Refugee ‘Mess’ Is Ours, and Getting Worse

"Promoting democracy can be messy in the short-run and isn’t always possible in every circumstance but, in general, it is the best long-term bet for promoting American interests" – Max Boot in Commentary, 8/20/13

Promoting democracy is "messy" all right, especially when one considers the waves of humanity picking up, leaving their homes and wondering across scorched earth searching for food, shelter and work. "Messy" is when they find a sliver of that in a swollen refugee camp, where they might live in near squalor for a generation.

Syrian refugees head into Northern Iraq
Syrian refugees head into Northern Iraq

For the last 200 years, Washington has bombarded, invaded, thrown out governments and occupied other counties as a matter of foreign policy, or as Boot puts it, "promoting American interests." We punish, we liberate, we teach despots lessons. That we have helped to unleash millions of refugees onto the world is a "messy" consequence of war that Americans see too little of on the nightly news, if at all. As if they were ghosts haunting our collective conscience, we close our eyes and hope they go away.

But they won’t – and if we dare to take a look at the situation for even the 60 seconds it takes to click through and mull over the latest Group On gimmick sitting in our email everyday, we’d find that our wars are helping change the very complexion of the Middle East, one refugee crisis at a time.

Let’s look at the most recent one: according to the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), the chief UN organization assisting crisis victims today, there are now two million Syrian refugees. Most of them have fled the civil war, which is ongoing since 2011. However, since the Obama Administration started its ponderous drumbeat for American military intervention in Syria, that number has accelerated wildly over the past two weeks, and only promises to get worse.

"It means things are accelerating in a way that represents a dramatic humanitarian problem,” noted UNHCR’s Antonio Guterres to the BBC on Sept. 3. "It’s the biggest displacement crisis of all time."

According to news reports, there were about 3,000 Syrians leaving the country for Lebanon a day. As the White House began talking "red lines" and "punitive strikes" against Bashar Assad, that number peaked to 10,000 daily, say Lebanese officials. According to this report, some 1 million Syrians (600,000 official registered as refugees) are living in Lebanon, which is struggling with its own set of sectarian hostilities.

The sudden spike in forced migration, added Guterres, "is also a major threat to peace and stability in the region."

A Syrian woman in Syrian refugee camp in Northern Iraq
A Syrian woman in Syrian refugee camp in Northern Iraq

Meanwhile, some 200,000 Syrian refugees are estimated to have crossed the border into Iraq, a country that already has some 2.8 million internally displaced people (IDPs) within it’s borders from the U.S.-led Iraq War (at the peak of that war’s exodus, some 2.5 million left the country altogether). In fact, because of U.S. influence in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), in addition to the American invasion of Iraq in the First Gulf War (1990), one could say the U.S. has been responsible in part for the forced migration of millions of Iraqis for more than 30 years. That notion was reinforced a few years ago, when a UNHCR study noted that the majority of the world’s registered refugees at the end of 2010 were from the two countries the US recently invaded – Iraq (1.68 million) and Afghanistan (3.05 million). Afghanistan, according to UNHCR, is still the primary source of refugees in the world, 32 years running. There are an estimated 42 million "forcibly displaced people" worldwide.

According to a Guardian report last week, an estimated 40,000 Syrians have come into Northern Iraq in the last two weeks alone. Many had been stuck on the other side of the border for three months when a key crossing between the two countries was closed.

Once inside, according to Refugees International, "services remain inadequate and unsustainable. The region’s camps are increasingly overcrowded and local communities are overburdened."

"In one working-class suburb of Erbil, I visited Adel and his 31 relatives," wrote Marc Hanson in this article posted to the Refugees International website about the living conditions among refugees in Northern Iraq:

Adel’s wife tells us there are no regular food distributions in the area, and that local shops no longer offer credit to Syrian Kurds. She says that organizations have come to their home three or four times to ask questions, take notes about what they need, and learn what their daily lives are like. None has returned with help.

Iraq is a pitiful case because, as mentioned before, hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Iraqis are still trying to recover their pre-Iraq War lives and livelihoods. They are the "poorest of the poor," often living house to house on the charity of other people. "This is a major displacement crisis," said Mike Young, the Middle East regional director of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in March this year. "Many of these Iraqis are living in prolonged limbo."

Meanwhile, according to Refugees International, "tens of thousands" of Iraqis who fled the country after 2003 are returning in droves, in part, because they were staying in Syria and now, thanks to that civil war and the threat of US air strikes, it’s become a worse nightmare than the one they left behind.

"Without urgent assistance from governments around the world, a dire situation will become far worse," wrote reporter Rebecca Gang, noting the lack of aid coming into Iraq. "There is no room for new arrivals in Iraq’s existing Domiz refugee camp, near Dohuk, which shelters about 55,000 of the 195,000 Syrian refugees in northern Iraq. The camp has a population three times larger than anticipated when it opened in April 2012. In 10% of cases, two families share the same tent."

Those who do not live in the camps must make their way into Iraq’s towns and cities, but as we’ve heard from relentless reports over the last year, political violence and terrorist attacks are at a high not seen since the bloody days of 2008. Sunni Iraqis say they are fleeing Baghdad and the repression of the Shia-led government (which the US helped to install) for other countries, like Jordan, or nearby provinces, creating a new sublet of IDPs competing with other luckless Iraqis for work, food, and health services.

The result? "We believe, sooner or later, there will be a major internal war in Iraq that will affect the entire area, and shred the Iraqi social tissue," political analyst Maki al-Nazzal told Dahr Jamail for Al Jazeera in May, even before Iraq’s bloodiest month, which came in July.

"I can say that at least 85 percent of all the younger Iraqis I talk to think the situation cannot get better without fighting.”

Strike a match and watch it burn. Then where will all the people go?

Turning from Iraq, we need only to look to Afghanistan for another heartbreaking refugee crisis in play.

Two Afghan girls eat pomagrantes in Kabul 2010
Two Afghan girls eat pomagrantes in Kabul 2010

When the Russians invaded Afghanistan in 1979, it began an exodus that reached a staggering six million Afghans who had left their homeland, mostly split equally for Iran and Pakistan (to put that into context, the US only let in 50,000 Iraqis from 1991 to 2008). According to reports, twenty years later, just ahead of the US invasion after 9/11, there were 2.6 million or more Afghans still living in exile. The rest had come home to rampant poverty and political unrest.

Often we hear the US involvement of Afghanistan compared to the failed Soviet occupation, but always in a military context. But the refugee situation, too, was like "déjà vu all over again." This time, however, the invading country had promised to "rebuild" and "liberate," making the reality that much more ironic. To be sure, according to this Congressional Research Service report in 2007, millions of Afghans had been brought back into the country with international assistance after the US invaded in 2001, but at the same time, hundreds of thousands of new refugees, if not millions if you count the new IDPs, were created.

This time the Americans could take some of the blame. Numbers spiked where American troop presence and military operations "surged." But nearly a decade after the invasion, as more than 30,000 displaced Afghans still squat in tent cities outside Kabul raging with poverty and malnutrition, it’s clear that like Iraq, the country’s most vulnerable will likely be forgotten, mostly for political considerations. This wasn’t how Democracy-building was supposed to look, so ignore it. From The New York Times a year and a half ago:

"The fact that every year there’s winter shouldn’t come as a surprise," said Federico Motka, whose German aid group, Welthungerhilfe, is one of the few at work in these camps, which aid workers call the Kabul informal settlements – since describing what they actually are, camps for displaced persons or war refugees, is politically sensitive. The Afghan government insists that the residents should and could return to their original homes; the residents say it is too dangerous for them to do so. …

Among children under 5, Ms. Julie Bara (Solidarités International,) said, the camps’ death rate is 144 per 1,000 children, stunningly high even for Afghanistan, which already has the world’s third highest infant mortality rate. That means that one out of every seven children in the Kabul camps will not survive until his or her sixth birthday.

According to UNHCR, there are still some 2.6 million Afghans living outside Afghanistan, and 425,000 IDPs within. A report by the European Commission Humanitarian Aid (EU) in May, found there were still tens of thousands of Afghans living in 50 tent cities outside the capital city:

Tucked behind a truck depot, the Dewan Begi Settlement, in the Western part of Kabul, is a maze of tents, tarpaulin sheets and ricketty fences. Children in tatters can be seen playing around in the mud, while women come and go between their makeshift houses and the only two water pumps to which this slum of some 190 families has access to. This is only one of over fifty Kabul Informal Settlements (KIS), as they are called, which have popped up in the Afghan capital over the past decade or so.

One cannot end this story without talking about one more area of forced displacement due to US intervention, and that is Libya. Two years later, proponents of the American-led airstrikes that led to the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi say Libya was "liberated." But this "humanitarian" action forced hundreds of thousands to flee the country, with at least 200,000 wandering within Libya’s borders with no place to go. That might not seem like a lot, but think about the entire population of Baton Rouge suddenly picking up and going elsewhere, and you start to get the point. It’s messy.

If promoting Democracy is messy, then we’ve created a lot of messes. Too bad we couldn’t clean up the old ones before pondering another.

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Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.