Iraqi refugees desperate for a haven nation

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — Several recent reports on the situation in Iraq draw attention to the desperate plight of nearly 5 million Iraqi refugees. If the situation is not better addressed, hundreds of thousands of lives, including women and children, will be jeopardized. The world cannot continue to turn deaf ears to this humanitarian crisis.

According to Amnesty International, the international community is evading its responsibility toward Iraqi refugees by promoting a false sense of security in Iraq when the country is neither safe nor suitable for their return. The organization stressed that the world’s richest countries are failing to provide necessary assistance to Iraqi refugees, “most of whom are plunged in despair and hurtling toward destitution.”

According to recent estimates by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the number of Iraqis who have fled their homes since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003 and the subsequent internal conflict has now reached 4.7 million.

Neighboring countries, particularly Syria and Jordan, have received most of the refugees. But lack of support from the international community has obliged those countries to restrict entry and to deport even those Iraqis who may be at risk of persecution in their own country.

The same policy of deportation to Iraq is now being tried by several European countries, which intend to send Iraqis back to the most dangerous parts of the country such as the south and central regions. Even Sweden, once hailed as a model host to the largest number of Iraqi refugees in Europe, has now changed its asylum policies and is denying protection to large numbers of Iraqis.

This is happening while people continue being killed in large numbers by armed groups, the Multinational Force, Iraqi security forces and private military. In desperation, many Iraqis still try to flee their country, which has become more difficult to do following recent visa restrictions by Jordan and Syria. Many families are forced to have their children work in the streets or resort to prostitution to help them survive.

In a scathing report on the situation, Refugees International states: “Since the beginning of the crisis, the government of Iraq has proven unwilling and unable to respond to the needs of vulnerable Iraqis. Although it has access to large sums of money, it is divided along sectarian lines, lacking both the capacity and the political will to use its important resources to address humanitarian needs. As a result, the government doesn’t have any credibility left with Iraqis.”

The Iraqi government has recently provided $25 million to Jordan, Syria and Lebanon to help meet the needs of Iraqi refugees, a meager sum. At the same time, the government has been unable to properly manage the Public Distribution System of food, which has led to millions of displaced Iraqis losing the only kind of assistance they were receiving. This is happening despite billions of surplus dollars in the national budget.

The international community, to a large extent, has been in denial of the disastrous situation and enormous needs in Iraq. The U.S., despite its central role in the invasion and its consequences on the civilian population, fell far short of its promise to permanently resettle 7,000 vulnerable Iraqis in fiscal 2007, and is moving too slowly on its promise to resettle 12,000 Iraqis in 2008.

As stated by Refugees International, it is now up to the U.S. to lead an international initiative to support Middle Eastern countries hosting Iraqi civilians and increase direct bilateral assistance to countries hosting Iraqi refugees.

At the same time, both the U.S. and the United Nations through its specialized agencies should work with the government of Iraq to increase its capacity to respond to the needs of its own people.

Western countries, particularly those directly responsible for the dire situation created for Iraqi civilians in what can only be called a perverse war, should resettle particularly vulnerable groups until conditions allow for their return. To continue to ignore the basic needs of millions of Iraqis amounts almost to a crime against humanity.

Cesar Chelala, a cowinner of an Overseas Press Club of America award, is the foreign correspondent for Middle East Times International (Australia).