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World Faces Mammoth Iraqi Refugee Crisis


The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees -- or UNHCR -- estimates there are now 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, 750,000 in Jordan, 100,000 in Egypt, 54,000 in Iran, 40,000 in Lebanon, and 10,000 in Turkey. That does not include an estimated 1.9 million Iraqis who are internally displaced inside Iraq.

Nir Rosen, author of In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq, spent more than two years in Iraq reporting on the war, the U.S. occupation, and interethnic and sectarian relations. He compares the current Iraqi refugee crisis with that of the Palestinians in 1948, which he says does not bode well for the future of the region. Forced to flee to Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, the Palestinians were eventually "politicized and militarized." Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now's International Press Club, Mr. Rosen says the Iraqi refugees "have begun to view themselves as Palestinians."

In both Syria and Jordan, the influx of Iraqi refugees has strained social services, hospitals, and schools. Nir Rosen suggests that Syria has been "by far the most generous" host country to the Iraqi refugees in terms of accepting them. But in Jordan, he says, there is a "myth" that the refugees are rich, but most are in fact middle class, and some are quite poor. Unemployment among the refugees is serious problem, Mr. Rosen says, and their children are unable to attend public schools.

UNHCR calls Iraq the "most covered conflict in the world" while it says the humanitarian crisis there is the "least covered humanitarian crisis." Nir Rosen says that is partly because it is an invisible crisis, since people are not living in camps. What is unique about the crisis, Mr. Rosen explains, is that the Iraqis have "blended into the urban fabric" of Damascus and Amman. And most of them say that they are "never going to go back," especially the Sunnis and Christians.

Concerning the nearly two million internally displaced Iraqis, VOA correspondent Margaret Besheer says the majority of Iraq's 18 provinces have been overwhelmed by trying to provide basic services for them and are now "preventing displaced people from entering their territory." Ms. Besheer, who reports from both Baghdad and Irbil, says that in the autonomous Kurdistan region, which is estimated to have as many as 150,000 IDP's, most of the IDP's stay with family or friends. And in some cases, Christian refugees are helped by local churches. She says most of the internally displaced she has talked with in Kurdistan do not intend to stay there because they are non-Kurds and do not speak Kurdish so it is hard for them to assimilate.

But when -- and if -- the Iraqi refugees will be able to go home is uncertain. Some European countries, such as Sweden, have offered resettlement to a few thousand. What is troubling, Nir Rosen says, is that the U.S. response to this refugee crisis has been unlike its response during many other refugee crises. After the Vietnam War, for example, the United States took in about a million refugees from Vietnam. Last year, 202 Iraqi refugees were resettled in the United States. Although Washington announced a goal earlier this year of settling 7,000 refugees in America, Mr. Nir says that only 130 have actually been resettled, partly because of security concerns. Many of these people, he notes, had worked for the United States as translators or in U.S. offices and construction agencies in Iraq.

To listen to all of the comments, click on the audio link above.