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Story Publication logo September 30, 2007

Refugees Flee Iraq but Find Long Wait


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"Iraq: Death of a Nation" examines how the U.S. invasion and occupation created a multi-faceted...

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Salam and Hanan's 6-month-old son, Hamoudi, will probably not grow up in Baghdad. He will have lots of company.

Salam, Hanan and Hamoudi are among about 2 million Iraqi war refugees living in Syria and Jordan. They left Baghdad in June after their house was raided by militiamen because Salam worked as an accountant for the Iraqi government. He took a leave from his job, but it seems unlikely he will return. He was also threatened by members of a political party after filing a report that implicated party members who work in Iraqi government of embezzlement and corruption.

Their savings are running out, but Hanan and Hamoudi will try and stay in Damascus even if Salam returns.

They, like the other refugees interviewed, requested that their real names not be used for fear of reprisals.

The lights suddenly go out in their small apartment. Damascus now has rolling blackouts, a result of the sprawl driven in large part by Iraqis. Hospitals, schools and other infrastructure are further taxed in a nation with problematic unemployment.

The problem is increasing. Since the U.S. military increased troop levels in Iraq during its "surge" early this year, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have fled. The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees estimates that 80,000 to 100,000 have fled their homes each month since January.

Some have entered other countries; others are refugees in their own land.

The U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees has said its office will try to refer as many as 20,000 Iraqis for resettlement in other nations by the end of the year. About 3,000 have been referred so far. A major problem is the difficulty getting industrialized nations to accept Iraqis, who make up the largest single group of people seeking asylum in the world, according to the U.N. refugee office. The United States took 200 Iraqis last year and says it will accept as many as 7,000 this year.

As of mid-August, only 47 Iraqis had been resettled in any country this year through U.N. referrals, and progress has been so slow in the United States that Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, sent a message to the State Department earlier this month sharply criticizing the process.

"Resettlement takes too long," Crocker was quoted by The Washington Post. The federal Department of Homeland Security, which is in charge of interviewing Iraqis for resettlement, has only a handful of officers in Syria to conduct interviews, which U.N. refugee officials confirmed has slowed the process. By Crocker's estimation, it would take two years for Homeland Security officials to interview Iraqis already referred by the U.N.

Legislation set to pass Monday in the Senate for the U.S. to allow 5,000 special immigrant visa for Iraqis for each of the next five years would still have a very small statistical impact on the number of refugees seeking resettlement. And without specific plans for speeding up the immigration process, the new system would probably suffer the same problems as the current one.
Syria is the only nation with borders remaining open to Iraqis, and there are about 1.5 million of them here. With more than half a million Palestinians in addition to the more recent Iraqi arrivals, Jordan has the highest number of refugees per capita of any country in the world, according to its government. The Syrian government, after meetings with Iraqi officials in Damascus in August, said it would begin requiring visas for Iraqis by the end of next month.


Hanan's brother Bashar left Baghdad to avoid conscription in the Jeish al-Mehdi, the militia nominally loyal to political leader Moqtada al-Sadr that was fighting for control of his neighborhood in southern Baghdad. He spent his last months in Iraq unable to work and mostly in hiding, sometimes at his parents' house, sometimes at the house of a sister who lived in a safer neighborhood, but the house became crowded with other relatives.

Bashar has been out of Iraq for more than a year. In the last six months he has tried three times to cross into Jordan, where he has been promised a job, but he has been rejected by Jordanian border guards each time. Going back to Iraq is not an option.

"I don't have any opportunity to change my life," he said. "I want to start my life. It's frozen."

Some Iraqis in Damascus said the Iraqi Baath Party was reorganizing in Syria with the help of the Syrian government. Other Iraqi political parties have opened offices in Damascus, and though the parties "spy on one other" as one Iraqi put it, hostilities have so far not spilled over, and the Syrian government, which has a history of politically exploiting conflicts in neighboring states, has kept a tight lid on party activity that it has not approved of.

With a new school year starting, Syrian leaders have said they will take tens of thousands of Iraqi students, but many Iraqis are skeptical whether those promises will come true. Syria's educational system is already overtaxed, and many Iraqis fled without the necessary papers to enroll their children in Syrian schools.

The Syrian medical and electrical infrastructure has also been severely taxed by the refugees.

"The refugee issue has been discussed and the Syrian government said that big numbers of Iraqis create an economic pressure," said Ali al-Dabagh, a spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who traveled to Syria in August for talks with the government.

"We are aware of this kind of pressure. With the Syrian government calling Iraqis guests and not refugees, the Iraqi government has agreed to take concrete steps toward helping the Syrian economy by supplying the Iraqis with health and education care, and humanitarian aid. We realize that the Iraqis' huge numbers existence is temporary, and created by the exceptional circumstances in Iraq."

Officials from the Syrian government declined to comment.

Most Iraqis in Syria, who hoped their stay would last only a few months, are looking for third countries to emigrate to. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have registered with the United Nations office in Damascus for about 11,000 spaces for resettlement elsewhere.


The situation inside Iraq also is dire. Many of the more than one million refugees inside the country receive virtually no aid from the Iraqi government. They lack the money or ability to obtain passports, or could not afford to leave if they had passports. Many have simply been driven from their homes, leaving most of their belongings.

Sabieh Fayhaa walks half a kilometer to a nearby hose to fill empty bottles and then walks back to the building where she squats on the edge of Chikook, a neighborhood in northwestern Baghdad that is home to about 650 families who have been driven from their homes in villages and cities around Baghdad by sectarian violence. Her greatest concern is the lack of medical care — she suffers from asthma, and one of her daughters has epilepsy. Like many children of families that have been displaced, neither of her daughters attends school.

"I have nothing. I've lost everything. I have no money to buy medicine."

The men in Chikook say that despite the increase in U.S. and Iraqi military operations in and around Baghdad since February, it is still unsafe to try to return to their homes.

"Many families tried to return to their neighborhood and they were killed on the way," says Abu Ahmed from Meda'en, a mostly Shiite village southeast of Baghdad. "My son is in the national guard, and I am too scared to send him back to our village. There are Sunni checkpoints on the road, and they will kill any Shiite there."

Such families are known as mohajereen, Arabic for "the displaced." Even here, in this mostly Shiite enclave that is controlled by the Jeish Al-Mehdi, the residents say that they are not entirely safe, that the neighborhood is occasionally shelled by guerillas from nearby Sunni neighborhoods and that drive-by shootings and kidnappings also happen.

But most pressing is the lack of services. The offices of Tayyera Sadrieen, the political party allied with the Jeish al-Mehdi, had provided donations of food and cooking gas in the first months, but supplies and donations have dropped off.

The deputy director of the Iraqi Red Crescent in Baghdad said the Iraqi government and the Red Crescent had fallen short so far in meeting the demand for aid. The U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees estimates the number of refugees inside Iraq is increasing at a rate of between 80,000 to 100,000 each month.

Some of the same tribes and guerilla groups that drove the families in Chikook from their homes are now working with the U.S. military under what is being termed "reconciliation." Members of the U.S.-backed Iraqi government have warned of the implications of such liaisons, but to no avail. Refugees from such areas say they do not expect to return home. "We yet have not fulfilled all our duties and increasing that number will definitely stretch us more and further. But we have no other choice but to prepare ourself," said Adnan Ali al-Kademi, the Iraqi Red Crescent deputy director. "But without funding it will be difficult to meet such demands."

The IRC's budget for the current year is $60 million; it is requesting a $50 million increase for the next year.


Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis now find themselves virtually marooned in Jordan. For the moment, most Jordanians take a congenial view toward Iraqis in the country despite the burden they pose on Jordan's already scarce natural resources and the inflation that has come with this refugee influx.

UNHCR offers health care and education to Iraqis in Jordan and is making plans to expand its operation as the number of Iraqis applying for assistance increases. Though UNHCR publications refer to resettlement of Iraqi refugees as the only "durable solution," it has so far referred fewer than 4,000 Iraqis to third countries.

"At the moment we're not — at least here in Jordan — we're focusing very much on the immediate term," said Imran Khan, the U.N. refugee representative in Amman. "I think all of us are still hoping that there is movement toward a political solution within Iraq, that these people will have the opportunity to return. Certainly when you talk to them, it's clear that most Iraqis in Jordan want nothing more than returning to a safe, peaceful Iraq."

But many Iraqis in Amman don't believe that a solution will be reached that will allow them to return home any time soon. Jewad, 24, said he fled Baghdad in 2005 after militiamen accused him of selling cars to a rival militia and tortured him. He has registered with the UNHCR and hopes to apply for asylum in Europe or the United States, but so far has been unsuccessful.

"I went to the Australian Embassy, and a woman answered the door and gave me a piece of paper with the phone number on it and told me to call," Jewad said.
Like many Iraqis in Amman, his Jordanian visa expired long ago, and he fears deportation. He works illegally. He chain smokes and breaks down in tears while telling his story.

"I went to the Dutch Embassy, and no one would let me in. It is expensive to go to these embassies. My rent is $100 a month. I don't know what to do. We don't eat lunch sometimes."


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