Iraq Exodus Ends Four-Year Decline in Refugees

An exodus of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis escaping growing violence in their homeland last year increased the total number of refugees around the world to some 12 million, according to the World Refugee Survey 2006 released here Wednesday by the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI).

That total marked a reversal of a four-year trend of declining numbers of refugees. From 2001 to the end of 2004, the total number of people who crossed international borders in search of a safe haven from persecution or war fell from nearly 15 million to 11.5 million, according to the report.

"The increase is largely due to 650,000 more Iraqi refugees who have fled to Jordan and Syria," said USCRI’s president, Lavinia Limon. "Although some Iraqis may be fleeing generalized violence, individuals and groups are targeted on the basis of political affiliation, professions, ethnic, or religious differences – the definition of a refugee."

Moreover, she said that protections for fleeing Iraqis appear to be deteriorating, as Syria has begun to require residency permits, forcing many refugees to live underground, while Jordan has failed to so far to grant refugee status to Iraqis and is turning many back at the border.

The erosion of such protections, according to the report, is typical of what is happening in many countries around the world, as governments increasingly erect barriers to prevent people fleeing persecution and conflict from entering their territory and force those who have arrived to return home.

"By all measures, refugee protection has deteriorated worldwide," said Gregory Chen, USCRI’s director of policy analysis and research. "Far too many governments forced refugees back to unsafe home countries where they faced persecution, fighting, and conflict."

He cited Russia’s deportation of 16,000 asylum seekers last year, its failure to grant hundreds of Uzbeks asylum after they fled a May 2005 massacre in Andijan, and the deportation by China of some 5,000 North Koreans as among the worst cases.

He also cited Burundi’s forcible repatriation of more than 5,000 Rwandan asylum-seekers, the U.S.’ repatriation of 1,800 Haitians without granting them a fair opportunity to assert their asylum claims, and Egypt’s deadly crackdown on Sudanese refugee protests as significant violations of the UN 1951 Refugee Convention.

On the brighter side, the 110-page report, which annually grades some 50 key countries on their respect for rights under the convention, gave its highest marks to Benin, which hosts some 40,000 Togolese refugees; Venezuela, which has taken in an estimated 180,000 Colombians; and Canada for its treatment of refugees.

Aside from the outflow of at least 400,000 Iraqis – by far the most significant source of the estimated 1.05 million new refugees during 2005 – the report noted that the most significant changes over the year included returns of some 740,000 Afghans from Pakistan and Iran.

Because new censuses revealed greater Afghan populations living in both host countries than had previously been believed, the returns did not actually reduce the official total number of Afghans living there. Afghanistan remains the second biggest source of refugees worldwide, with nearly 2.2 million living abroad, the vast majority in Pakistan and Iran.

Palestinians remained the largest source of refugees, at nearly 3 million, about one third of whom live in camps in Gaza; 700,000 on the West Bank; 512,000 in Syria; 257,000 in Lebanon; 240,000 in Saudi Arabia; 158,000 in Jordan; and about 50,000 in Iraq and Kuwait.

But the third biggest source of refugees is now Iraq itself, displacing several countries, including Burma/Myanmar, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Burundi, that were ranked higher in recent years, the report found.

It estimated the total number of Iraqi refugees living abroad as of the end of 2005 at nearly 900,000. Of these, Jordan hosted about half; followed by Syria, with some 350,000, Iran with 54,000, and Lebanon with about 10,000.

Not all of these refugees fled during 2005, the report stressed, noting that it had not designated fleeing Iraqis as refugees since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 until the UN declared they should be given refugee protections last year.

But USCRI said it estimated that at least half of those currently Jordan and Syria are believed to have left in 2005. The group cited estimates that over 40 percent of Iraq’s professional class have left the country, and given the intensification of sectarian conflict since earlier this year, it anticipated an increase in the outflow. In the last 10 months, according to USCRI, the Iraqi government has issued more than 2 million passports.

In addition, the report estimated the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Iraq last year at 1.3 million. Only Sudan (5.3 million), Colombia (2.9 million), Uganda (1.7 million), and the DRC (1.7 million) had more.

Aside from Iraq, the most significant movements of refugees during 2005 included the movement of estimated 100,000 Nepalis to India and more than 60,000 Sudanese to Uganda and Chad.

At the same time, some 73,000 Liberians returned home from Guinea; 62,000 Burundians returned from Tanzania; 50,000 North Koreans from China; and some 40,000 Iraqis from Iran.

As in the past two years, this year’s report emphasized the plight of the estimated 7.8 million refugees who have been "warehoused" for more than five years in countries that have denied them basic rights, such as the right to work, to move freely within countries, own property, or even receive an education, that are guaranteed under the 1951 Convention.

They include some 2.5 million Palestinians; about 2 million Afghans in Pakistan and Iran; about 400,000 Burundians in Tanzania and the DRC; and another 400,000 Sudanese in Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and other neighboring states. In denying refugees freedom of movement and the right to earn a living, the report gave failing or near-failing grades to Algeria, Bangladesh, Nepal, Russia, Tanzania, Yemen, China, Ethiopia, Jordan and Thailand.

USCRI noted some progress during 2005 in its campaign to address the warehousing issue, including modest steps by Thailand, Lebanon, and Malaysia to relax restrictions on education or work permits for refugees.

As it has in the recent past, the report also scorned European Union and other Western countries for erecting new barriers to asylum seekers. While the West contributes the most money by far to international refugee aid agencies, it noted, they host only 4 percent of the global refugee population – less than half a million people.

Conversely, world’s poorest countries – those with per capita annual incomes less than $2,000 – host more than 8 million refugees, or nearly 75 percent of the global refugee population.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.