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The forgotten refugees of the U.S. war on Iraq

October 19, 2007 | Pages 6 and 7

MORE REFUGEES than Darfur. A humanitarian disaster. The largest displaced population in the Middle East since the mass expulsion of Palestinians with the formation of Israel in 1948. That's the reality of the Iraqi refugee crisis--denied by the U.S. government and routinely ignored in the mainstream media. LEE SUSTAR reports.

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THE U.S. government has so far allowed fewer than 2,000 Iraqi refugees to settle in the U.S.

At least 2,000 Iraqis are displaced every day, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). That's more than 80 people per hour, around the clock--forced to flee their homes because of U.S. military activities, sectarian attacks and threats, and sheer desperation caused by the shattered Iraqi economy.

This is the reality of the Iraqi refugee crisis. At least 4.1 million Iraqis have been displaced so far--and the situation is getting worse, despite the supposed success of the "surge" in U.S. troops to Iraq.

In a recent article in the Boston Review, journalist Nir Rosen describes the Iraqi refugees he met in the Syria capital of Damascus:

On a different street, I found three Sunni friends from Baquba. Firas had been shot a year earlier; his brother had been killed. He and Hamza had fled with their families to Syria one month earlier after Shia militiamen attacked their homes.

Ali had been in Syria for a year and a half. In Iraq, three of his uncles had been killed in front of his eyes and a cousin had also been murdered. "Because we are Sunnis," he said, when I asked him why. "My school is gone. My father has no work. I'm never going back."

What else to read

The American Friends Service Committee maintains a Web page documenting the Iraqi refugee crisis. Amnesty International's detailed report, "Millions in Flight: the Iraqi Refugee Crisis," is also available online.

Nir Rosen's "No Going Back," published in the Boston Review, provides a crucial overview of the refugee crisis. Rosen's book In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of Martyrs in Iraq explains how the catastrophe developed as a consequence of the Iraq occupation.

For a newer book on Iraq, get independent journalist Dahr Jamail's excellent Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq, describing his time in Iraq reporting the other side of the story.


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SOME 2.5 million Iraqis have been forced across the border into neighboring countries, mostly Jordan and Syria. Both countries are overwhelmed and recently moved to stop the flow of refugees.

As of September 10, Syria requires a visa for all Iraqis entering the country. Months earlier, Jordan restricted entry by requiring Iraqis to obtain residency permits or invitations issued for medical or educational purposes. Jordan previously tried to deny access to Iraqi men between the ages of 18 and 35. Expensive payments to smugglers or bribes are the only way around these obstacles.

But in spite of these harsh measures, Iraq's neighbors have been far more generous to refugees than the U.S. or European countries.

Syria, with a population of just over 19 million, has allowed an estimated 1.4 million Iraqis free access to emergency health care and permitted Iraqi children to register for schools.

But only 35,000 of 250,000 school-aged Iraqi children attended school in Syria in the last academic year, according to UNHCR. Often, places in schools were simply not available. In many cases, children have to work in order to help support their families. And many refugees are isolated from aid agencies like UNHCR, which supply food aid and other support.

According to Amnesty International, a typical example is a woman who fled Iraq in July 2006 after her husband was killed by an armed group.

"I don't have any income here, and all the savings I brought with me have been almost exhausted now," she told interviewers. "My 12-year-old daughter and myself live in one room that we are renting from an Iraqi woman owner of the house, and we pay 5,000 Syrian pounds ($100) a month for this room. I don't work, and no one is helping us."

Such desperation has led to a rise in prostitution. Amnesty reported that "some Iraqi girls and women have been forced by their families to engage in prostitution to earn money to enable them to meet their daily needs, and there is concern that child prostitution and trafficking of Iraqi children is growing."

Since the vast majority of Iraqi refugees aren't permitted to work legally in Syria and Jordan--other than doctors, engineers and other professionals given special documents--many take menial jobs in the underground economy--for wages at least 30 percent lower.

Jordan, with a population of just 6 million, has absorbed an estimated 750,000 Iraqis. Most don't have papers, which is tolerated by the government, but puts them at risk of deportation back to Iraq.

Amnesty International quoted a cheesemaker who fled Iraq with his wife and five children after his father was abducted, his brother killed and he himself was detained:

When we first arrived in Amman, the first three nights, the boys and I slept in the park. We just had one blanket. I just had $100 to live on--i.e., to pay for food and accommodation...I also now have to pay [visa overstay] fines for eight months...I am afraid that if the Wafidin Police stop me, we will be deported...My financial situation is below zero.

This man's plight is common. According to a report by the UN-sponsored IRIN news agency, prices of housing and parcels of land in Jordan have increased by 300 percent since 2003. While wealthy and middle-class Iraqis can afford them, the vast majority cannot.

Moreover, Jordan didn't allow nonresident Iraqi children to register for public schools until August 2007. Even so, many Iraqi families still haven't registered their children--for fear of being identified as undocumented and deported.

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WHATEVER CRITICISMS can be made of the Jordanian and Syrian governments' treatment of refugees, it is exceedingly generous in comparison to the locked-door policy of the U.S.

Between April 2003 and January 2007, the U.S. had resettled just 753 Iraqi refugees. The government promised to increase that number by 7,000 in the 2007 fiscal year, but recently admitted that only 1,608 had been resettled so far.

The Bush administration tried to change the subject by playing up financial support for UNHCR and other relief agencies. But Kristele Younes of the organization Refugees International says that the U.S. contribution--a new $100 million announced earlier this year--is tiny in view of the needs of Iraqi refugees.

"Since October 2006, the U.S. government has gone from denying that large numbers of vulnerable Iraqi refugees even existed to speaking openly of an 'Iraqi refugee crisis,'" she wrote in May. "But its actual financial commitments are commensurate neither with the need nor with the U.S. role in creating the displacement crisis in the first place. The president and his war cabinet have yet to recognize the human toll the violence has been taking on Iraqi civilians and neighboring countries."

Nir Rosen made a similar point. "This is not any other crisis," he wrote. "It is an American-made humanitarian catastrophe." Rosen noted that the International Organization of Migration issued an appeal for $85 million over two years, but has received less than half that amount.

For its part, the UNHCR has increased its budget for Iraqi refugees from $23 million to $123 million, and joined with UNICEF to try to raise $129 million for the education of Iraqi refugee children. But all this is a pittance compared to U.S. spending on war and occupation.

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AS GRIM as the plight of Iraqi refugees has become, the displaced who remain in Iraq often fare worse.

Numbering more than 2 million, according to the International Organization for Migration, these "internally displaced persons," or IDPs, have either crammed in with relatives or friends, or live in camps and shantytowns on the edge of Baghdad and other cities.

The number of IDPs has nearly doubled since February 2006, when the bombing of a Shia mosque in Samarra led to an escalation in sectarian violence.

One of new refugees was Ahmed al-Timimi, a 39-year-old Shia tailor who lived with his wife and daughters in the Sunni majority area of Dora in Baghdad. One day, he found a note stuck to his door that read: "Leave, or else have your wife and daughters decapitated."

He fled to a relative's home in a Shia neighborhood, but his oldest daughter hasn't been able to attend school. "What have I done in my life to lose my house and job and see my dream of building a happy family fade away?" Timimi told a reporter for IRIN. "Who should be blamed for all our misery?"

Many IDPs are too poor to make the journey abroad and become official refugees eligible for aid from UNHCR and charitable organizations--or have been stopped at the border by authorities of neighboring countries and turned back.

The only major non-governmental organization providing aid to the IDPs is the Iraqi Red Crescent Society (IRCS), which released a report in September detailing the scale of the problem.

A September 19 article in the New York Times summarized the IRCS's findings:

In Baghdad alone, there are now nearly 170,000 families, accounting for almost a million people, that have fled their homes in search of security, shelter, water, electricity, functioning schools or jobs to support their families.

The figures show that many families move two or three times or more, first fleeing immediate danger and then making more-considered calculations based on the availability of city services or schools for their children. Finding neighbors of their own sect is just one of those considerations.

Over all, the patterns suggest that despite the ethnic and sectarian animosity that has gripped the country, at least some Iraqis would rather continue to live in mixed communities.

Raed Jarrar, an organizer on the Iraq refugee issue for the American Friends Service Committee, stressed that point. He argued that many IDPs end up in mixed neighborhoods, and can remain there if the sectarian groups don't care about that particular area.

But if the U.S. carries out plans for what Washington insiders call a "soft partition" of Iraq, ethnic cleansing will increase enormously.

"It's very ironic to see how the U.S. has allied itself with al-Qaeda," Jarrar said in an interview. "Al-Qaeda and the U.S. support the same kind of political agenda, which is to split Iraq into three sectarian regions"--a Kurdish North, Shia South and Sunni central region.

Jarrar rejects the idea that the fighting among Iraqis is caused by ancient hatreds. "The basis of the ethnic and sectarian attacks are political," he said, and are the direct result of U.S. support for the religious political parties that dominate the Iraqi government.

"It's not that the Iraqi refugees and IDPs fell from the sky and we have to find a new home for them," he said. "The majority of IDPs and refugees want to go back home. And the thing that is preventing them from going back home is that Iraq is unstable and under occupation. There is no way Iraq will be stable without a complete withdrawal of the U.S."

Jarrar notes that the Darfur refugee crisis has attracted high-profile attention while the displacement of Iraqis is downplayed, if acknowledged at all.

"There is a displacement crisis in Sudan, but many specialists say the number is exaggerated," said Jarrar, the son of an Iraqi and a Palestinian. "But the official number is less than half the numbers of Iraqis who have been displaced. Unfortunately, we don't see big coalitions in the United States and Israel calling themselves Save Iraq, like Save Darfur."

Jarrar points out that the U.S. spends $200 million a year on Iraqi refugees--while spending on the war in Iraq is $720 million per day. As he puts it:

The issue of refugees in Darfur and Sudan, while it's a very tragic disaster, is not caused by U.S. taxpayers' money. It makes me feel a little bit confused to see how people are more enthusiastic and interested in solving the situation in Sudan, and there is not much attention paid to refugees created by our own money. We are paying to kill and injure Iraqis and destroy their homes from our own salaries every month.

I can't see why I would be more involved in stopping the Sudanese civil war than my personal and moral obligation to try to stop the Iraq war.

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