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Iraq’s Refugees: Still a ‘Non-Dit’

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Iraq’s Refugees: Still a ‘Non-Dit’

In a rundown Damascus neighbourhood late last spring, a young Iraqi mother, whose husband had died in a Baghdad bombing, asked me a question I could not easily answer. “I never wanted to leave my country,” she began. “But if I can’t go home and I can’t stay here, what am I supposed to do?”

More than six years into the Iraq war, which I covered as a newspaper reporter based in Baghdad for 18 months, the eyes of the world, and the policy priorities of the countries prosecuting that conflict, are shifting to other theatres, other problems. Coalition troop numbers are slated to decline, along with the budget for reconstruction assistance.

All but ignored, not unexpectedly, is the plight of the estimated two million people who have fled Iraq since the invasion and now endure a meagre existence in neighbouring countries like Syria and Jordan. Unlike the war, the Iraqi refugee crisis – the gravest humanitarian emergency in the Middle East in more than 60 years – has generated scant attention since the mass migrations following the bombing of a sacred shrine in Samarra in 2006. Because neighbouring countries fear the burden of another permanent diaspora alongside their Palestinian population, they classify the Iraqis as ‘guests’ and bar them from the workforce, tacitly hoping that economic necessity will force them back home.

There are at least two potential remedies for the crisis: resettling Iraqis in the West and returning them to Iraq.

Resettlement in the West has been undermined by a lack of generosity on the part of potential host countries. By the end of 2008, the US had resettled fewer than 20,000 Iraqis and President George W. Bush had hardly uttered a public word about them. Sweden, which resettled more than 40,000 Iraqis in the early days of the crisis, more than any other country, had all but stopped admitting Iraqis. And the EU had made a non-binding pledge to admit 10,000 Iraqi refugees in the coming years, far fewer than many refugee advocates had hoped.

The parsimony of the US – which admitted just over 13,000 Iraqis in 2008, and is aiming to admit 17,000 this year – contrasts sharply with its history of welcoming refugees, particularly those from wars in which it fought. More than 900,000 Southeast Asians have been resettled there since the end of the Vietnam War. And between 1993 and 2003, the US admitted about 143,000 Bosnian refugees. Since the 9/11 attacks, however, the same enhanced security measures that have made it more difficult for foreign students to study in American universities, and for engineers and other professionals to obtain visas, have driven down annual refugee admission numbers to a fraction of what they were in the 1990s.

Since only a small portion of the Iraqi refugee population will ever be resettled, attention is now focussing anew on encouraging Iraqis to return home. In her first public comments on the Iraqi refugee crisis since she was nominated for Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton said in her confirmation hearing that how to “deal with the repatriation and return, both externally and internally, of Iraqis is a big challenge to the Iraqi government that we’re conscious of.”

The Iraqi government has fuelled this initiative by calling on neighbouring countries to tighten their borders, offering free one-way flights back to Baghdad and other financial inducements, and making empty promises that people will be able to return to homes that had been appropriated by militias or criminals. In early May, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees announced that, for the first time since 2007, Iraqis fleeing certain parts of the country will no longer automatically be granted considered refugees – a status that affords them protections against deportation, among other benefits.

While return must form a part of any long-term solution to the crisis, these initiatives are premature. More than 350 Iraqi civilians died violently last month, the bloodiest month in more than a year, in a spate of attacks that included bombings in Baghdad, executions in Hillah and an assassination attempt against Basra’s police chief. Despite a recent retreat from the wholesale bloodletting that once prevailed, a UN report in early May expressed “serious concerns with regard to the sustainability of the security improvements as they are based on largely fragile or temporary security arrangements.” US Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Colin Kahl has said that it is “likely” that a new wave of violence will accompany the large-scale troop withdrawals anticipated in the coming years.

There is no denying that the security climate in Iraq has improved and that eventual return of Iraqis to their homeland is key to both resolving the refugee crisis and rebuilding Iraq proper. But the group that is best equipped to evaluate whether now is the time to go back is Iraqi refugees themselves. In several trips to the region – meeting with dozens of Iraqi refugees during the past year – I have met many who said that they would never return, no matter how safe things got, because they would have to live among people who had in the past menaced them. Indeed, the Iraqi government recently stated that, despite its efforts, only 16,000 Iraqi citizens – less than 1 percent of the total Iraqi refugee population – had returned to Iraq since the post-surge abatement in violence.

Unable to get to the West, and unwilling to return home, Iraqi refugees are left to soldier on toward poverty, in their adopted lands.  There is no shortage of reasons for the international community to take action – not least that a large, disaffected population at the heart of a strategically vital region poses a potential security threat. For a while there was hope that a bold, new initiative might emerge amid the transition to a new American Administration with more goodwill abroad, and a President who had pledged during the campaign to devote $2 billion to the crisis. But that was before the financial crisis forced a reappraisal of what was possible.

Like the young mother in Damascus, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are anxiously awaiting an answer. Foreign aid for host countries like Syria and Jordan to channel toward Iraqi refugees would be one good place to start. Increasing the number of resettlement slots in Western countries – and improvement of the tortuously slow system of processing of resettlement applicants – is another. Encouraging host countries to ease their ban on Iraqi labour – perhaps by allowing part-time employment – would help them stave off economic ruin.

Many countries during the coming months debate whether the Iraq war is finally winding down. But even if the current trend toward stability evolves into a lasting peace, it will be many years before the humanitarian catastrophe spawned by the war is resolved.


Jonathan Finer was an Iraq Correspondent for The Washington Post in 2003 and 2005-2006. He is the founder and co-director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, which does legal and policy advocacy on behalf of Iraqi refugees.


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