Global Policy Forum

Iraq Exodus Fuels Rise in Refugees, Displaced


By Jim Lobe

Inter Press Service
July 11, 2007

For the second year in a row, violence and persecution in Iraq fuelled a sharp rise in the number of people worldwide who were forced to flee their homelands, according to the latest edition of "World Refugee" released here Wednesday by the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI).

By the end of 2006, according to the report, nearly 14 million people were living as refugees, an increase of nearly two million people from 2005, and the highest global total since 2001. Of the two million uprooted from their homelands in the course of the year, nearly half were Iraqis, according to the report, which assailed the United States, the main occupying power in Iraq, for granting refuge to a mere 202 Iraqis last year, although Washington has subsequently pledged to resettle 3,000 more Iraqis by the end of the current fiscal year, Sep. 30.

By contrast, neighbouring Syria permitted some 450,000 Iraqis to enter in 2006, bringing the total Iraqi population there to some 800,000; while Jordan took in some 250,000 last year, bringing the number of Iraqis there to some 700,000. Some 80,000 more Iraqis also entered Egypt. "Just like the war itself, this refugee crisis is complicated, has grown exponentially, has no end in sight and no simple solution," according to Lavinia Limon, USCRI's president. "This is a 'silent surge' that is providing temporary safety for millions but has been underreported by the media, elicited minimal response from the U.S. Congress and virtually ignored by the (George W.) Bush administration, European and Middle Eastern capitals, and the international community," she wrote in an introduction to the report.

In addition to Iraq, major new sources of refugees included Somalia, where a military offensive by Ethiopia late last year spurred an exodus of tens of thousands of people to Yemen, Kenya, and Ethiopia; Sir Lanka, where an upsurge in fighting between the government and Tamil rebels was responsible for an outflow of some 26,000 people to India; and central Africa, where cross-border violence affecting the Central African Republic, Chad, and Sudan uprooted tens of thousands of people.

Of the world's 13.9 million refugees and asylum-seekers, less than 70,000 were permanently resettled during 2006, with the U.S. taking some 41,000, followed by Australia (12,133), Canada, (10,600) Sweden (1,555), and Norway (924), according to the report. By the end of the year, Afghanis remained the world's largest refugee population at about 3.4 million, followed by Palestinians (three million), Iraqis (1.7 million, which has since grown to well over two million, according to the latest estimates by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR), Burmese (693,000), and Colombians (453,000). Meanwhile, Pakistan hosted the largest refugee population – some 2.2 million mostly Afghan nationals; followed by Syria with an estimated refugee population of 1.33 million; Iran (1.025 million); the Gaza Strip (1.02 million); Jordan (862,000), and the West Bank (722,000). The latest report, which, as in the past several years, grades countries on how well they comply with the basic rights provided under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, found a general deterioration during 2006.

Two countries – Russia and Tanzania – earned failing grades on providing physical protection for refugees and not forcibly returning them to their homelands (known as refoulement), providing them access to courts, guaranteeing freedom of movement, and respecting their right to earn a living. Algeria, Bangladesh, Iran, the Israeli-occupied territories, Malaysia, Namibia, South Africa, Sudan, Thailand, and Yemen received F's in at least two of the four major categories. On the other hand, Australia, Benin, Canada, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, and the U.S. scored A's in at least two categories, although the U.S. also received an F for its refoulement of Haitians without adequate screening for asylum claims and a D for its detention of asylum seekers.

The five largest hosts of Iraqi refugees (Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, and Iran) also received mostly poor grades, including an F for Jordan's refoulement of Iraqis, for compliance with the 1951 Convention. All five received D's for failing to provide refugees with the right to earn a living. Syria and Egypt received Bs for ensuring freedom of movement, while the other three received Cs in that category.

The new report comes on the heels of an unusually harsh denunciation of donor countries last week by UNHCR for their neglect of the mounting Iraqi refugee crisis. Only 80 million dollars has been pledged or donated to UNHCR to deal with the Iraqi outflow to date, while UNHCR says that hundreds of millions of dollars are needed to cope. "The two countries caring for the biggest proportion of Iraqi refugees – Syria and Jordan – have still received next to nothing in bilateral help from the world community," according to the agency's spokesman, Ron Redmond, who warned that the refugees are "facing enormous hardships that will only get worse if the international community doesn't put its money where its mouth is."

In her analysis, Limon noted that the ongoing crisis is "atypical" in that it has taken place gradually and in ways that have not attracted much media attention, in part because "there are no photos of thousands fleeing across the border carrying their children and salvaged belongings." The crisis also creates difficult challenges because most of those who have fled Iraq are "urban refugees" the standard response to which is to treat them as "illegal immigrants and not recognise their eligibility for refugee status or economic assistance by (UNHCR)." The result has been widespread neglect of their plight which, according to Limon, is "inconsistent with the all the declarations of concern and commitment to the Iraqi people's freedom and well-being made by governments, human rights organizations and the media. The international silence and inaction is shameful and compounds the Iraqi people's tragedy."

She called on the U.S., which so far has contributed only 18 million dollars – or roughly what the U.S. military spends every two hours conducting operations in Iraq – to UNHCR's Iraq-related efforts, to take "moral leadership" by guarantee(ing) coverage for all costs associated with hosting these refugees." She also called on the U.S. to establish an efficient programme for resettling them here, noting that Washington may not even meet its current goal of resettling 3,000 Iraqis here by October. That appeal echoes more sweeping proposals by former top refugee officials who have contrasted the Bush administration's failure to provide safe haven for Iraqis to the resettlement here of more than 131,000 Vietnamese who were believed to be at risk of persecution during the latter half of 1975. In addition to the more than two million Iraqis who have fled the country since the 2003 invasion, another two million Iraqis have been internally displaced by the violence which, despite intensified U.S. military efforts this year to pacify Baghdad, in particular, has not been significantly reduced nationwide.

More Information on Iraq
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