January 16, 2006
Washington -- Iraq is in the throes of the largest refugee crisis in the Middle East since the Palestinian exodus from Israel in 1948, a mass flight out of and within the country that is ravaging basic services and commerce, swamping neighboring nations with nearly 2 million refugees and building intense pressure for emigration to Europe and the United States, according to the United Nations and refugee experts.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which appealed for $60 million in emergency aid last week, believes 1.7 million Iraqis are displaced inside Iraq, whose prewar population was 21 million. About 50,000 Iraqis are fleeing inside Iraq each month, the United Nations said, and 500,000 have been displaced since last February's bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra. These figures are as of January 2007.
The Bush administration and the governments of Jordan and Syria, the nations that accept the bulk of the refugees, have been reluctant to acknowledge the humanitarian crisis, experts said.
"I think everyone at this point is in denial about the human consequences of the war," said Kathleen Newland, director of the Migration Policy Institute, who is familiar with the State Department's views.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., has scheduled a hearing today to push for more aid and more U.S. admissions of refugees, especially those facing death threats for working for the U.S. military.
At Kennedy's hearing, the State Department is expected to call for a slight increase in Iraqi admissions to the United States. Just 220 Iraqis were admitted last year, most of them not from the war. The Department of Homeland Security worries that it would be difficult to screen out terrorists.
"I would suspect that the Department of Homeland Security would regard it as a complete security nightmare," Newland said.
Kristele Younes, an advocate at Refugees International, said the refugee problem is growing rapidly.
"At the moment, we're seeing up to 80,000 to 100,000 that are being displaced every month," inside and outside the country, she said. "In Syria alone, there are estimations that there's about 40,000 Iraqis that are coming every month."
Roughly 40 percent of Iraq's middle class is believed to have fled, the U.N. said. Most are fleeing systematic persecution and have no desire to return.
All kinds of people, from university professors to bakers, have been targeted by militias, insurgents and criminals. An estimated 331 school teachers were slain in the first four months of last year, according to Human Rights Watch, and at least 2,000 Iraqi doctors have been killed and 250 kidnapped since the 2003 U.S. invasion. Business owners are especially prone to extortion.
The flight has undermined basic services such as water and sanitation and disrupted commerce, making it increasingly difficult for Iraqi society to function, officials said.
Iraqi Christians were an early target after the 2003 invasion; after the February bombing, Shiite militias began taking revenge on Sunnis. Violence is rising in southern Iraq between rival Shiite factions. Refugees International said many people are targeted for "un-Islamic" dress or behavior.
Iraqis who work for the U.S. government or any Western group, such as nongovernmental organizations and the news media, are especially vulnerable.
"People are targeted in extremely direct ways -- kidnapping, killings, rapes," Younes said. "Every single family we interviewed had gone through such an ordeal, and the tribal system in Iraq is such that revenge is carried out generation to generation, so they feel ... return to Iraq would be tantamount to a death sentence."
While the Bush administration is hastily devising new reconstruction plans for Iraq, refugee advocates say the country most needs emergency humanitarian aid for the most vulnerable, including orphans and women.
U.S. officials have "wanted to keep the impression that they were being successful and that there were Iraqis who were committed to building democracy," said Bill Frelick, refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch and author of an extensive report on the situation. "As it turns out, many of the people who are fleeing are fleeing because of their associations with the United States."
Syria and Jordan, for their part, may want to avoid being formally saddled with refugees who have special international status.
Newland said Syria and Jordan consider the refugees tourists or illegal immigrants, "which sort of implies that the problem will go away or that they would be perfectly within their rights to kick people out."
Jordan, a U.S. ally, has long accepted Arab refugees, and so has Syria's pan-Arabist dictatorship. The fear now is that both may close their borders. Pressure on Jordan, a country of just 6 million, is intense, with Iraqi refugees now accounting for 10 percent of its population -- the equivalent of 30 million landing on U.S. shores. Jordan began restricting entry after Iraqis bombed three hotels in Amman in 2005.
Many Iraqis are also living in Egypt and Lebanon. Iran, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have barred Iraqis.
"There's just no way a small country like Jordan can, unaided, absorb hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees," Newland said.
Despite terrorism concerns, some predict the United States eventually will admit several hundred thousand Iraqi refugees, as it has after most military conflicts.
"Is it going to be one of the unintended consequences of our invasion and occupation of Iraq that we may end up taking hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees in this country?" said James Hollifield, an expert in international migration and director of the Tower Center for Political Studies at Southern Methodist University. "I think there's a high probability of that, which is what we saw after Vietnam."
When the South Vietnamese government collapsed, the United States initially accepted 130,000 Vietnamese, including 65,000 fearing their lives because of their collaboration with Americans. Many conferences later, 1.4 million Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians had been admitted, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Smaller admissions of refugees and those claiming asylum followed the conflict in Nicaragua in the 1980s, two Cuban crises in the 1960s and 1980s, the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the Gulf War in the 1990s and the failed 1956 Hungarian Revolution. The United States is the largest refugee host in the world, admitting 2.66 million since 1976.
"The reality is that refugee flows are really tied to foreign policy," said David Reimers, a historian emeritus at New York University. "It's perfectly possible that we could wind up with a couple hundred thousand Iraqi refugees.
"The parallel to me would be after Vietnam War," Reimers said. "There was a frantic number of Vietnamese who wanted to get out, and we were caught unawares; 130,000 or so climbed aircraft and helicopters," some on their own, some evacuated by the U.S. military. Many more followed, and Thailand was soon swamped. Thailand said it could not handle the flows and was not responsible for them. The initial U.S. evacuation soon became, said Citizenship and Immigration Services, "one of the longest running migration and refugee resettlement programs in the modern era."
"Whether it was guilt feelings or a moral imperative, we began to resettle them," Reimers said.
U.S. refugee policy has long been an ad hoc affair, Hollifield said. "We sort of make it up as we go along ... The fact is, refugee policy is a function of foreign policy, but also a function of our humanitarian instincts. It is in fact a very messy business."
Most Iraqi refugees are determined to be resettled to Europe or North America, advocates say. Life in the host countries has become more difficult, they report. Resentment is growing, and most Iraqis are not legally permitted to work.
Resettlement abroad is considered a last resort on humanitarian and foreign policy grounds. Countries in conflict eventually need their people to take part in their own national struggles, some believe. "If we take all the most educated and bright people from Haiti, Haiti's going to sink into the abyss," Hollifield said the thinking goes.
For now, refugee organizations are calling for increased U.S. aid to Jordan and even, through back channels, to Syria.
Some contend large-scale resettlement to the United States is unlikely because of anti-immigration sentiment and fear of terrorism.
"Islamophobia may be too strong a word, but there is suspicion at least of Muslims from the Middle East, and at this stage -- though this could change -- I think people in this country don't see the United States as being the main cause of the refugee flows," Newland said. "I would guess they see it more as result of Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence."
Despite anti-war sentiment, Newland said, "we have not seen as much of an outpouring of sympathy for the innocent victims of this war from Americans, as we did in the aftermath of that terrible photograph of the little girl on fire with napalm (in Vietnam.) Nothing seems to have quite seized the imagination of the American public about Iraqi civilian victims of war in quite that way. Maybe we're just in the early stages. "
E-mail Carolyn Lochhead at firstname.lastname@example.org.