More than six years after the invasion of Iraq, up to 2 million refugees remain stranded in neighboring countries and fears are rising that international support for them is fading, threatening more long-term regional unrest.
This week Eric Schwartz, the Assistant US Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration, made his first regional tour since assuming his position in July and offered a grim assessment while in Damascus.
"This is a critical moment," said Mr. Schwartz in an interview Wednesday. "I am extremely concerned at the inadequate response to the appeals of the UN to support humanitarian assistance to Iraqis."
For 2010 the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Syria, where up to 1 million Iraqi refugees reside, requested an operational budget of $166 million. The agency only secured $55 million in international donations, down from $83 million in 2009. The story is similar elsewhere in the region.
Nearly all support for the refugees is channeled through UNHCR and observers worry that dwindling aid could provoke greater social and economic problems, extremism, and violence among the refugee community.
"The international community wants to believe that things are getting better in Iraq and so it's going to pay less attention to refugees outside the country," said one Western diplomat in Syria speaking on condition of anonymity.
Even as talk about the return of stability to Iraq reverberates internationally, more than 1,000 new refugees continue to register with the UNHCR region-wide every month, roughly matching the number of refugees who return to Iraq or are resettled in third countries. And with Iraqi national elections scheduled for January the potential for renewed instability could provoke a fresh surge.
Desperate for help
At the UNHCR headquarters here in Damascus hundreds of refugees continue to gather daily desperately seeking assistance. "I have nothing and I really need help," explained Abu Ali, who arrived in Syria from Baghdad just three months ago, escaping continued sectarian violence. "I had to leave: they say there's security, but on the ground it's a different story. They still kill you because of your ID papers."
Like many of the refugees scattered across the region, predominantly in Syria and Jordan, Abu Ali, is out of savings and increasingly worried about his plight. Banned by local authorities from seeking employment and unwilling to return home because of continuing violence, UNHCR support remains his only lifeline, says Abu Ali, who declined to give his full name.
'Expiration date' for donor interest
But the UNHCR says that international attention and financial support is moving away from the crisis, leaving them unable to address the needs of the lingering refugee population.
"The fact is that there is an expiry date on a lot of operations and the perception is that the public and donors' interest in Iraq has expired at a particularly critical time," said Andrew Harper, head of UNHCR's Iraq Unit. "But people should not think that the refugee situation has finished."
According to Mr. Harper the growing impoverishment of many refugees after as many as five years living in countries where they are not legally allowed to work makes their needs more pressing than ever. Many depend on food and money hand-outs and these will now have to be curtailed as a result of the budget shortfall.
In Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon tales of prostitution, child labor, and forced marriages circulate widely as refugees desperately seek to make ends meet.
The Syrian and Jordanian governments say that the refugees, who have free access to health and education services in both countries, have cost them over $1 billion and complain of limited international support. Baghdad has contributed just $15 million to Syria and $7 million to Jordan.
Mr. Schwartz, meanwhile, says that it is up to European states to now step up and share the burden through greater financial support and a willingness to take in more refugees. The US government remains the single largest financial supporter of UNHCR Iraq operations, having contributed 80 percent of the 2009 budget.
Few solutions yet
For the moment there appear to be few solutions.
Countries such as Syria and Jordan, already home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and accompanying economic and social challenges, say they are unwilling to accept a long-term stay and they block activities which hint at integration.
But while there have been some cases of Iraqis being ejected from the host countries, none have suggested an all-out expulsion any time soon. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made clear during a recent spat between Damascus and Baghdad that political differences would not affect the fate of Iraqis living in Syria.
Resettlement opportunities are also very limited, representing a drop in the ocean of the total number. Just 33,000 Iraqis have been resettled since 2007, many of them in the US.
Ultimately, Schwartz, UNHCR, and NGOs working with refugees all agree that repatriation to Iraq is the only real solution to the crisis but they say there can be no question of forcing Iraqis back until the time is right.
250 percent rise in funding for returning refugees
Over the past year a small number have begun to return home on the back of improving security conditions and Baghdad today says conditions are ripe for return. This week it announced a 250 percent budget increase to help refugees come back and says it will appoint a coordinator to ease the process.
Even so, the majority of refugees say conditions in Iraq are not yet good enough to warrant a return and that they prefer to sit it out abroad.
"You don't think I'd go back if I could?" asks Mazar, who fled Baghdad three years ago after being kidnapped and shot. Today he survives and supports his family in Damascus by working illegally. "But where's the security?"