The United Nations is warning that the violence in Iraq is leading to a disastrous refugee crisis in the Middle East. Out of a population of 26 million, nearly two million Iraqis are internally displaced and another two million have fled abroad, according to recent UN estimates.
The majority of Iraqi refugees have fled to Jordan and Syria. Jordanian journalist Rana Sabbagh says UN estimates put the Iraqi refugee population at about one million in each country. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Ms. Sabbagh says that, in the period following the invasion, Jordanians were very sympathetic to the Iraqi refugees. But, since early 2004, as the sectarian strife worsened, huge numbers of Iraqis fled across the border, overwhelming Jordanian resources. They are now competing with Jordanians for limited services, education and health facilities, and limited job opportunities. Furthermore, housing costs have gone up by 100 percent because demand so far outstrips supply.
Syria is facing a similar problem in coping with the influx of refugees, according to journalist Rajal Muhamad in Damascus. He says Syrian officials estimate that about 1.2 million Iraqis now live in Syria, mostly in three suburbs of Damascus. In the past, the government gave the refugees renewable 3-month residence permits, but since last December, Mr. Muhamad explains, Syria has been giving Iraqi refugees 2-week residence permits, renewable only once. Many of the refugees are educated, skilled workers, and fled Iraq with enough money to buy or rent an apartment and care for their families – but not all. Because people don’t have jobs, Mr. Muhamad says, some Iraqi women are forced into prostitution or work as dancers in nightclubs.
In Jordan as well, Rana Sabbagh says, the conditions under which many Iraqis live are deplorable. But for her, the most difficult thing is that every time she or her colleagues in the press do a story on the Iraqis in Jordan, they are overwhelmed with desperate pleas for jobs, contacts with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees or with foreign embassies – which they are unable to meet. Rana Sabbagh says the Iraqi refugees fall into three separate categories. Surprisingly, about 35 percent are “super-rich,” but it is “dirty” money, she says – made under the Saddam Hussein regime, stolen from the Iraqi Provisional Government, or siphoned off from corrupt contracts after the invasion. About 25 percent are middle-class educated people looking for jobs. And the rest are very poor people who “just wander the streets selling cigarettes and chewing gum.”
Both Rana Sabbagh and Rajan Muhamad say the international community has not done enough to help the Iraqi refugees or the Middle Eastern governments that are struggling to host them. Ms. Sabbagh says, for example, that America has given asylum to only 200 people. She adds that many people she has interviewed think America should be morally and legally responsible for the refugees, especially the ones who worked for the U.S. army in the “early days of the invasion” and who can’t return to Iraq because they are viewed as “traitors.”
The State Department announced last week that America would accelerate the resettlement of about 7,000 Iraqis referred by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Among those to be accommodated are Iraqis who worked for the Americans and who consequently face extraordinary hazards, says former VOA correspondent Laurie Kassman, who reported from Baghdad in the early months of the war. Last week the United States announced that it would contribute 18 million dollars, or one-third of the total request for Iraq from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
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