Commentary – Executive magazine June 2007
One of the world’s largest refugee crises is underway in the Middle East. It has been going on for the last four years, but judging by the scant attention the issue gets from the media and the international community, you wouldn’t think so. I’m referring to the Iraqi refugee crisis.
There are an estimated 1.6 million Iraqis internally displaced, one million in neighboring Jordan, 1.5 million plus in Syria, 80,000 in Egypt, and 30,000 in Lebanon. If the exodus continues, there could be more Iraqis outside of the country than in it, and those that will have stayed on will not be the moderates Washington is desperately trying to win over. It will be the ‘insurgents,’ the Iraqi resistance, whatever nomenclature you might want to give to the Iraqis opposing the US-led Coalition.
In all fairness to the media, the Iraqi refugee crisis in Jordan has garnered token attention, but the equally pressing situation in Syria has not.
As for Jordan, the influx of Iraqis to Syria has been a double-edged sword. Initially the Iraqis that fled were middle to upper class, bringing with them life savings that were duly invested in property, setting up businesses and making a home away from home. But as the situation in Iraq has deteriorated to resemble one of Dante’s cycles of hell, the Iraqis flooding into Jordan and Syria (Saudi Arabia has kept its doors firmly shut, building a $7 billion fence along the border to keep Iraqis out) are increasingly cash strapped.
This has brought with it misery, desperation and a growing xenophobia towards the Iraqi refugees in Syria due to rents doubling in price and food costs rising by an estimated 10 percent in just two years.
As a Syrian man remarked, even Syrian prostitutes are complaining about the influx as there are so many Iraqi women selling themselves on the streets - for as a little as 150 Syrian Pounds ($3).
The refugee crisis is compounding Syria’s internal problems, what with 11.4 percent of the population living in poverty, 20% unemployed, and a population that is expected to surge from the current 18 million to 30 million by 2025. On top of all that, the Syrian government announced in April that the refugees were costing the state an estimated $1 billion a year.
Compared to the coverage immigration and refugees get in the European press it is mind blowing to think of the stink the media would cause if, say, Britain’s population had grown by about 8% - the equivalent number of Iraqis now in Syria – in under four years due to a massive influx of refugees. It would rightly be deemed a major international crisis.
But the countries primarily responsible for the real crisis in the Middle East, the US and Britain, have kept passing the buck and taken in a paltry number of Iraqi refugees.
The Bush administration, recently caving in after a great deal of pressure, said the US would accept 7,000 this year - a step in the right direction considering the US let in under 500 Iraqis since the war began, but a drop in the ocean in comparison to Syria and Jordan.
Britain is no better, approving just 12% of Iraqi asylum claims, according to Amnesty International, whereas Sweden has a 91% approval rate, letting in 60,000 Iraqis and suspending the forcible return of refugees.
The West cannot of course take in millions of Iraqi refugees, but what it can do is aid humanitarian organizations and the UNHCR in Jordan and Syria until Iraqis can return home. But just as Britain and the US inadequately planned for the aftermath of the invasion, the White House and Downing Street have not allocated adequate funds for refugees. The funds that the international community has pigeon-holed for the Iraqi crisis are for use in Iraq, not for the neighboring countries grappling with the spill over from the occupation.
The UN has repeatedly called for extra funding, but such appeals have fallen on deaf ears.
Syria has now been forced to tighten entry regulations and reduced visas from a month to two weeks, forcing displaced Iraqis into a Catch-22 situation: stay illegally in Syria risking deportation or make the potentially lethal return trip to Iraq. Border crossings to Jordan or Lebanon are no easier, taking up to 8 hours and with a high likelihood of refused entry.
“People are complaining that Iraqis are raising the price of rents and oil, but if Syria doesn’t take them who will?” questioned Dr Nabil Sukkar, Managing Director of the Syrian Consulting Bureau for Development and Investment.
The refugee crisis is going to be with us for some time to come, and it is about time the US and Britain pulled their weight in trying to rectify what the International Refugee Committee has called ‘a humanitarian crisis of historic proportions.’