Exodus from Iraq: The Refugee Problem
12 February 2007
A steady exodus of thousands of refugees from Iraq is placing a tremendous burden on host countries in the Middle East and is threatening to become a major humanitarian crisis.
War and turmoil have forced thousands of Iraqis to flee their homeland in the region's largest refugee crisis since 1948, when tens-of thousands of Palestinians fled from what was historic Palestine to what is now Israel.
According to the United Nations, up to two-million Iraqis have taken refuge in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Egypt, with nearly 3,000 people leaving Iraq every month. Most of the refugees are in Jordan and Syria, with more than 800,000 each. Within Iraq, an additional 1.8-million people have relocated to safer towns and nearly 50,000 are forced from their homes every month.
Some of the refugees left Iraq with enough money to start over. Many sold all of their belonging to escape the ongoing sectarian and political violence. But by most accounts, the majority of refugees are destitute and in need of humanitarian assistance.
Iraq in Crisis
According to Fawaz Gerges of New York's Sarah Lawrence College, this highlights the collapse of Iraqi society.
"If Iraqis [could] afford to leave, 70 percent of the Iraqi population would leave Iraq today. And what this tells you is that the refugee crisis reflects the breakdown of one of the wealthiest Arab societies. Tens-of-thousands, if not hundreds-of-thousands, of Arab workers from Syria and Jordan and Egypt and Lebanon traveled to Iraq to make a living and [came] back and [built] a life. Now, the Syrians and the Jordanians and the Lebanese are seeing a population with no hope, no future," says Gerges.
Many experts stress that Jordan and Syria, both poor nations with few resources, have been very accommodating despite the pressures Iraqi refugees have placed on their infrastructures and educational and health systems. Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington says both nations have adapted well.
"What is very striking so far is that Syria has been able to absorb these refugees without visible signs of stress. There is no indication, for example, that the country's infrastructure is collapsing as a result. And there are great similarities in Jordan. There are complaints about housing prices going up and so on. But so far, these countries have done amazingly well in adapting themselves to the inflow of refugees," says Otawway.
Iraqi refugees now constitute about one-eighth of Jordan's population of about five-and-a-half million people. Many are intellectuals, artists and professionals who are enriching the cultural and social landscape not only in Jordan, but throughout the Middle East. However, this diverse mix of Sunni, Shi'ite and Christian Iraqis also has significant demographic implications. This is particularly true of Jordan, as Juan Cole, professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan, points out.
"Jordan has, through its modern history, been demographically divided between the Palestinian refugees who came from what is now Israel and the West Bank on the one hand, and the East Bank Jordanians, many of them from a Bedouin background, on the other," says Cole. "And since they're just about evenly balanced, there have been problems for the regime in dealing with these two major groups. So I think from the regime's point of view, adding a third demographic would actually have some advantages in having another player to balance things out."
Syria and Shi'ite Iraqis
The picture is different in Syria, notes Cole, where Iraqi refugees have been more vocal in demanding better aid and some local communities have expressed alarm over the increased number of Iraqi Shiites in their midst.
"There have also been reports in the Syrian press by Sunni Arabs worrying that the Shi'ite Iraqis who have come to Syria are engaging in missionary activities and that they're trying to convert Syrian villagers to Shi'ism. So the Christian and Shi'ite coloration of a lot of the refugees from Iraq in Syria is exacerbating certain kinds of sectarian conflicts that already preexisted in Syria," says Cole.
Refugees and Regional Stability
Many experts say most refugees would go back to Iraq once it is safe for them to do so. Barring that, some analysts say the glimpse refugees are giving their hosts into the turmoil in Iraq is feeding anti-American sentiments. Others worry that the presence of large numbers of Iraqi refugees throughout the region could be destabilizing in the long term, especially if the exodus continues.
The problem, says Michael Kocher of the New-York-based International Rescue Committee, warrants more immediate attention.
"Many of us in the humanitarian field expected a refugee crisis three years ago, in the early days of the Iraq War, and it didn't happen. You are seeing now the exodus in very large numbers. I think you would have to go back to the Afghan refugee movement years ago to find something that mirrors the kinds of numbers that are coming out of Iraq today. The international community has to give this a very close look quickly to try to come up with solutions and not the piecemeal approach that's been happening to date. The big thing obviously is simply security. People are leaving because they are not safe. And they cannot go home because they are not safe," says Kocher.
If the situation in Iraq does not improve and the outflow of refugees continues, most analysts warn that the crisis will no longer be contained within the region as more and more Iraqis look to the West for a new home.
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