Friday, March 02, 2007

the refugees of iraq

With the number of Iraqis being slain by sectarian infighting rising to catastrophic proportions, and with 1.6m displaced within Iraq's boundaries, it can be easy to dismiss the further 1.8 million who have successfully fled from Iraq and found refuge in neighbouring countries as 'the lucky ones'. In a sense, they are. Yet the consequences of the catastrophic war in Iraq go beyond the internal tragedies and the diplomatic tensions between East and West which have followed. They threaten to upset the balance of the middle East and undermine the stability of the more secure countries in the region.

Two countries, Syria and Jordan, have done the most to alleviate the terrific burdens of the displaced Iraqis. With figures on the rise daily (an estimated 40,000 Iraqis are crossing the border into Syria every month) the statistics are unbelievable. There are over 700,000 refugees in Jordan, upwards of 600,000 in Syria, 100,000 in Egypt, 54,000 in Iran and between 20 and 40,000 in Lebanon. For a country such as Jordan such an intake is quite breathtaking, especially when it is taken into account that these are cautious statistics. To put that in context, for a country with a population of only 5.6 million, taking on that many refugees means that the thousands of Iraqi men, women and children there now number more than ten percent of the population, which is the equivalent of over 30 million people arriving on America's shores.

Jordan's remarkable tolerance is a great compliment to the society. But it would be a grave mistake to mistake such tolerance for the answer to the question of what to do with the fleeing Iraqis. Despite the influx, Jordan is being forced to change its policies. Initially, Jordan indicated that it would close its borders, but in practice throughout 2003 and 2004 it allowed Iraqis to enter on 30 day tourist visas and looked the other way when the return date passed and the refugees remained. However, by November 2005, in a country already experiencing problems with Islamism, crisis point was swiftly reached - three Iraqi nationals killed 60 people by setting off bombs in major hotels in the capital, Amman. Since then, Jordan has ratcheted up its immigration enforcement, barring entry to Iraqi men aged between 18 and 35. Young men trapped, as Ted Kennedy noted, in a cauldron of violence.

The situation for Iraqis in Jordan is not helped by the Jordanian policy of recognising them not as refugees but rather as tourists and temporary visitors. They are not recognised as de facto refugees (which Human Rights Watch defines as "people who have fled conditions of generalized violence and persecution, who are in need of international protection and who face objective conditions of danger in their own country") and thus are given what Bill Frelick, author of a 106 page report on the plight of Iraqi refugees, describes as 'the silent treatment'. They are not deported, but they swiftly lose legal status and any protection or assistance that might go with it. Unlike Iranian and Palestinian refugees, however, they are not restricted in their movement.

Of course, the financial implications of taking on this enormous influx are severe. Ian Black, who suspects that there are as many as a million Iraqis in Jordan, notes that "With high unemployment and 14% of Jordanians living in poverty, recent fuel and other price rises have been painful. The cost of housing in Amman has doubled or tripled in the last year alone". Although many new arrivals are Ba'athists officials or representatives of the Iraqi professional class, many refugees are living in drastic poverty, without education or health care, and facing up to a new position of social outcasts in a society which once looked up to Iraqis.

Jordanians and Syrians - and their neighbours, near and far - have other reasons for concern. Kenneth Pollack and Daniel Byman of the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy point out that "all too often, where large numbers of refugees go, instability and war closely follows". In their article 'Iraqi Refugees: Carriers of Conflict', they point to the experience of countries who have taken in large numbers of Palestinian refugees - after all, the Palestinian question has contributed to conflicts in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Syria. Similar consequences have occurred elsewhere where large numbers of refugees have sought resettlement. The fall of the Zairean ruler Mobuto Sese Seko, for instance, Pollack and Byman say, "and the subsequent civil war in Zaire, which claimed roughly 4 million lives, can be traced directly to the arrival of Rwandan refugees in 1994. Refugees have a knack for upsetting the status quo". As a country where the Sunni majority has always lived happily with its Christian minority, Jordanians and students of Middle Eastern politics are naturally concerned that if Sectarian politics are imported as well as Iraqi nationals, this delicate balance might be upset, with tragic consequences.

Katherine Newland, director of the Michigan Policy Institute, is blunt in her assessment:

"There's just no way a small country like Jordan can, unaided, absorb hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees".

Historically, despite the well deserved reputation for hospitality which countries in the Middle East have earned, it is America which has done the most for refugees. After Vietnam the US admitted over 1.4 million Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians, and the US has been similarly generous in providing a new home for Nicaraguans, Cubans, Iranians and Hungarians. Since 1976, it has admitted 2.66 million refugees - a dazzling number. In the post 9/11 world the US is understandably hesitant about admitting refugees who might engage in terrorist activities, and yet, as Senator Ted Kennedy has indicated, their admittance of Iraqis has been shockingly minimal. Writing for the Washington Post last month, Kennedy pointed out that:

"There is an overwhelming need for temporary relief and permanent resettlement. Last year, however, America accepted only 202 Iraqi refugees, and next year we plan to accept approximately the same number. We and other nations of the world need to do far better".

It is essential that Jordan and Syria do not close their borders and condemn displaced Iraqis to further violence. It is unreasonable, however, to assume that they alone can mop up the consequences of this tragic war. The West bears a great responsibility for the violence and escalating civil strife in Iraq, and must do its share to help.

"Failure to act quickly and co-operatively with other nations will only result", Kennedy writes, "in more carnage, chaos and instability in the region".

originally written for Hii Dunia, and trailed here previously.

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