Iraqi Refugees Forgotten, Like the War that Displaced Them

refugees1.jpgby Meteor Blades
 Share this on Twitter – Iraqi Refugees Forgotten, Like the War that Displaced Them Sun Oct 25, 2009 at 03:59:23 PM PDT
No embedded U.S. reporters ply their trade among the millions of Iraqis who are refugees in foreign countries or displaced inside their own. But nowadays the occupation of Iraq itself is mostly forgotten as Americans who actually care about U.S. actions abroad focus on what is happening and will happen in what was previously the forgotten occupation – Afghanistan. This rises to the highest levels. When Sen. John Kerry convened the Senate Foreign Relations Committee September 10 to hear U.S. Ambassador Christopher Day Hill discuss his status report for Iraq, only five of the 19 committee members showed up.

Meanwhile, Iraqi refugees, most of them exiled in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, as well as those who fled their homes for other parts of Iraq, live rough lives without much notice in the Western media, without enough help from Western or Middle Eastern governments, without much hope for the immediate future. This humanitarian crisis, as Joseph Sassoon has written, bodes ill for regional stabilization.

Estimates of how many fled the invasion, the immediate violence that followed it and the murderous ethnic cleansing that gained steam in 2006 range from 4.2 to 4.7 million. How many have returned home? Figuring that out requires even more guesswork than calculating how many left in the first place. One high Iraqi official put the number at 32,000 families. Perhaps that translates into 200,000 individuals, which would mean, at best, a return rate of 5%. In their exile, even many of those who left with ample savings are now destitute. Governments that so far have strained their own resources by generously including the refugees in their health systems and refugee children in their schools could any day choose to change their policies.

Before the Cheney-Bush administration lied its way into Iraq, the situation seemed bad enough. The electricity flowed, the antiquated oil industry pumped out its black gold amid international sanctions, and the universities turned out thousands of graduates in an education system many considered the jewel of the Arab world. Students from all over the Middle East and North Africa came for post-graduate work. Baghdad University was a secular institution run without sectarian discrimination and scholars of the highest caliber regularly published their work in the most prestigious journals. But Saddam Hussein, the blood-soaked one-time U.S. ally, ran the place like a medieval tyrant, filling prisons such as Abu Ghraib, running torture chambers and keeping his enemies locked down when he wasn’t putting them in mass graves. Brutally, he kept a lid on sectarian tensions.

Then came shock and awe. The Project for the New American Century’s wet-dreaming imperialists got their chance to “liberate” Iraq, build their mega-bases from where they planned to impose Pax Americana and try to “fix” what the British had got wrong 80 years earlier. Consequently, a million or more Iraqis died. The destructions of Saddam gave way to American firepower and the ferocity of insurgencies. Several major cities now lie in ruins, ethnic cleansing has created new graves and fresh grudges, large numbers of Iraqis have been incarcerated, tortured and assassinated. The country’s ancient cultural heritage has been looted.

And, while basic services suffered before the invasion, both from sanctions and corruption, six years after what was first called Operation Iraqi Liberation until the acronym grew too embarrassing, the capital city still has less reliable electricity than it had in 2002. Violence certainly has fallen. But, as the U.S. military draw-down approaches the 100,000 mark, attacks are on on the rise again.

061013_refugees_hmed_7ah21.jpgIs it any wonder that millions of Iraqis fled, either across the international boundaries or to some other place inside Iraq? Not only have most of them not returned, the most essential of them have stayed away. A year ago, the Los Angeles Times reported that of the 6700 university professors who had left since 2003, only 150 had returned. No evidence exists indicating that this situation has improved much.

These Iraqis did not simply flee for fear they might be shot accidentally at a U.S. checkpoint or because nighttime curfews and the potential of a bomb going off made it tough to sit calmly at a café or go shopping. Intellectuals were routinely assassinated, not so much in the early days of the occupation, but rather in 2005-2007. Thousands of Iraqi scholars, scientists and professionals took their families and got out, bribing their way past militiamen and border guards and customs officials.

Some were fortunate. They made it to Europe or the United States and have managed, with difficulty, to start a new life. But here, too, all is not well. The Chaldean Federation, an organization of Christian Iraqis, recently spoke to their “Shabby Welcome” in the United States, which has, as of September 30, admitted some 30,000 Iraqi refugees, most of these in the past 15 months.

Some had a much harder time. The skilled people, many with money enough to support themselves, were not the majority who escaped. You can watch some of these Iraqis tell their stories here. Indeed, the majority of displaced Iraqis fled sectarian killings in their neighborhoods and moved elsewhere within Iraq. The government in Baghdad has significant funds, but it’s not spending them on the displaced. As Refugees International states:

Due to this failure, militias of all denominations are filling the vacuum and playing a major role in providing social services in the neighborhoods and towns they control in Iraq. Not only do these Shiite and Sunni militias now have a quasi-monopoly in the large-scale delivery of food, oil, electricity and money, but an increasing number of civilians are joining their ranks– including displaced Iraqis.

Some Iraqis who have tried to return home have found their homes occupied or destroyed, the likelihood of violence still high, a collapse of social services, and neighborhoods divided into homogenous, sectarian areas.

Just how bad this situation has become was described in detail in Three Years of Post-Samarra Displacement in Iraq. While hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Iraqis have returned home, hundreds of thousands have not.

refugees_syria_line_ssh1.jpgIn Syria, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates there are 1.2 million Iraqi refugees even though only 208,030 are registered. Refugee International found that, as of July, only 900 of those refugees signed up for voluntary return home this year. And the UNHCR in Damascus is registering around 2,000 new Iraqi refugees every month. Many of them have been in the country for a long time and are just now coming to the United Nations because their resources are exhausted:

Ghanea, 70, and her husband Hamid, 81, fled to Damascus from Baghdad at the end of 2008, because of Hamid’s heart condition. Months later they visited the UNHCR centre in Duma, on the outskirts of Damascus, for the first time.

“We did not go earlier because the centre is far from our home,” said Ghanea. “We spent the last of our money on the taxi to this centre so I don’t know how we will pay our rent.”

Of all the women RI interviewed, not one said she was returning to Iraq.

Some women said they won’t return because they are members of targeted minority groups, or because of injuries they suffered. Many widows told RI that they fear returning to homes where their husbands were killed, and where they now have no means of economic survival. Some fear rising conservatism would restrict their ability to participate in civic and professional life. Women seeking to resume their former roles and lifestyles in high profile professions, such as journalists or doctors, believe current circumstances in Iraq put them at risk. Others feared they were at risk of so-called “honor killings” by family members because they refused marriages, had divorced, or were accused of prostitution.

RI learned of situations where men decided to return but their wives refused. UNHCR protection workers reported that this is often because the women did not tell their husbands about sexual abuse during kidnappings or when their husbands were missing. Others feared kidnappings or murders of surviving children, particularly their sons. A displaced woman living in a tent in very poor conditions in northern Iraq told RI, “This tent is more comfortable than a palace in Baghdad; my family is safe here.”

In Kurdistan, arguably the most stable region of Iraq, financial pressures on displaced families are pushing women into early marriage and prostitution, and there are reports of trafficking of women and girls.

And for a few, the freedom they have found in Syria and Jordan, compared to what they were used to in Iraq – especially the more conservative, religiously oriented, Shia-controlled Iraq – may keep them from ever voluntarily returning. As reported here:

Around 1 a.m., five Iraqi women in tight jeans and tops giggled and exchanged high-fives with male friends they ran into the upscale al-Berjis restaurant in Damascus’ Old City, sitting down to smoke waterpipes and play cards before ordering a late-night meal.

“This is life. Outside Iraq, we are alive,” said Rana Sabah, 37-year-old blonde woman with blue colored contact lenses. She blew out a stream of smoke and threw a card on the table. “Believe me I have been all over the place, Iraqis in Iraq are buried alive.” …

Shatha Dawood, who fled Iraq in 2004, returned last year — but then was nearly killed when she did something that came naturally in exile: She and her daughters drove out for a nighttime (10-ish) snack, and police at a checkpoint mistakenly opened fire on their car. The next week, she went back to Syria.

But without Syrian citizenship, Rana, Shatha and their friends could be booted out of the country tomorrow. Their passports give them only one place to go.

In the meantime, the Jordan Times reports, the financially strapped UNHCR’s tight budget will be even more constrained next year than this. And the refugees will get still less media attention than this year.,-Like-the-War-that-Displaced-Them