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"The fastest-growing humanitarian crisis in the world"
Iraq's refugee nightmare

January 19, 2007 | Page 7

ASHLEY SMITH reports on Iraq's worsening refugee crisis--and why the U.S. occupiers are responsible for this catastrophe.

THE U.S. occupation of Iraq is generating one of the largest refugees crises in decades.

Reports from Refugees International, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) document in terrifying detail the desperate plight of Iraqis forced to flee their homes. Close to 2 million Iraqis have already fled the country, and the rate of the exodus--currently at as many as 100,000 a month--shows every sign of increasing.

That's only the tip of the iceberg. Another 1.7 million Iraqis have been driven by sectarian violence to leave their homes in integrated areas to live in an ethnic community inside Iraq. This internally displaced population is expanding by 50,000 each month, and the UNHCR predicts it could reach 2.7 million people by the end of 2007.

All told, nearly 4 million people out of a prewar population of 26 million have become either refugees or internally displaced. Almost one out of every six Iraqis has fled their homes since the U.S. invaded in 2003.

What else to read

Iraq's refugee crisis has been documented by Refugees International in a special report called "Iraq: The World's Fastest Growing Refugee Crisis"; Human Rights Watch's "The Silent Treatment"; and the United Nations High Commission on Refugees' bulleting titled "Iraq Emergency."

Two recent books provide valuable information and analysis about the U.S. occupation and the ensuing civil war that are driving the crisis: In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of Martyrs in Iraq by Nir Rosen, and The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq by Patrick Cockburn.

 

"The current exodus," according to the UNHCR, "is the largest long-term population movement since the displacement of the Palestinians following the creation of Israel in 1948."

Kenneth Bacon, president of Refugees International, said Iraq represents the "fastest-growing humanitarian crisis in the world. The United States and its allies sparked the current chaos in Iraq, but they are doing little to ease the humanitarian crisis."

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INTERNAL REFUGEES in Iraq live in terrible squalor. They endure urban tent cities within their ethnic communities, squat in abandoned buildings or huddle at Iraq's borders in the hopes of escaping to safety. According to the World Food Program, the refugees account for a disproportionate part of the 9 percent of Iraqis who are outright malnourished.

For refugees who have fled to surrounding countries, conditions are similarly terrible. Human Rights Watch states that "Iraqis throughout the Middle East remain unregistered, uncounted, unassisted and unprotected."

Close to 1 million have found refuge in Syria, another 700,000 are in Jordan--where they now make up to one-fifth of the population--and several hundred thousand more are scattered around other countries.

There is a sharp class division among the refugees. Wealthy and middle-class Iraqis have been able to buy their way into relative safety and security. But the working class and poor suffer acute poverty and oppression.

They are treated not as refugees, but as temporary visitors, without the right to work or to social services, health care and education. In these conditions, Iraqi women have been forced to become prostitutes to provide income for their families.

Taking a cue from how the U.S. treats its undocumented immigrants, the various governments of the region are scapegoating Iraqi refugees for their country's economic and social problems.

In Jordan, the government initially tolerated the Iraqis, but since the November 2005 bombings of several hotels in the capital of Amman, it has severely restricted access to the country and limited the rights of those it does admit. "Put yourself in my shoes," said an Iraqi working at a U.S. Army base in Jordan, who spent eight hours in the January cold last year with his wife and infant waiting at the border. "You take your family to another country, and they interview you like a terrorist."

Since November 2005, Jordan has also denied Iraqis social services, access to education and the right to work. It has begun to arrest and deport refugees who either cannot afford visas or have overstayed their time limits.

Even worse, the government is blaming rising housing prices and inflation on Iraqis--thereby encouraging bigotry toward the refugees. "The Americans are in control of this country," said refugee Abu Hussein. "Why don't they become angry at how they are treating us?"

Syria has so far maintained open borders to the Iraqis in the name of pan-Arabism. But Refugees International reports, "Syria started imposing restrictions on Iraqi refugees; it now charges for health care that used to be free. Similarly, until recently Iraqis were issued six-month visas. Recent policy changes now limit Iraqis to a three-month visa, and force them to undertake expensive trips to exit the country and renew their visas."

In the rest of the Middle East, Iraqis suffer similar persecution. For example, in Lebanon, which has about 40,000 refugees, the U.S.-backed Siniora Government has closed its border to Iraqis, and turned to arresting and deporting those inside the country.

As Refugees International's Kristele Younes told reporters, "Iraqis are starting to be treated like Palestinians."

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THE U.S. occupation is directly responsible for creating this exodus from Iraq.

U.S. sanctions, war and occupation have destroyed the Iraqi economy, driving the vast majority of the population into desperate poverty. Estimates of unemployment run as high as 70 percent, 5 million Iraqis live under the poverty line and 31 percent are "food insecure."

On top of this, the U.S. stoked a civil war by pitting Iraq's three major ethnic and religious groups--Sunni, Shia Muslims, and Kurds--against one another. These sectarian divisions had little precedent in the history of Iraq, but they have now spiraled out of control--leading Sunnis, Shia and Kurds to use militias against one another.

The combination of economic despair, civil war and consequent ethnic cleansing triggered the refugee crisis. Sunnis have fled to majority-Sunni areas and surrounding countries with a majority Sunni population. Shiites have done the same in places where they are threatened. One Iraqi journalist captured the desperate situation, writing; "Iraqis who are unable to flee the country are now in a queue, waiting for their turn to die."

Yet after causing the catastrophe in Iraq, the U.S. is neglecting these new refugees--as it neglected Haitians and other victims of imperialism before. "The United States and the United Kingdom who led the invasion of Iraq," writes Human Rights Watch, "have paid scant attention to the regional fallout caused by their intervention. Neither country has resettled more than a handful of Iraqi refugees from Jordan or Syria."

In fact, the U.S. shut down its borders to all refugees in the wake of the September 11 attacks. The Bush administration finally--and reluctantly--allowed refugees back in the country, but only admitted a total of 42,000 in 2005.

As for Iraqis, in all of 2005, the U.S. accepted a grand total of 198 people. That number climbed in 2006--to 202, and the administration is promising only 500 places for refugees in 2007. And most of these refugees applied before the U.S. invasion. Human Rights Watch reports that the Bush administration has admitted a grand total of 12 refugees from the current crisis.

Unsurprisingly, the U.S. has spent next to nothing on refugee assistance. It budgeted only $35 million for this in 2006--a drop in the bucket compared to the $8 billion a month price tag for the occupation. "I don't know of anyone inside the administration who sees this as a priority area," said Livinia Limon, president of the United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

Desperate Iraqis cannot even apply for refugee status in Baghdad, let alone in Jordan or Syria. "We're not even meeting our basic obligation to the Iraqis who've been imperiled because they worked for the U.S. government," said Kirk Johnson, who worked for United States Agency for International Development in 2005.

This has enflamed resentment among even Iraqis who collaborated with the occupation. One Iraqi interpreter, Amar, complained of American neglect. "They have said nothing for Iraqis," Amar said. "We feel like stupid trash."

Not only has the U.S. under-funded its own refugee program, but it actually cut its support for the UNHCR, from $19.9 million in 2005 to $7.9 million in 2006. Thus, the UN has also been unable to address the refugee crisis. It has only a $700,000 budget for aiding Iraqi refugees in Syria, less than a dollar a year for each refugee.

As Refugees International documents, "Lack of resources further keeps UNHCR from being able to monitor further influxes and assist the most vulnerable. With bare-bones teams in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, UNHCR cannot register incoming refugees at border crossings."

To try to improve the dire situation, the UN launched a fund drive to raise $60 million to aid the 200,000 most vulnerable refugees. But this is only a drop in the ocean of Iraqis fleeing the occupation and civil war.

Iraq's burgeoning refugee crisis must be added to the long list of war crimes that the U.S. is committing with its occupation. The antiwar movement must demand not only an immediate end to the occupation and reparations to Iraq, but also that the U.S. fund refugee resettlement--and admit any and all refugees seeking sanctuary in the U.S.

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