Refugees International describes the world's fastest growing refugee crisis in the Washington Post.Outside and Inside Iraq's Borders, A Forgotten Exodus
by Kenneth H. Bacon and Kristele Younes
"I would go to Darfur before going back to Iraq," a 40-year-old Iraqi refugee recently told us, even though he had been held in a Lebanese prison for months. He is one of almost 5 million Iraqis fleeing the war — the world’s fastest-growing displacement crisis, fueled by sectarian mayhem, kidnappings and general lawlessness.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that up to 2.5 million Iraqis have fled the country, with most settling in neighboring Syria and
Jordan. And the International Organization for Migration estimates that 2.4 million others — nearly 9 percent of Iraq’s population — have become "internal refugees," abandoning their homes to huddle miserably in other parts of the country as victims of de facto ethnic cleansing.
More than 80 percent of the internally displaced are women and children, most of whom, the Iraqi Red Crescent Society reports, "suffer from disease,
poverty and malnutrition." Many seek shelter in tents, mosques, churches or deserted buildings without water or electricity. Meanwhile, most of the
Iraqis who fled the country live in cities — especially Damascus, Amman, Cairo and Beirut — rather than in the large tent camps Americans often picture.
This makes the impoverished, embittered refugees harder to see and harder to help. In the past few months, small numbers of Iraqis have returned home, mainly from Syria — perhaps 28,000 to 60,000 people, according to Iraqi estimates. But Iraq’s struggling government recently called on people to stay where they are, warning that it can’t accommodate large numbers of returns.
Many refugees come back to find their homes occupied or destroyed and become displaced within Iraq. And with the massive wave of displacement
and sectarian bloodshed ignited by the bombing almost two years ago of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, 10 of Iraq’s 18 governorates have limited the number of people they’ll take in.
How has the United States responded to this crisis in a country whose security lies in its hands? Slowly and inadequately. The Bush administration has not done enough to help Syria and Jordan harbor
the largest Iraqi refugee populations; according to U.N. figures, Washington spent about $105 million last year to help meet the refugees’ humanitarian needs, even though Jordan alone puts those costs at $1 billion a year. (The State Department says U.S. aid levels reached almost $200 million in 2007.)
The administration isn’t doing its part to resettle Iraqis, either — not even former translators for the U.S. military whose lives are at risk. Since the war began in March 2003, the United States has admitted just 3,335 Iraqis for resettlement. Americans should be asking whether they can live with this. The refugees can’t.
View the Washington Post's graphic depicting the Iraqi refugee crisis.