Fleeing Iraqis creating refugee 'crisis'

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.

"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."

Syria still has an open door policy, but new arrivals are given 15-day visas and then have to apply for a longer stay. Refugees applying for extensions of visas are told they have to leave Syria for one month before reapplying.

Security concerns prompted Jordan to block entry to 18-to-35-year-old males after three Iraqis blew themselves up at hotels in Amman in 2005. Fears that sectarian violence will spill into surrounding countries along with refugees is a concern throughout the region.

Both the New Yorker and Mother Jones offer looks at Iraqis who worked for the coalition forces after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and who now find themselves refugees because of death threats against them in Iraq. George Packer's piece in the New Yorker illustarates how many of these people feel betrayed by the US.

Millions of Iraqis, spanning the country's religious and ethnic spectrum, welcomed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. But the mostly young men and women who embraced America's project so enthusiastically that the were prepared to risk their lives for it may constitute Iraq's smallest minority. I came across them in every city: the young man in Mosul who loved Metallica and signed up to be a translator at a US Army base; the DVD salesman in Najaf whose plans to study medicine were crushed by Baath Party favoritism, and who offered his services to the first American Humvee that entered his city. They had learned English from American movies and music, and from listening secretly to the BBC. Before the war, their only chance at a normal life was to flee the country — a nearly impossible feat. Their future in Saddam's Iraq was, as the Metallica fan in Mosul put it, "a one-way road leading to nothing." I thought of them as oddballs, like misunderstood high-school students whose isolation ends when they go off to college. In a similar way, the four years of the war created intense friendships, but they were forged through collective disappointment. The arc from hope to betrayal that traverses the Iraq war is nowhere more vivid than in the lives of these Iraqis. America's failure to understand, trust, and protect its closest friends in Iraq is a small drama that contains the larger history of defeat.

On Tuesday, the BBC also reported that the United Nations said there had been "abject denial" around the world of the humanitarian impact of the invasion of Iraq. Not only have many Iraqis left the country, according to a UN spokesman, but almost 2 million are now homeless.

UNHCR spokesman Peter Kessler said: "There has been an abject denial of the impact, the humanitarian impact, of the war, the huge displacement within Iraq of up to 1.9 million people who are homeless because of the war, and those people who are homeless and never got back to their homes after Saddam Hussein was overthrown."

Finally, USA Today reported Tuesday that Iraqi hopes for a united nation are disappearing in the ongoing sectarian violence and strife that are forcing so many to leave. Events on Friday illustrated the situation — Agence France-Presse reports that a suicide bomber injured Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Salam Zaubai, one of the country's most prominent Sunni politicians, in an explosion near his home.

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