Adam Ash

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Monday, April 02, 2007

The Iraqi refugee crisis (will the US have to take in a million Iraqis?)

Mideast Facing Iraq Refugee Crisis
Jordan and Syria are Home to Millions Fleeing Relentless Violence at Home
by Lyse Doucet/ Toronto Star

In a region where old political maps are being redrawn, there’s a new Baghdad. “This is Baghdad now,” asserts Hussain. We’re sitting on brightly coloured plastic chairs on the sidewalk of Sharea al Iraqi - Iraqi Street - in the Syrian capital of Damascus. It used to be called something else, but no one calls it that anymore. And it doesn’t look like that anymore.

The shop signs tell the story.

There’s Baghdad bakery doing a brisk trade. And there’s billboard after billboard announcing transport to and from Iraqi cities. The signs are all Iraqi; so are the accents, so is the way the women arrange their headscarves.

I ask Hussain why he left the real Baghdad. He raises one leg of his black-and-red track suit to reveal a round dark scar.

Then he pulls up one sleeve and shows three more - the marks of bullets meant to kill him when he was working at the ministry of the interior reputed to be dominated by Shiite hit squads.

He’s a Shiite himself. He sits with Basel, a Sunni Muslim. Why did he leave?

Basel makes a slitting motion across his throat.

It strikes me that this line of men sipping glasses of hot sweet tea along the side of a shop is not just a grim sign of joblessness but a sad reminder of what has been lost.

“You’re sitting together here,” I said, “Shiites, Sunnis, Christians …” It coaxes the faintest of smiles as they all shake their heads at the sectarian violence threatening to tear their country apart. “This is the new Iraq,” affirms Basel.

He fled to Damascus last year but returned to Baghdad a few months ago, hoping the new U.S.-led security plan for the capital would work.

But now he’s back in Syria and doesn’t want to go back “to my death.” Nor, it seems, will most of the some 1.2 million Iraqis who are now in Syria. Or the 800,000 or more in neighbouring Jordan.

Syria and Jordan don’t call them refugees. They euphemistically speak of “visitors” or “guests.”

Their caution is understandable. Palestinian refugees flooded across their borders during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and they still haven’t left.

This movement of Iraqis is being called the biggest displacement of people since then, a massive exodus whose consequences are still sinking in.

For now, there are no tented camps. Wealthy Iraqis buy or rent their own homes; poorer ones slip into poorer neighbourhoods but they’re becoming increasingly destitute.

“My only option left is to beg,” says Iman, who fled to Damascus with her 15-year-old twins after her husband was assassinated. “But my children say it’s better for all of us to die than for their mother to be a beggar.”

Neither Syria nor Jordan has signed the United Nation’s 1951 convention on refugees. But most Iraqis have nowhere else to go.

Sweden has led the way in taking about 9,000. But Britain has been refusing almost all applications for asylum.

Last year, the United States took in a few hundred Iraqis. Pushed by criticism it was doing little to deal with a crisis largely of its making, the United States has now announced it will take 7,000 more.

“The world is in a state of denial,” regrets Jordan’s Prince Hassan bin Talal, the country’s elder statesman.

He recounts how U.S. senator Edward Kennedy told him the situation with Iraqis in Jordan was the equivalent of 30 million refugees turning up on the shores of the United States. Ten to 15 per cent of Jordan’s tiny population of nearly 6 million is now made up of Iraqis.

It’s a similar story in Syria. And it shows no sign of stopping. 50,000 more are said to be fleeing Iraq every month.

A Canadian diplomat told me Canada is still “working out its plans.”

The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, is stepping up its operations, including its fundraising, with a conference in Geneva next month. But for the moment everyone seems to be in denial.

Neighbouring states don’t dare speak out publicly against a sacred notion of “Arab unity,” although Jordan is quietly tightening its borders. They’re all hoping the problem will somehow go away as this influx drives up the prices of everything from houses to tomatoes and puts pressure on hospitals and schools.

They’re hoping Iraq will heal itself sometime soon. But Hussain and Basel, whose meagre savings are running out fast, believe they can recreate their own country in someone else’s.

Their denial can be forgiven; it allows them to carry on. However, the world’s denial of this crisis can’t last.

(Canadian journalist Lyse Doucet is a world news presenter and foreign correspondent for BBC Television. She is based in London.)


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