UN Refugee Agency Turns Spotlight on Iraqis

Nearly 4 million Iraqis have been displaced in and outside their country since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, making it the largest exodus of people in the Middle East since the creation of Israel in 1948.

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, on Tuesday will convene a two-day conference in Geneva to address Iraq’s deepening humanitarian crisis.

"We should not expect this conference to be a miracle medicine, a magic response to the difficult humanitarian crisis that many Iraqis face," said Radhouane Nouicer, director of the UNHCR Middle East and North Africa bureau. "But we certainly intend and hope that this conference will contribute to raising awareness of the world to the humanitarian crisis that faces Iraq and Iraqi refugees."

The conference has attracted 450 participants from more than 60 nations, including representatives from international and non-governmental organizations. The U.S. delegation will be led by Paula J. Dobriansky, undersecretary of global affairs at the State Department, and will include additional representatives from the humanitarian organizations Episcopal Migration Ministries and Relief International.

Four years after the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s government, nearly 1.9 million Iraqis remain displaced inside their country and more than 2 million have fled abroad. Of Iraq’s neighbors, Syria and Jordan have disproportionately shared the burden, hosting 1.2 million and 750,000 refugees, respectively. It is estimated that there are 100,000 refugees in Egypt, 54,000 in Iran, 40,000 in Lebanon, and 10,000 in Turkey, according to reports from UNHCR. Iraq’s population is estimated to be 26 million.

Many Iraqis fled before the fall of Hussein’s government in 2003, but in the following two years, more than 300,000 returned. The trend reversed, especially after the bombing of the Shi’ite-revered al-Askari Mosque in Samarra 14 months ago, which intensified sectarian violence in the country. Since then, 800,000 Iraqis have fled.

Displacement continues at a rate of up to 50,000 people a month, according to UNHCR. Another report from the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration claims more than 1,000 Iraqis a day are displaced by sectarian violence.

About 160,000 Iraqis have fled north to Kurdistan, where little aid is available because the U.S. and Iraqi governments and the UN have not "acknowledged the extent of the crisis," according to international aid organization Refugees International, as reported in the New York Times. The organization’s number of 160,000 displaced Iraqis in Kurdistan is based on estimates by the Iraqi Red Crescent Society.

The success of the highly touted 21,000 U.S. troop "surge" to Iraq and the accompanying Baghdad security plan – intended to calm the Iraqi capital by protecting residents from sectarian violence – remains very much in doubt.

Shi’ite Muslim militia members are still driving Sunni Muslims from religiously mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad, going unchallenged by Iraqi government soldiers, says a recent report in the Miami Herald. Residents who flee continue to experience harassment long after they have abandoned their homes, according to the same report. Shi’ite families experience similar threats and harassment at the hands of self-professed Sunni insurgents.

The U.S. response to the refugee crisis has been marred by the George W. Bush administration’s continued refusal to acknowledge the extent of civil conflict in the country, and the apparent lack of preparation in the ramp-up to the war for the instability caused by a mass-scale refugee flow.

In the long term, the only durable option for the nearly 4 million Iraqi refugees is repatriation, an unrealistic option considering the deteriorating security situation in the country. A fraction of refugees will be resettled in a third country, but the Bush administration has faced increased domestic criticism for acting too slowly and accommodating too few Iraqis.

"This is crazy," said Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. ambassador to the UN, according to a report from the Associated Press. "Even Iraqis who were given security clearances to work with U.S. troops in combat positions in Iraq where they could have betrayed the Americans to ambushes are now waiting years and years to get approval."

The U.S. has allowed only 466 Iraqis to immigrate under refugee status since 2003, including 202 out of 70,000 slots for refugees last year.

"I don’t know of anyone inside the administration who sees this as a priority area," said Lavinia Limon, president of the Unites States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a non-governmental refugee resettlement agency, as quoted in the New York Times.

The Iraq Study Group (ISG), the congressionally appointed panel co-chaired by former Republican secretary of state James Baker, concluded last year that if the refugee situation was not addressed, Iraq and the region could be further destabilized.

To ameliorate the crisis, the Bush administration announced in February that it would allow 7,000 Iraqi refugees to enter the country this year, as part of a permanent resettlement program. The administration also contributed $18 million for a worldwide resettlement and relief program. The UN has asked for $60 million from nations around the world.

The United States spends about $8 billion a month on military operations in Iraq. In contrast, the State Department spent $35 million on Iraqi refugees in Iraq and the region in 2006, and will spend $20 million in the current fiscal year to meet the humanitarian concerns of refugees who have fled the war.

Read more by Khody Akhavi