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from issue no. 02 - 2007

The tragedy of the Iraqi refugees

Paying for “the export of democracy”

by Gianni Valente

The UN Agency for Refugees (UNHCR) describes the mass exodus caused by the Iraqi crisis as «the largest population movement in the Middle East since the exodus of the Palestinians after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948». Out of a population of 26 million, around 1.8 million Iraqis have evacuated within the country, a number that could grow to 2.3 million by the end of the year. Another 2 million are refugees who have fled Iraq. Apart from the million refugees in Syria, mentioned in these pages, 750,000 are expatriates in Jordan. And what is worrying is the realistic possibility of an exponential growth in the exodus from a country rent by the civil war. If up to 2004 there was a substantial reflux to Iraq amongst those who had fled because of the war (300,000 in 2003, 200,000 in 2004), in 2006 the refugees who returned to live in their country numbered only 500 (while the monthly average of those fleeing is around 40,000).
A group of Iraqi arrivals in Damascus unloading their luggage in the Jaramana district

A group of Iraqi arrivals in Damascus unloading their luggage in the Jaramana district

Resources. In January 2007 the UNHCR launched an appeal for 60 million dollars needed to support the protection and aid programs for Iraqi refugees. In mid February the offerings from donors covered only half of the sum needed, with the most substantial contributions coming from the United States (18 million) and from Australia (2.2 million), while the European countries (with the significant exceptions of Sweden and Denmark) went on dragging their feet.
The UNHCR has convoked an International Conference in Geneva for 17 and 18 April next on the Iraqi refugees and evacuees. It has also appealed to the international community «to lighten the humanitarian burden» weighing on the countries taking them in, where governments «are encountering increasing difficulty in the attempt to manage such a large number of refugees».
Closed doors. Western governments are not opening their borders to Iraqis with refugee status. Only the US has declared its willingness to take in 7,000 by September. Sweden, where 9,000 Iraqis asked for asylum in 2006, is the exception to the general lack of interest in the international community.
Palestinians without a country. Among those who have suffered most from the chaos and violence in post-Saddam Iraq are the Palestinians who found refuge there from 1948 after fleeing their own country because of the Israeli-Palestinian collision. Before 2003 there were 34,000. Today, as well as the violence unleashed against them (targeted murders, kidnappings, torture), resentment and envy are also vented for the aid – guaranteed food, accommodation, health assistance and education – which they enjoyed under the old Baathist regime. Not one of the countries of the area – not even Syria – has opened its borders to offer them asylum and security. Symbol of this humanitarian blackout are the 700 Palestinians who have been living for months in al-Waleed, the no-man’s-land between Iraq and Syria, in conditions that endanger their survival.

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