Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Millions of Iraqis Forced to Flee the War, Many Turned Away or Denied

Sources: Christian Science Monitor, Human Rights Watch, International Herald Tribune, Reuters

A two-day conference organized by the U.N. Refugee Agency and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) convened today in Geneva to address the plight of the 4 million Iraqi refugees who have been displaced by the ongoing conflict in their country, set into motion by the 2003 United States invasion of Iraq. This is the first global attempt to address the Iraqi refugee crisis. More than 450 representatives from 60 countries, as well as the Red Cross and many humanitarian workers, attending the Geneva conference hope to raise international awareness of the humanitarian crisis, particularly among donors and aid agencies.

Of the 4 million refugees, 1.9 million have been displaced to other regions of Iraq, including three Kurdish provinces in the north governed by the Arbil-based Kurdistan Regional Government. By the end of this year, the United Nations estimates that a total of 2.7 million Iraqis will have been displaced within Iraq or the newly autonomous Kurdish provinces. Of the 2 million or so Iraqi refugees who have escaped the country, most have settled in neighboring Syria (1.2 million) or Jordan (500,000 to 700,000). According to the UNHCR, approximately 120,000 refugees have fled to Egypt, 54,000 to Iran, 40,000 to Lebanon, and 10,000 to Turkey. Thus far, these countries have shouldered most of the financial burden of absorbing refugees, but as these host communities run out of resources, they increasingly close doors to asylum seekers. Efforts by the UNHCR to resettle registered refugees in these two countries haven’t even begun to scratch the surface: From the onset of the war until September of 2006, the UNHCR had found host countries for only 404 refugees. Still, the UNHCR says that it hopes to find 20,000 resettlement spots this year.

While international media report on the war’s political and military developments, very little attention has been paid to the humanitarian dimension of the war. Up to 50,000 Iraqis flee their homes every month to escape the fighting, the lack of security, and the general breakdown of society. Internally displaced refugees continue to be victims of sectarian violence, while Iraqis who have fled to other countries lack social support networks, means of subsistence, and protection from police and other forms of abuse. Many refugees are held in camps at the borders where there is insufficient protection from fighting. In addition to the stress and depression caused by rootlessness and war, refugees face serious medical and hunger problems, unemployment, discrimination, and poverty. Refugees have been barred from taking up employment and attending school; even schools organized by refugees within camps have been forcibly closed down. Employers of refugees are subject to fines and imprisonment, and police in various countries conduct frequent sweeps of public areas, workplaces, and areas of high Iraqi refugee concentration to get rid of “illegal” workers who are dropped off at the border with Iraq. U.N. reports indicate that Iraqis in Syria have been forced into exploitative jobs. Turkish police have conducted raids and deported refugees. Iraqi women in autonomous Kurdish provinces are subject to sexual abuse in exchange for low-paying jobs; if they resist the sexual abuse, the Arab Iraqi women fear they will be expelled. Indeed, the Kurdistan Regional Government places onerous conditions on Iraqis wishing to enter areas that a few years ago were considered part of Iraq. Arab Iraqis must first find a Kurdish sponsor and upon arrival, must immediately register with the Directorate of Residence, to which they must regularly report their employment and living status—information kept on file.

Conceding that much more money is needed, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees requested a modest $60 million for humanitarian operations. A briefing paper published this week by Human Rights Watch, entitled Iraq: From a Flood to a Trickle, by comparison, emphasized the denial of asylum to Iraqis over the apportionment of aid.

According to the refugee-policy director at Human Rights Watch, Jordan and Egypt have effectively closed off escape routes used by Iraqi refugees. Early this year, the Egyptian government modified the procedure by which Iraqis could obtain entry visas; now, Iraqis must have a face-to-face interview at the Egyptian consulate before a visa will be issued. Egypt has no consulate in Iraq; thus, an asylum seeker would need to make his or her way to Amman, Jordan, or Damascus, Syria in order to go through the interview screening process at the Egyptian consulates in these cities. Jordan and other countries have also recently adopted new policies, like expensive passport and visa requirements or entry and residency permits, to prevent Iraqis from entering their countries and effectively strip many refugees of their legal status. In contrast to its practice at the beginning of the war, Jordan now denies entry to asylum seekers coming by land and air, even those who have permits; as a result, families are sometimes broken up.

Thousands of Palestinians men who worked in Iraq and remitted their salaries back to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, to their families, have tried to leave Iraq in response to the escalation in kidnappings and murders of Palestinians by the Shi’a militias in Iraq. These Palestinians have encountered the same restrictive measures facing Iraqi refugees and are now held in refugee camps in a “no man’s land” along Syria’s border with Iraq. The Syrian government refused to admit Palestinians into the country; instead, it holds about 1200 Palestinian asylum seekers in three camps to which the Syrian government has denied access to humanitarian organizations. Saudi Arabia, for its part, is constructing a US$ 7 billion high-tech fence to keep out Iraqi asylum seekers.

Quite troubling, too, is the increased use of religious affiliation as a criterion to determine whether asylum seekers may gain access to a country and the scope of their rights once asylum is granted. Shi’a Muslims, for example, have routinely been denied entry to Jordan on this basis. Non-Kurd Iraqi Muslim refugees in the Kurdish provinces are forbidden from purchasing property and receive no financial assistance, while Christian refugees receive a cash grant from the Minister of Finance.

Many of these restrictive measures violate international customary law, like the principle of nonrefoulement, or prohibition on the forcible return of refugees to a place where they face the risk of persecution, torture, or other serious threats to their lives because of ongoing armed conflict and indiscriminate violence. Human rights groups, like Amnesty International, have called on the United States and the United Kingdom, both of which have failed to address the refugee crisis or take part in a solution, to set up resettlement programs, especially for the most vulnerable Iraqi refugees who are often in need of medical care. The U.S. government has said it would be willing to allow approximately 3000 Iraqis into the country.

To read the Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, Iraq: From a Flood to a Trickle, Neighboring States Stop Iraqis Fleeing War and Persecution (April 2007), go to: http://hrw.org/backgrounder/refugees/iraq0407/iraq0407.pdf

For Discussion:
To what extent do the U.S. and U.K., as invaders and instigators of the war, have a responsibility to assist refugees? What role should signatories of the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees be playing? To what extent do neighboring Arab countries have a legitimate argument (e.g., national security, economic) for turning away refugees? Is there a solution?

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