February 28, 2007
The situation currently facing Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons has very quickly become one of the most pressing humanitarian crises in the world. Prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion, studies predicted that the numbers of internally displaced persons could be as high as 1.8 million, and the number of refugees could reach 2 million. Though many were reluctant to leave for the first few years of the war, the number of Iraqis fleeing their homes swelled dramatically early in 2006 with the bombing of the Shiite Samarra mosque and the sectarian strife that followed. Consequently, the numbers of IDPs and refugees have not only rapidly reached the figures predicted four years ago, but threaten to exceed them. InterAction currently has several member organizations either operating in Iraq and its neighboring countries, or advocating on behalf of the displaced. Drawing on resources from our members, the U.N., and news reports, we attempt to summarize the situation below.
Internally Displaced Iraqis
Approximately 1.8 million Iraqis are internally displaced – comparable to the approximately 2 million refugees living outside the country. Yet their situation remains chronically unreported. UNHCR predicts that if conditions continue to worsen, there will be 2.3 million internally displaced Iraqis by the end of 2007. In 2006, 500,000 Iraqis fled their homes to other areas inside the country, mostly due in part to the aftermath of the Samarra bombing. In Baghdad alone, nearly 40,000 people have fled.
All IDPs face critical situations. The Iraqi government reports that only 32 percent of Iraqis have drinkable water and a bare 19 percent have access to adequate sewage systems. Many have started drinking straight from the rivers, and waterborne diseases are increasing in Iraq, particularly among children. Rents have risen beyond the means of many families, and comparably stable governorates within Iraq have restricted access by IDPs.
Ethnic and religious minorities and stateless persons are particularly vulnerable. 15,000 Palestinians who permanently settled in Iraq after the 1948 creation of Israel have nowhere to go, as many countries are reluctant to take them. Other vulnerable groups include victims of violence; Christians and other small minorities; unaccompanied children; those with medical conditions; and those Iraqis who have worked with the new government, coalition forces, and international organizations. The International Organization for Migration reports that the top three needs for IDPs are shelter, employment and food. UNHCR hopes to provide services to 250,000 IDPs this year.
As IDPs have been living for the most past with relatives, the host families also are coming under severe financial and emotional strain. The continuing violence and high unemployment, plus the departure of medical professionals, are likely to turn many host family members into IDPs or refugees.
UNHCR has said that he current Iraqi refugee crisis constitutes the largest in the Middle East since the Palestinian exodus from Israel in 1948. Approximately 2 million Iraqis have fled the country. 40,000 to 50,000 Iraqis leave their homes each month for countries such as Syria (500,000 to 1 million refugees), Jordan (700,000 refugees), Lebanon (40,000 refugees), Egypt (20,000 to 80,000 refugees), and Turkey. Because the refugees have fled to urban areas, rather than refugee camps, they remain difficult to account for. Hundreds of thousands may have hidden for fear of being deported. Only 45,000 Iraqis registered officially with UNHCR in Syria and 21,000 in Jordan.
Meeting the basic needs of these refugees is becoming a strain on host countries. Providing an education to children is especially difficult. Iraqi children may attend public school in Syria, but their families must pay for supplies and uniforms. Schools in Jordan are given the authority to allow Iraqi children to attend on a case-by-case basis. Lebanon does not allow Iraqi children to attend public school at all. Most Iraqi refugees cannot afford to send their children to private school.
In January, UNHCR made a $60 million appeal to fund its work with Iraqi refugees and IDPs for the rest of the year. The agency hopes to provide protection and assistance for up to 200,000 Iraqi refugees, in addition to the 250,000 IDPs they hope to target. U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres has said that he hopes to resettle 20,000 refugees in other countries – including 7000 in the U.S. Last year, UNHCR’s funding for Iraq programs was $29 million.
An international humanitarian conference on Iraqi displacement will be held in Geneva on April 17. The EU has already announced an additional $13 million for Iraqi refugees. 60% of this assistance will benefit refugees in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. Advocates for those displaced by the conflict within Iraq are calling for an additional $250 million in U.S. government assistance, as well as the admission of 20,000 refugees to the U.S.
Refugees in Syria
There are approximately 500,000 to 1 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, likely the largest population in any country. 30 percent of Iraqi children in Syria are not attending school, 4 percent are disabled, and 10 percent of Iraqi families in Syria are headed by women. Syria used to offer unrestricted access to Iraqis, but now all Iraqis are being issued a 15-day permit, after which they may apply for a three-month permit that may be renewed only once. Before their permits expire, they must leave the country for one month before they may re-enter. Students and business travelers are exempt.
The U.S. has pledged $18 million to UNHCR’s special appeal on top of this year’s regular allocation of $20 million, and has agreed to resettle up to 7000 Iraqi refugees. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has announced the formation of a task force to coordinate assistance for refugees and IDPs and resettlement in the U.S. Last year, the U.S. gave $35 million in assistance to Iraqi refugees -- $400,000 of which was allocated for resettling those who wished to come to the U.S. $76 million has been given to UNHCR by the U.S. over the past four years. The first of the 7000 new refugees to arrive in the U.S. are likely to be those who fled to Turkey during the rule of Saddam Hussein. These will be followed by refugees in Syria, and then by those in Jordan.
Special consideration will be given to those who have worked with U.S. forces and companies. 5000 Iraqis have served as interpreters for the U.S., and 250 Iraqi interpreters have been killed. Previously, the U.S. provided 50 visas a year for interpreters who worked with American armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The waiting list was six years long.