The United States has announced plans to receive 7,000 Iraqi refugees during the next eight months -- a significant increase from the less than 500 Iraqi refugees who have been admitted since the U.S. invasion in 2003.
The U.N. says nearly two million Iraqi refugees are fleeing to neighboring countries – 700,000 to Jordan alone. They are seeking safety from the escalating violence in their homeland. Some are granted temporary residency in Jordan. Others stay in the country illegally. VOA's Jeff Swicord reports on what aid organizations are calling a hidden crisis. In this, the first of two reports, he takes a look at the dilemma Iraqis face while seeking legal residency in Jordan and other countries.
In the second part, he will take a look at the impact more than 700,000 Iraqis have had on Jordan, a country of five and one-half million people.
Serwan Baran Arif is one of about 700,000 Iraqi refugees that the United Nations estimates is living in Jordan. Born and raised an Iraqi Kurd in Irbil, he studied and worked as an abstract artist in Baghdad until December of 2004.
Like many in Iraq, he found the constant violence unbearable. "I ran away from Iraq. That is how I got out. One day I was driving and my car was shot at. I knew that people wanted to kill me and I could not stay here," he said.
Arif is one of the lucky ones. He is now a legal resident of Jordan -- a status that does not come easily for middle-class Iraqis. While the official figure is 700,000 Iraqi refugees in Jordan, unofficial estimates are closer to one million -- a staggering number for a country of five-and-a-half-million people.
The Washington-based organization Refugee International says the flight from Iraq is now the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world. The United Nations estimates 3,000 people leave the country every day.
Dr. Joost Hiltermann is the Middle East project director with the International Crisis Group in Amman. He says the Iraqi situation is very different from the typical refugee crisis. "These refugees, they are not the poor bedraggled masses that come walking across the border and end up in tents. This is still the relatively wealthy middle class of Iraq who are coming here in order to find protection from the violence, schooling for their children, a relatively normal life."
The first wave of people to leave Iraq were well-to-do businessmen like Yousif Agoub. A successful restaurateur, he owned the five-star Al FunJan Restaurant in Baghdad. When his life was threatened, he packed up his family and moved to Amman and started another restaurant.
He says obtaining an investor permit in Jordan is easy for those with money. "It is a very easy thing for an investor. After you invest and register your business with the Ministry of Commerce, you automatically get an annual residency. And after 10 years, you get a five-year residency."
The official policy of the Jordanian government is to allow Iraqis into the country with temporary residency permits. And government spokesman Nasser Judeh says that policy will not change anytime soon. "The presence of so many Iraqis or other non-Jordanians does put a strain on our natural resources, but we still do it. We still welcome them because, as I said, we have always been a haven and we understand the difficult situation they are facing back in Iraq, and we understand that they need to go somewhere."
Most Iraqis arriving now find themselves in a difficult situation. If they are lucky, they have a temporary residency permit, allowing them to stay in Jordan for six months. After that, they either stay on illegally or face the prospect of returning to Iraq.
We took a walk through a downtown Amman mall where we met Aynas Alsadi sitting with a friend. When we asked her why she left Iraq, she broke down in tears.
She said her husband's life had been threatened, and all the bombing caused psychological problems for their daughter. Their six-month residency permit is about to expire, and they have spent all of their savings supporting themselves here in Jordan. Now they must return to an unknown fate in Iraq. "A person knows they are going to their death, but they have no other option. They have to go back."
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees calls the Iraqi refugee situation critical, and is asking for $60 million in emergency funds, double its request for Iraqi refugees last year. All of the people we talked with say they hope to return to Iraq one day. But for now, their fate is tied to the political and military crisis in Iraq that continues to spiral out of control.