Iraqs Abandoned Refugees

The U.S. government agreed in February to accept 7,000 Iraqi refugees for the fiscal year that ends on Sept. 30, but only 900 had arrived as of Sept. 19. To our nations shame, even 7,000 represent a drop in the bucket, compared to the need. Thousands more whose lives are now in danger have worked with U.S. military personnel and private American contractors. The contrast with the number of refugees taken in after the Vietnam War is striking; over a million Vietnamese were resettled throughout the country and have entered Americas mainstream. Human Rights Watchs refugee policy director, Bill Frelick, told America: In the post 9/11 period, youre not going to see hundreds of thousands of refugees resettled in the U.S. But, he added, the United States could make a far more serious effort in this direction, and it could do more by helping to provide a decent standard of living in the Middle East and to prop up the governments of countries sagging under the weight of so many refugees.

The war in Iraq has led to the first jump in global refugee numbers in five years. An estimated two million refugees have sought safety in Jordan, Syria and other neighboring countries. Comparable numbers, unable to flee, eke out a precarious existence within Iraqs borders as internally displaced persons. Increasingly, moreover, Middle Eastern countries are closing their doors to Iraqis. Whole planeloads of fleeing Iraqis have been turned back from Jordan, even when they had proper documentation. Jordan now hosts the highest number of refugees per capita of any country in the world. Syria too, which previously had what amounted to an open door policy for Iraqi refugees, is now imposing visa requirementsa major stumbling block for those fleeing from the violence. Saudi Arabia has gone so far as to create a $7 billion, technically sophisticated physical barrier to keep Iraqis out.

In the early years of the conflict, Jordan generously allowed Iraqis to enter and remain. But after the bombing of three hotels in Amman in 2005 by Iraqi terrorists, which caused 60 deaths, the mood in Jordan changed. One result was that Iraqi males between the ages of 17 and 35 are completely banned. Three-fourths of Iraqi refugees in Jordan are consequently women and children. Those who entered with savings were initially able to find lodging and, with Arabic as a common language, could to some extent blend in with the local Jordanian population. Now, however, with resources like food, health care and education severely overburdened, the mood has soured, and Iraqi refugees are increasingly viewed as unwelcome illegal aliens. The impact on women and children has been especially harsh. When families savings are gone, some women have fallen prey to sex traffickers, and girls and boys as young as 8 are drawn into prostitution in a desperate effort to help pay for basic necessities.


Internally displaced persons within Iraq have also fared poorly. Scorned in some quarters by those who say that if they had really been in danger, they would have found a way to escape Iraq, I.D.P.s often suffer not only the lack of shelter, but of food as well. Food insecurity is a daily reality. Iraqs public distribution systemthe centralized mechanism that for decades has provided food to vulnerable citizens at subsidized pricesis now near collapse in a nation that was once considered the most developed in the Middle East. The same is true of the sewage system. Less than 20 percent of the population have access to appropriate sanitation. Unclean water is one of the biggest causes of death for children.

Palestinian refugees constitute another overlooked group. Many Palestinians have lived in Iraq since 1948; some born there have never set foot outside Iraq. But hundreds now exist in deplorable conditions in camps on the border between Jordan and Syria, and additional thousands live in fear in Baghdad itself. Especially in Baghdad, they have been attacked and often killed as aliens. Over 600 have been murdered. Because of the ongoing violence, humanitarian aid organizations, moreover, have become increasingly limited in what aid they can offer in Iraq. Most have sent their non-Iraqi workers out of the country. And no wonder; since 2003, almost 100 aid workers have been killed. Even Iraqs own Red Crescent Society has suffered losses, though it continues to function in most of the country.

The challenge, refugee advocates emphasize, is to work toward a more equitable sharing of the burden of refugee care through a massive injection of per capita grant aid. Adequate assistance, either in resettlement initiatives or money, has not been forthcoming from most of the first-world nations, including the United Kingdom and the United States. It is time for them to step forward with deeds, not words only.

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