What Humanitarianism from the Decider?

Iraq: The World’s Fastest Growing Refugee Crisis

Since November 2006, Refugees International has led the call for increased assistance to Iraqi refugees and displaced people.

The displacement of Iraqis from Iraq is now the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world.

The UN estimates that nearly 4 million Iraqis have been displaced by violence in their country, the vast majority of which have fled since 2003. Some 1.9 million have vacated their homes for safer areas within Iraq, 2 million are now living in Syria, Jordan, Iran, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, and Turkey. Most Iraqis are determined to be resettled to Europe or North America, and few consider return to Iraq an option. With no legal work options in their current host countries, Iraqis are already exploring the use of false documents to migrate to Western nations.

The violence in Iraq has reached a deadly tipping point: Most Iraqis feel threatened.

“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. Refugees International has met with dozens of Iraqis who have fled the violence and sought refuge in neighboring countries. All of them, whether Sunni, Shi’a, Christian or Palestinian, had been directly victimized 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.” All of them fled Iraq because they had genuine and credible fear for their lives and the lives of their loved ones.

Neighboring countries are being overwhelmed by the massive influx of Iraqi refugees.

Syria and Jordan are rapidly becoming overwhelmed by the numbers of Iraqis seeking refuge in their urban centers. Jordan, Lebanon and Syria consider Iraqis as “guests” rather than refugees fleeing violence. None of these countries allows Iraqis to work. Although Syria is maintaining its “open door policy” in the name of pan-Arabism, it has begun imposing restrictions on Iraqi refugees, such as charges for healthcare that used to be free. In Jordan, Iraqis have to pay for the most basic services, and live in constant fear of deportation. It is also becoming increasingly difficult for Iraqis to enter Jordan or to renew their visas to remain in country.

UNHCR does not have enough resources to assist Iraqi refugees in the Middle East.

Although they have received additional funds for this crisis in 2007, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees can’t provide adequate protection and assistance to Iraqis. The agency lacks the resources to process refugees’ documentation adequately. Without staff to monitor borders, UNHCR depends on national governments for updated information on new arrivals. UNHCR is also unable to provide significant assistance to Iraqis, and receives very little support from other UN agencies that seem slow to acknowledge the extent of the crisis. The fact that Lebanon, Syria and Jordan are not state parties to the 1951 Refugees Convention further reduces UNHCR’s ability to protect refugees.

Conditions for Palestinians from Iraq and other third country nationals are especially desperate and bleak.

Many Iraqis resent the preferential treatment Palestinians received under Saddam Hussein’s regime. As a result, several militia and sectarian groups have singled out Palestinians as recipients of a collective “fatwa” (or death sentence). Three hundred and seventy-two Palestinians from Iraq are living near the Al Tanf border crossing between Iraq and Syria in a makeshift refugee camp located in the no man’s land between both borders. They have been denied entry by the Syrian government and they refuse to return to Iraq. As a result, they have been living in increasingly desperate circumstances. Similarly, in Jordan, dozens of Palestinians remain in a camp where they have been since April 2003, awaiting resettlement.

Another vulnerable group is the Iranian Kurds in Jordan; 192 have been living in between the Iraqi and Jordanian borders since January 2005. Another group of 313 had previously been let into Jordan and allowed in a refugee camp. Both groups are awaiting resettlement.

Policy Recommendations

The United States must begin by acknowledging that violence in Iraq has made civilian life untenable, creating a refugee crisis that is essentially exporting the nation’s instability to neighboring countries. To deal with this crisis, Refugees International proposes the following:

1. Given its central role in Iraq, the US should lead an international initiative to support Middle Eastern countries hosting Iraqi civilians. The US should recognize and support the constructive role Syria is playing in hosting Iraqi refugees and help it keep its borders open.

2. Donors must continue to increase their support to UNHCR and other UN agencies must participate in the relief efforts for Iraqi refugees.

3. Western countries, including the US, must agree to resettle particularly vulnerable groups, without prejudice to their right to return to their country as recognized under international law.


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