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Fleeing Iraqis creating refugee 'crisis'

By Tom / March 23, 2007

As an estimated 40,000-50,000 Iraqis flee their countries each month, governments in the region are reluctant to acknowledge that they are dealing with a full-blown refugee crisis. Kristele Younes writes in Foreign Policy in Focus that the United Nations estimates 2.3 million Iraqis have left since 2003. As a result, there is a "strong need" for host nations to sponsor programs (funded by the UN and donor governments) that will address the needs of this refugee population.

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"Iraqis who are unable to flee the country are now in a queue, waiting their turn to die," is how one Iraqi journalist summarizes conditions in Iraq today. While the US debates whether a civil war is raging in Iraq, thousands of Iraqis face the possibility of death every day all over the country. All Iraqis, whether Sunni, Shi'a, Christian, or other groups such as the Palestinian, are threatened by armed actors. People are targeted because of religious affiliation, economic status, and profession — many, such as doctors, teachers, and even hairdressers, are viewed as being "anti-Islamic."

On a recent mission to Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, Refugees International documented dozens of stories of kidnappings for extortion, forcing families to sell businesses, homes, cars, and other assets to meet kidnappers' demands. Many families had suffered multiple kidnappings, further draining resources. These Iraqis fled the country to escape further kidnappings, often associated with sectarian violence, or the death threats that often followed the kidnappings.

The BBC reports that one area that has been particularly hard hit is medical care. Most of the country's best doctors have fled, leaving ordinary Iraqis to deal with chronic shortages of personnel and supplies in a country which was once viewed as having the best medical care in the Middle East. In interviews with the BBC, Iraqi doctors who are now working in Jordan say that as bad as the situation has been described, it is actually worse.

"By the time I left the hospital, there was a great shortage of medicines. Nursing staff was zero," said a professor of neurology. "In the college where I used to teach, five consultants were killed, assassinated."

"Before I left, I was doing a tour with my resident staff. I looked at the ward, I looked at the beds, and I said in a very loud voice: 'This hospital is not good even for pets. No medicines, no bed linens, the smell is very bad. Sewage is out on the floor.'"

The BBC reports that doctors also said militias have not only infiltrated the hospitals (where they will often go into wards and shoot patients from rival groups) but the Health Ministry as well. As a result, many of the doctors left in Iraq will not visit the Ministry for fear they will be kidnapped by one of the armed gangs.

PBS's Online NewsHour reports that the strain is growing increasingly difficult for neighboring countries like Jordan and Syria. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees's Anthony Harper says "the economies and infrastructures of Jordan and Syria are overburdened by the overflow, prompting new regulations at the borders."

"The welcome mat is not so pristine as it was," Harper said. "Neighboring countries have been extremely generous ... but there is an increasing impatience as to how long the Iraqi population will remain."