000 Vietnamese the United States granted visas to following the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Bill Frelick of Human Rights Watch implores Washington to resettle “significant numbers of Iraqi refugees, particularly those who risked their lives to help Americans, who cannot go home” (WSJ). The New Yorker’s George Packer recently portrayed the plight of Iraq’s translators, writing “America’s failure to understand, trust, and protect its closest friends in Iraq is a small drama that contains the larger history of defeat.”

Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs Paula J. Dobriansky has promised to install a procedure that allows the Baghdad embassy to refer more Iraqis seeking refugee status who have cooperated with the U.S. government in the past.

*Beehner reported from Amman, Jordan.

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