Iraqis are on the run. At a rate of about 50,000 a month, they're fleeing sectarian violence, targeted killings, and banditry. It's the world's fastest growing refugee migration, and finally, the international community is awakening to the challenge.
Last week, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, toured the Middle East to assess the trying situation of up to 2 million Iraqis who have left their country. Most have been driven west to neighboring Syria and Jordan, where they're wearing out the welcome mat and their own personal finances.
Another estimated 1.8 million are displaced internally. The uprooting is the largest in the region since the dispersal of Palestinians at the creation of Israel more than 50 years ago.
Mr. Guterres called attention to the enormity and urgency of the migration, yet only recently did his office determine that the Iraqis deserve refugee status. Better late than never, though, and last month he asked for $60 million in international aid to deal with the crisis. He'll need much more than that, and he's organizing a conference in April to drum up additional donations and support.
Meanwhile, after a tepid response, the State Department recently announced a task force to look at ways to step up help for the UN vis-à-vis the refugees. It also directed a US diplomat in Damascus to discuss the issue with Syrian officials. Considering that Washington pulled out its ambassador there in 2005, the overture points to the seriousness of the issue.
The US needs to find common ground on this situation with Syria, despite that nation's pro-terrorist actions and heavy hand in Lebanon. In fact, Syria deserves praise as the region's most generous "host" to the refugees, absorbing 600,000 to 1 million Iraqis, and giving them access to social services and schools – with almost no outside aid.
In other countries such as Jordan, refugees live the life of illegal aliens, afraid of deportation, swarming in apartments, exploited when they find work, and cut off from education and healthcare. (Jordan has the largest refugee population per capita of any country.) The refugees are blamed for skyrocketing rents and higher prices in already weak economies. The political elite in these countries worry that Iraqis will bring instability, exacerbate sectarian strife, and stay for decades, just like the Palestinians.
That's why Jordan now turns young Iraqi men away from the border, and why even Syria recently had to restrict visas for Iraqis. Saudi Arabia is building a fence to keep the refugees out, and inside Iraq, a few overwhelmed provinces have shut their doors as well.
Given their role in the Iraq war, the US and Britain have a moral imperative to take the lead here.
As an example to others, they can step up to the financial challenge and support those countries that, by virtue of their geography, are bearing the brunt of the refugee outflow. It may even be necessary to open their own immigration doors wider to Iraqi refugees, and thus relieve some of the strain in the Middle East.
Only improved security in Iraq will stem this migration of the desperate, but until that occurs, there's an obligation to do everything possible to mitigate this human – and political – challenge.