Monday, March 17, 2008

The Iraq War’s refugee legacy -- a humanitarian disaster

Five years after the invasion of Iraq, approximately one in five Iraqis has been displaced according to Refugees International. Those with the means – which means often the very people with skills needed to rebuild Iraq – have fled the country. Others are displaced internally. The issue has been ignored by the Bush administration in part because the recent lull in violence has been bought at the price of ridding various communities of minority members and bringing them back might spark renewed fighting. Also, to resettle refugees in the United States -- much like the U.S. did with over 900,000 Vietnamese -- would look as if the administration’s effort was anything but a total success.

The Wall Street Journal has this piece in today’s paper on the Iraq war’s refugee legacy:
Five years ago, Enas Abood exulted over Saddam Hussein's overthrow from her comfortable three-story home. Her husband found a job with the U.S. military and started bringing home a handsome paycheck, along with American candy for their son.

"We started to see a light at the end of tunnel," says Ms. Abood. "But this light did not last for long."

As the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion approaches this Wednesday, she and her three children live in a shabby rental in a Baghdad slum. Ms. Abood often goes hungry to feed her kids and survives on handouts. Her husband, unhappy and unemployed, took off two months ago. She hasn't seen him since.

America's decision to topple Saddam Hussein has left Iraqis a people uprooted. Iraq's Ministry of Health estimates that 180,000 Iraqis have been killed; other estimates put the numbers much higher.

But far more common still is Ms. Abood's journey from middle-class prosperity to transient poverty, reflecting the life-shattering disappointment that many Iraqis now see as the legacy of the war. An estimated four million Iraqis -- over 14% of the country's population -- have been displaced inside Iraq or to neighboring countries, largely due to the chaotic aftermath of the American-led invasion that began on March 19, 2003.

Prior to the invasion, about one million Iraqis were internally displaced by conflicts and by policies of Saddam Hussein to move certain ethnic groups. But aid agencies say more than two million citizens are now displaced inside the country, largely because of sectarian violence -- infighting between the Sunni and Shia Muslim sects -- or fighting between insurgents and U.S. troops. About 60% of the displaced are children.

Others have fled the country altogether, with some two million refugees living in neighboring Jordan and Syria alone. As foreign governments face mounting social pressures from the influx, they are tightening visa rules and sending many back to Iraq, where many refugees no longer have homes.

A few of Iraq's displaced are starting to return. While horrific violence still rips frequently through Iraq, combat successes by the U.S. and changing attitudes of some Iraqi political groups have led to an improvement in security in parts of the country. Last year, U.S. commanders poured fresh troops into Baghdad in the so-called surge strategy of ousting insurgents, and have persuaded some of Iraq's influential tribal leaders in joining the fight against the antigovernment forces.

In 2006, an average of 60,000 Iraqis were leaving their homes each month, according to the International Organization for Migration, or IOM, a nongovernmental organization that focuses on displaced populations. Since then, the Iraqi Red Crescent Organization, an Iraqi aid group, says the numbers have fallen from a high of 2.3 million Iraqis displaced inside the country last September to about 2.17 million as of the end of January. The organization says there are still about two million Iraqi refugees living in Jordan and Syria.

U.S. officials say they're taking steps to address what they call a "deepening" refugee crisis. In congressional hearings in Washington last week, a State Department official said USAID, a State Department group that facilitates reconstruction of developing countries, contributed more than $254 million in humanitarian assistance to "vulnerable populations" in Iraq. Still, officials testified that displaced Iraqis are facing worsening conditions and will need more food, shelter and employment.

Over the years, the Red Crescent had set up 39 camps across the country for displaced Iraqis. A few other camps were run by the Iraq government's Ministry of Migration, the Kurdish regional government or other groups. Aid organizations donated food, tents, fuel and other items.

But most of the Red Crescent camps were temporary tent cities, often lacking power and water, where garbage piled up uncollected. Iraqis shunned them, aid workers say, out of shame. The group shut down most of them late last year, and fewer than 1% of the country's current displaced live in the Iraq's few existing camps.

The rest are scrambling to find new homes -- renting in unfamiliar neighborhoods, moving in with family or squatting in abandoned buildings. These migrants are largely unreachable by aid agencies. Often, they aren't registered locally to receive food rations provided by the government. They have few connections to find work. That usually means they have little money, straining the resources of relatives who have taken them in.

Last month, the United Nations cautioned against refugees returning to Iraq because the conditions for safety and "dignity on a meaningful scale" didn't yet exist inside the country. "We have a humanitarian disaster," says Dana Graber Ladek, an Iraq specialist for the IOM.
You can read the entire article here.

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