Iraqi refugee catastrophe

Thousands of displaced in desperate of support

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One of the world’s largest refugee crises is underway in theMiddle East. It has been going on for the last four years,but judging by the scant attention the issue receives inWashington DC, London and in the Western media, you wouldn’tthink so. I’m referring to the Iraqi refugee crisis.

According to UN figures there are an estimated 1.6 millionIraqis internally displaced, 750,000 in neighboring Jordan,1.4 million plus in Syria, 80,000 in Egypt, and 30,000 inLebanon.

In all fairness to the media, the Iraqi refugee crisis inJordan has garnered token attention, but the equallypressing situation in Syria has not.

As for Jordan, the influx of Iraqis to Syria has been adouble-edged sword. Initially the Iraqis that fled weremiddle to upper class, bringing with them life savings thatwere duly invested in property, setting up businesses andmaking a home away from home. But as the situation in Iraqhas deteriorated to resemble one of Dante’s cycles of hell,the Iraqis flooding into Jordan and Syria are increasinglycash strapped.

In Syria, this has brought with it misery, desperation and agrowing xenophobia towards the Iraqi refugees due to rentsdoubling in price and food costs rising by an estimated 10%in just two years.

As one Syrian man remarked, even Syrian prostitutes arecomplaining about the influx because of the number of Iraqiwomen selling themselves on the streets – for as little as150 Syrian pounds ($3).

The refugee crisis is compounding Syria’s internal problems,what with 11.4% of the population living in poverty, 20%unemployed, and a population that is projected to surge fromthe current 18 million to 30 million by 2025. On top of allthat, the Syrian government announced in April that therefugees have cost the state an estimated $1 billion.

Compared to the coverage immigration and refugees get in theEuropean press, it wouldn’t be a stretch of the imaginationto visualize the stink the media would cause if, say,Britain’s population had grown by about 8% – the equivalentnumber of Iraqis now in Syria – in under four years due to amassive influx of refugees. It would rightly be deemed amajor international crisis.

But the countries primarily responsible for the real crisisin the Middle East, the United States and Britain, have keptpassing the buck and taken in a paltry number of Iraqirefugees.

The Bush administration, recently caving in after a greatdeal of pressure, said the United States would accept 7,000this year – still a drop in the ocean compared with Syriaand Jordan, but a step in the right direction consideringless than 500 Iraqis have been admitted since the war began.

Britain is no better, approving just 12% of Iraqi asylumclaims, according to Amnesty International, whereas Swedenhas a 91% approval rate, admitting 60,000 Iraqis andsuspending the forcible return of refugees.

The West cannot of course take in millions of Iraqirefugees, but what it can do is boost aid to humanitarianorganizations and the UNHCR in Jordan and Syria until Iraqiscan return home.

But just as Britain and the United States inadequatelyplanned for the aftermath of the invasion, the White Houseand Downing Street have not allocated adequate funds forrefugees.

The funds that the international community has earmarked forthe Iraqi crisis are primarily for use in Iraq, not for theneighboring countries grappling with the spill-over from the occupation.

“Syrians are complaining that Iraqis are raising the priceof rent and oil, but if Syria doesn’t take them, who will?”questioned Dr Nabil Sukkar, managing director of the SyrianConsulting Bureau for Development and Investment.

Indeed. Clearly not the US or Britain, and neighboring SaudiArabia has kept its doors firmly shut, building a US-Mexico border style fence, at a cost of $7 billion, to keepIraqis out.

The Iraqi refugee crisis is going to be with us for theforeseeable future, and it is about time the US and Britainpulled their weight in efforts to rectify what theInternational Refugee Committee has rightly called ‘ahumanitarian crisis of historic proportions.’

Paul Cochrane

Paul Cochrane is the Middle East Correspondent for International News Services. He has lived in Beirut since 2002, and has written for some 70 publications worldwide, covering business, media, politics and culture in the Middle East, East Africa and the Indian subcontinent.