The Iraqi Refugee Crisis

Iraqi RefugeesWith the violence in Iraq showing no sign of slowing down, civilians increasingly suffer. The UN estimates that 2.6 million Iraqis have fled violence in their country since 2003 and at least 40-50,000 more Iraqis are leaving their homes every month. Two million have fled to surrounding countries, while some 1.8 million have vacated their homes for safer areas within Iraq. Middle Eastern countries, Syria and Jordan in particular, have shown great generosity in welcoming Iraqis in the past three years, but that welcome is wearing thin. Other countries throughout the Middle East, including Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, Iran and Turkey are also seeing increased flows.

The governments of these host nations are reluctant to publicly acknowledge a growing refugee crisis and therefore provide Iraqis with no official status and few social services. The international community is similarly in denial over the existence of an Iraqi refugee crisis, and has provided few resources to address the needs of this expanding population. There is an essential need for host nations, supported by donor governments and the UN, to establish programs aimed at responding to the needs of Iraqi refugees.

Why Iraqis Are Fleeing

“Iraqis who are unable to flee the country are now in a queue, waiting their turn to die,” is how one Iraqi journalist summarizes conditions in Iraq today. While the U.S. debates whether a civil war is raging in Iraq, thousands of Iraqis face the possibility of death every day all over the country. All Iraqis, whether Sunni, Shi’a, Christian, or other groups such as the Palestinian, are threatened by armed actors. People are targeted because of religious affiliation, economic status, and profession–many, such as doctors, teachers, and even hairdressers, are viewed as being “anti-Islamic.”

On a recent mission to Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, Refugees International documented dozens of stories of kidnappings for extortion, forcing families to sell businesses, homes, cars, and other assets to meet kidnappers’ demands. Many families had suffered multiple kidnappings, further draining resources. These Iraqis fled the country to escape further kidnappings, often associated with sectarian violence, or the death threats that often followed the kidnappings.

Given their genuine and credible fear for their lives and the lives of their loved ones, most Iraqis are determined to be resettled to Europe or North America, and few consider return to Iraq an option.

Iraqi Refugees’ Main Needs

While many refugees from Iraq come from comfortable backgrounds as they are the lucky ones able to afford the great expense of leaving the country, all face challenges that quickly plunge them into a subsistence existence. Many Iraqis have their savings drained before even leaving the country by paying ransoms for kidnapped family members.

Iraqis’ resources are being further depleted by their inability to work legally in host countries. Jordan, Lebanon and Syria consider Iraqis as “guests” rather than refugees fleeing violence. Though most refugees have marketable skills, having worked as doctors, teachers, architects, blacksmiths, hair dressers, they are barred from practicing their trade. Additionally, many Iraqis are afraid to work for fear of having their papers checked and then being deported back to Iraq. These circumstances have plunged the Iraqi middle class amongst the urban poor in Damascus, Amman, and Beirut.

Other than an access to jobs, the number one need of Iraqi refugees is housing assistance. Partially due to the large influx of Iraqis seeking shelter in limited housing markets, rents in Damascus, Amman, and Beirut have increased in the past three years, and constitute the largest single expense for Iraqi families.

Access to education for children is the second greatest need. Syria allows Iraqi children to attend public schools but many families can not afford the school supplies and uniforms required for their children to attend. The state of education in Jordan is more restrictive than in Syria. While the country does not deny Iraqis access to schools, the government conditions it on the availability of space and gives headmasters case-by-case authority to admit or deny children access. Lebanon does not allow Iraqis to attend public schools at all, forcing parents to enroll their children in private schools.

Iraqis’ medical needs are also largely unanswered. In Jordan, medical services are limited to emergency care. Syria gave Iraqis free access to medical services until 2005; since then they have been required to pay. All medical services in Lebanon are private. Though local NGOs do provide clinic services for Iraqi refugees in all three countries, demand far outpaces supply. Mental health needs remain largely unaddressed.

An Inadequate Response

Host governments are clearly stretched thin and no longer have the capacity to provide medical, education, or other services to Iraqis without international support. Similarly, domestic NGOs and service providers do not have adequate funding to provide support to the growing refugee population. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is not able to fund implementing partners to provide services either. Since it remains difficult for international NGOs to legally register with Syria and Jordan to provide services, there is little international presence responding to the needs of Iraqis, though a limited number of international NGOs has plans to begin operations in the region. International leadership is needed to develop a coherent regional burden sharing plan, and international resources must allow host countries to finance the basic needs of Iraqi refugees on their territory.

Syrian Response
More than 40,000 Iraqis are arriving in Syria each month, and numbers are likely similar for Jordan. For the time being, Syria is maintaining its “open door policy” to Iraqi refugees in the name of pan-Arabism. In addition to the influx of Iraqi refugees, Syria is home to 450,000 Palestinians, and has also provided assistance and temporary shelter to hundreds of thousands of Lebanese civilians fleeing the bombings during the recent Israel-Lebanon conflict. But Syria’s resources are stretched thin. Before 2005, Iraqis had access to the same public services as Syrians. In the face of the growing Iraqi population, Syria started imposing restrictions on Iraqi refugees; it now charges for healthcare that used to be free. Similarly, until recently Iraqis were issued six-month visas. Recent policy changes now limit Iraqis to a three-month visa, and force them to undertake expensive trips to exit the country and renew their visas.

Lebanese and Jordanian Response
In Lebanon and Jordan, the situation is even more difficult for Iraqis. Both countries are now showing a diminishing tolerance for Iraqi presence. In Lebanon, which hosts about 40,000 Iraqis, refugees are increasingly arrested for illegal presence, imprisoned and forced to choose between remaining in prison and being deported. While Lebanon has closed its borders to Iraqis entirely, Jordan continues to let Iraqis in, albeit selectively. Unlike in Syria, Iraqis have to pay for all services and live in constant fear of deportation. The Jordanian government, concerned about the risk of instability, has shut its border to young men, forcing families to separate. Visas are issued on a sporadic basis, and while many Iraqis reported receiving a standard three-month visa, there were growing reports, many documented by Refugees International, that border officials are issuing transit visas–many as short as two days–to Iraqis. As a result, Iraqis are quickly falling out of status and are subject to potential deportation.

The UN Response
Dramatically short of funds and staff in all three countries, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees can’t provide adequate protection and assistance to Iraqis. The agency lacks the resources to process refugees’ documentation adequately. Without staff to monitor borders, UNHCR depends on national governments for updated information on new arrivals. The fact that Lebanon, Syria and Jordan are not state parties to the 1951 Refugees Convention further reduces UNHCR’s ability to protect refugees.

Studies conducted by the UN and international agencies in Lebanon and Syria have shown that vulnerable Iraqis in both countries are in dire need of assistance. Although there is no official study for Jordan yet, needs documented by Refugees International are similar. As outlined above, access to healthcare and education is a major issue, as are mental health and legal assistance needs.

UNHCR’s budget in Syria for Iraqis in 2006 was just $700,000, less than one dollar per refugee. UNHCR needs resources to help Iraqi refugees, but it also needs food, medicine and other help from other UN agencies. UNHCR is the only UN agency assisting Iraqis in Lebanon and Jordan, while UNICEF and other agencies voice interest but provide little support in Syria. Given the growing impact of this crisis, UNHCR, as the lead agency for refugees, needs the technical support and expertise of its sister agencies.

U.S. Response
While many diplomatic missions in both Syria and Jordan are now concerned by the increasing numbers of Iraqis seeking shelter, they feel that the U.S., given its role in Iraq, should lead humanitarian efforts in the surrounding countries. However, the U.S. has responded minimally to the refugee flow.

The U.S. Department of State recently announced that it is contributing $18 million toward the $60 million that the UN High Commission of Refugees is asking for this year to protect two million Iraqi refugees. In addition, the U.S. announced that it would consider for resettlement into the U.S. up to 7,000 Iraqi refugees referred to it by UNHCR. It also issued a request for proposals to provide humanitarian services to Iraqi refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, countries hosting large numbers of Iraqis. Officials also announced that the U.S. Agency for International Development is providing funds to assist some of the 1.8 million internally displaced Iraqis.

But it is very likely that UNHCR will need more than $60 million to assist displaced Iraqis this year, and that the U.S. should fund at least 50 percent of the total. Traditionally, the U.S. funds 25 percent of UNHCR’s programs. U.S. officials made it clear that they would provide at least 25 percent of what UNHCR is seeking. In addition, the U.S. has the capacity to resettle many more than 7,000 Iraqis this year it agreed to. The U.S. has a moral obligation to resettle Iraqis who were put at risk because of their support for the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

Policy Recommendations

The United States must begin by acknowledging that violence in Iraq has made civilian life untenable, creating a refugee crisis that is essentially exporting the nation’s instability to neighboring countries. To deal with this crisis, the following steps should be taken:

  1. The US and international community must acknowledge the scope of the crisis and provide assistance directly or indirectly to regional governments to help them absorb refugees and keep their borders open;
  2. Given its central role in Iraq, the U.S. should lead an international initiative to support Middle Eastern countries hosting Iraqi civilians. The U.S. should recognize and support the constructive role Syria is playing in hosting Iraqi refugees and help it keep its borders open.;
  3. Western countries, including the U.S., must agree to resettle particularly vulnerable groups, such as the Palestinians, without prejudice to their right to return to their country as recognized under international law;
  4. International donors must increase substantially their support to UNHCR and fully meet their
    appeal for 2007 and other UN agencies must participate in the relief efforts for Iraqi refugees;
  5. The UN should help create a regional burden-sharing plan that includes all countries neighboring Iraq; and,
  6. Nations hosting Iraqi refugees recognize their needs, and work proactively with increase the capacity of national health, education, and housing systems to provide adequate services for Iraqi refugees, including plans for international support for these services.
Kristele Younes is an Advocate at Refugees International and and analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus. She completed a three-week assessment mission to Lebanon, Syria and Jordan in November 2006.