Amid continual massacres perpetrated by the US occupation and its local allies, millions of Iraqis have fled their homes. From Damascus and Amman, Amanda Noureddine reports on the exodus
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Millions of Iraqis have turned into refugees scattered all over the region, and millions more displaced within Iraq. They grieve the death of their loved ones in the daily bombings that either kill tens or injure hundreds of their kinspeople
Since the US and UK forces invaded Iraq in 2003, an estimated 4.2 million Iraqis have fled their homes, the majority in the last two years. Up to two million are estimated to have sought refuge outside Iraq, while the remainder has been displaced within the country. The exodus is the largest the region has witnessed since the Palestinian Nakba. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the flight of Iraqis continues at a rate of 60,000 per month.
According to an Amnesty International (AI) report published last month, of those who have left Iraq, the US has resettled 753 since April 2003. The US refugee resettlement programme is designed to accommodate 70,000 yearly. In an apparent response to pressure to resettle more, it has issued pledges to resettle up to 25,000 refugees in 2007. However, AI is "concerned that the USA is trying to distance itself from these commitments" and that the numbers it has committed to resettling "are small compared to the extent of the need and the potential capacity."
Other industrialised countries with resettlement programmes have behaved similarly. The UK has recently agreed to join a resettlement programme, with an annual general quota that it has raised to 750, including 250 Iraqis. AI "believes the quota should be increased significantly and that Iraqis should be included at an increased rate as soon as possible."
For its part, Sweden, home to some of the West's most vocal advocates for refugee resettlement rights, has called on European Union members to welcome more Iraqis. On its own territory, it has accepted a small number, disproportionate to both its capacity and its "refugee-friendly" reputation. In 2006, for example, during a massive intensification of the exodus, Sweden resettled just 79.
IRAQIS SEEK REFUGE: With much of the West turned into forbidden ground, the overwhelming majority of Iraqis who have left their country since the invasion have sought refuge in neighbouring Arab states, namely Syria, Jordan, and to a far lesser but still significant extent, Egypt and Lebanon.
Syria has received by far the highest number of Iraqis, with current estimates running to approximately 1.5 million. According to UNHCR figures released August 2007, between 500,000 and 750,000 Iraqis are estimated to have fled to Jordan. Figures for Egypt are less clear, but a strict visa regime in place since April 2007 has meant that entry into Egypt above the current estimated 100,000 has become very difficult. As for Lebanon, it is estimated that a further 100,000 Iraqis have arrived since 2003.
With Saudi Arabia's borders closed from the very start, the relative ease with which Iraqis could enter Jordan and Syria constituted the only real source of hope for Iraqi families fleeing the invasion and ongoing occupation. Entry into Jordan and Syria was for some time easier than any other states. However, the two countries have recently announced changes to their visa regimes whereby visas can no longer be granted to Iraqis at their land crossings but must instead be processed by application at respective embassies in Baghdad. For many families this is impossible given the security risks attendant to the districts in which these embassies are located, and indeed to any travel in Baghdad.
Of the two, Jordan started to implement its visa restrictions early in 2007, allowing entry only to holders of Jordanian residency permits and invitations for medical and educational purposes. According to AI, Jordan is set to impose even tougher restrictions. Announced 10 September, Syria's restrictions are effective as of mid-October, thus effectively closing down for Iraqis their last way out.
Both countries have called on the international community, in particular donor states, to live up to pledges of assistance. There has also been criticism of lead industrialised states, in particular those that participated in the invasion and those currently occupying Iraq, of failure to accommodate significant numbers of Iraqi refugees. Their own resources overstretched by the crisis, it has now become difficult to realistically envisage Syria and Jordan accommodating more Iraqis, officials in both countries admit.
It is impossible to estimate how many Iraqis still in Iraq may yet need to seek safety for their families away from the occupation and away from Iraq. The manner in which the occupation has sought to distort the composition of the Iraqi nation, causing the displacement of well over one sixth of Iraq's population, and principally its middle class, followed by predictable moves to trap the rest, as if to punish them for holding on, appears telling of US intent in Iraq.
BARE SURVIVAL IN SYRIA: What is today the district of Sayida Zeinab on the outskirts of Damascus is home to a shrine dedicated to the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohamed. Muslim pilgrims the world over have for centuries visited her shrine, situated inside a mosque erected in her honour. It is said that Sayida Zeinab was until recently a quiet, rural quarter, well beyond the capital's reach.
But following Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights in 1967, thousands fleeing the occupation made their way, homeless and landless, to Damascus. To begin with, they lived in tents, perhaps in the hope that they would soon return home. It became apparent, however, that they had been stripped of their land, a region described by its natives as the most beautiful in Syria for many years to come. Theft by brute force and the imposition of an illegal regime of Israeli settlements that survives today necessitated for these refugees attempts at setting up a new, albeit hopefully temporary, life and to wait in dignity for their return.
Instead of tents, many of the displaced and their descendants would live to this day in buildings constructed with little planning, in a quarter that is now sprawling, generally badly serviced, crowded and, since the US-led invasion of Iraq, welcoming thousands of new tenants, this time from another land.
"Baghdad, Baghdad!" call out drivers who line Sayida Zeinab's main street, waiting for customers. There are scores of taxi companies specialised in making the 15- to 18-hour trip to the Iraqi capital, charging anything between $100 to $800 per passenger, depending on how easy or difficult it is to cross the border. There is generally no lack of clients. This is because Sayida Zeinab, where living costs are lower, has the highest concentration in Syria of Iraqi refugees.
Today, there are approximately 1.5 million Iraqis in Syria, the vast majority of whom have fled Iraq starting 2005. According to AI, Iraqis are now estimated to comprise seven per cent of the population of Syria. Until recently, it was relatively easy for Iraqis to enter Syria in safety. Syria's visa regime facilitates entry by citizens of Arab countries. Until January 2007, they were given three-month visas upon entry. Then, a new regime was introduced, whereby one-month visas, renewable for two months, were issued to Iraqis at the border. Practically that meant that every three months Iraqis wishing to remain in Syria legally were travelling to the border, exiting and usually re-entering immediately afterwards. Now, according to the IRIN UN-affiliated news agency, some Iraqis in Syria fear the new regime might affect even those who are already in Syria as their current visas inevitably expire and therefore become non-renewable short of applying to the Syrian Embassy in Baghdad. To date, Syrian authorities have proven lenient with restrictions on Iraqis already in Syria.
None of the four principal host states is party to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, and while UNHCR has recognised the majority of fleeing Iraqis as prima facie refugees since January 2007, authorities formally consider them "guests", and accordingly issue them tourist visas. Rules forbidding Iraqis from working, given that they entered on tourist visas, have been actively implemented in Lebanon and Jordan, leading to detentions and in many cases "voluntary" deportations as authorities presented them with a choice: stay in prison or sign a repatriation order. Despite the fact that such deportations are contrary to customary international law, UNHCR has not intervened on the basis that the two states in question have not signed the UN Refugee Convention.
In Syria, authorities have turned a partial blind eye to working Iraqis. According to AI, however, some deportations have been reported.
Iraqis in Syria face a wide array of problems, many of which stem from economic hardship as the savings they brought from Iraq run out. Many of the Iraqis currently in Syria are children and are thus in need of extra protection. In Syria, all Arabs are entitled to free public services, including education and health. Nonetheless, only 30,000 Iraqi children were registered in schools last year. This year, the number is estimated to have risen to around 80,000. Given a total Iraqi population of up to 1.5 million, both figures are desperately low and in part indicate the level of economic stress parents are facing as they refrain from enrolling their children in schools.
Many children and youth are working instead, making as little as 50 Syrian Lira ($1) a day, according to 15-year-old Osama (his name has been changed here to protect his identity). "I feel good because I am helping my family. At least this way my elder sister can continue in school," Osama told Al-Ahram Weekly as his mother waited to register her family with UNHCR. "I don't really mind what kind of job I do. I used to like school but now things are different."
Especially for minors out of school, part of the consequence of the flight of Iraqis has been a loss of hope in the future. Many have witnessed relatives and friends being killed, and with their lives as unstable in exile as they were in Iraq it has become especially hard for minors to overcome trauma. "I don't know where we'll end up," Osama said. "I don't really care any more about what happens to me in the future, or what I end up becoming."
Other children, including five-year-old Hadeer, still have nightmares about the brutal events in Iraq. "She wakes up crying in the middle of the night, telling me she's dreaming about bombing and people shooting," Hadeer's mother, Hala, told the Weekly. "She looks alright now, playing and laughing. But it will be a long time before she overcomes the pain she has inside."
One central conundrum to Iraqi families in Syria -- or anywhere -- is how to settle in a country outside Iraq. "We are being forced out; we have not chosen to travel. On the whole, Syria has been kind to us, even if we have become poor. But we want to be home, and we want our home free," said Fatima (surname withheld) at an Iftar at Damascus's landmark Umayyid Mosque. Mother of three and grandmother of several, she has every reason to worry about the future.
Fatima went on: "we know the occupation will end. But in the meantime, this time is not easy on us. There is uncertainty about everything, and families need security and stability. Neither of those exists for Iraqis today. Everything is up in the air, and we wait. We fled because we would have died otherwise. Now our lives are no longer on the line. But don't think that we are living. No, as refugees, we are only surviving."
ABANDONED IN JORDAN: Relative to Syria, in Jordan even temporary integration for Iraqis has been difficult to secure. Forbidden from working and coming under threat of deportation if they do, many Iraqis in Jordan are experiencing severe impoverishment. Although they too have been granted prima facie recognition as refugees by UNHCR, they have not been afforded full protection rights. They are at the mercy of both alienation and poverty, two evils that mutually compound one another.
"When the police discovered he had been working, my husband was arrested and put in prison for two months," said Yusra Jassem from Falluja. "He has been released now, but he won't come out at all any more. First our house was bombed, and now this. He feels his dignity has been destroyed. I understand it is not legal in this country for us, but can you honestly imagine being arrested for working? Even though he wasn't making much, our savings had run out so we pushed to make ends meet and maintain our dignity. Now I don't know how I will feed my children. I could never have imagined this happening: things were alright for us in Iraq."
The US-led occupation's intent to destroy the Iraqi professional, educated middle class is particularly apparent in Jordan, where high prices for basics, including rent, food and transport, have intensified Iraqis' growing financial problems. "For now, all my children go to school," Jassem said. "But there are many families sending their children out to work instead of the parents, as the children are less likely to be picked up by the police."
Meanwhile, other issues plague Iraqi families in Jordan, issues which can only be solved with time. Following advocacy by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), a royal decree was issued in August 2007 to allow all Iraqi children to attend public schools. Until this decree no government institution was open to Iraqis. But like Syria, the capacity of Jordanian schools is overstretched and there is uncertainty regarding the extent to which the decree is being implemented.
"I have been turned away by various schools," said 15- year-old Atheer, whose father is an engineer and whose mother is a teacher. He is now entering his fourth year out of education and is unsure of how he will make his dream of becoming an IT expert real. "I never expected this for my children," his father, Haitham Said, told the Weekly. "I worked hard on myself in my youth, precisely to give my children the best. But the world is full of tricks, it seems."
In addition to economic and education-related problems, a sense of abandonment is pervasive and playing a role in worsening conditions for Iraqis in Jordan. "Iraq is right across the border," said Jassem. "I think about my relatives in Iraq every day. Although Iraq is on the news all the time, people don't seem to care anymore. The world has abandoned our people."
Children are also affected by this sense of abandonment: "I cannot play. My Iraqi brothers and sisters are being killed. Do you know just how bad it is in there? I cannot play, or listen to music, or do anything nice, not until the occupation has ended, not even if I try and force myself," said 14-year- old Youssef, who has been attending an inexpensive private school in Amman for the past year.
According to school counsellor Samir Abu Moghli, "regardless of how long they have been in Jordan, the horror of the situation in Iraq is so intense that precious few Iraqis I have encountered have overcome the first stage of trauma. Compounding their agony has been the sense that assistance is not guaranteed. Even the few who still have some of their savings, or are receiving help from NGOs, fear what may happen tomorrow."
Displaced from their homes, not knowing when they might be allowed to return, many Iraqis in Jordan have yet to come to terms with their plight. Almost unanimously, Iraqis of all generations were keen to emphasise just how profound their desire to return home is, and that, had the invasion not happened, they would never have left.
The phase to come will be difficult too, as Iraqis increasingly begin to come to terms with the pain of the present. "Here there are no bombs," said 12-year-old Maryam as she wept, "but I am tired and sad. My parents are tired too. We try not to be, because this way we are resisting. But it is getting harder. How long do we have to be here?" At this, Youssef interjects, with strength in his voice that belies his young age: "we have to be here so long as there is war. Until the war stops, we are refugees."
WHAT COMES NEXT? According to AI, greater international commitment is required to improve the situation of Iraq's refugees. The AI report adds that existing pledges for assistance to governments hosting Iraqis must urgently be honoured. But beyond basic survival, it is not easy to determine the best way forward for Iraqi refugees barring the end of the US occupation.
To date, the question of where the crisis falls in the framework of international humanitarian action remains unanswered. At the grassroots level, it is host governments, international humanitarian agencies and local and international NGOs that implement assistance programmes. But at the higher level, the issue of funding is critical. International development and humanitarian action rests on an inter- governmental system dependent on the exigencies of power, which in its turn dictates when and to whom states provide, and when they don't.
It is telling that the states that led and participated in the illegal invasion and ongoing occupation of Iraq publicly cited human rights as one of their pretexts while their actions amount to genocide, not only in the figure of one million Iraqis dead, but in the creation of the largest refugee crisis the region has seen since the establishment of Israel. Just as the Nakba was essential to the attempted destruction of Palestine, the Iraqi refugee explosion is an integral part of the attempted destruction of the Iraqi nation. Ironically, the pressures this crisis produces increase as US plans for Iraq are resisted. And with inexorable defeat looming, the issue of Iraqi refugees and their needs may well be compounded by demands for individual and collective war reparations.