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Iraq: Growing Numbers Flee Sectarian Violence

  • Sumedha Senanayake

The UNHCR estimates that up to 2.7 million Iraqis may be displaced by the end of 2007 (epa) January 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The ongoing sectarian violence in Iraq has created a massive refugee problem, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the UNHCR estimates that 12 percent of Iraqis have fled their homes due to violence, which it says is the largest long-term movement of people in the Middle East since the creation of Israel in 1948.

The organization also warned in a report issued on January 9 that the scale of internal displacement in Iraq is beyond the capacity of humanitarian agencies, including the UNHCR, to deal with, the UN Integrated Regional Information Networks reported.

In response to the growing humanitarian crisis, the organization has issued an appeal for $60 million in emergency aid from the international community to assist the thousands of Iraqis displaced because of the sectarian violence.

Fleeing Ethnic Cleansing In Baghdad

The epicenter of much of the sectarian violence, and by extension the source of internal displacement, has been Baghdad, where thousands of Iraqi families are fleeing mixed Sunni-Shi'ite areas for the safety of neighborhoods in which their own sect dominates.

Both Sunni and Shi'ite officials and media have been saying for some time that what has been occurring in Baghdad is sectarian cleansing. Adnan al-Dulaymi, the leader of the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front, asserted that Shi'ite militias are in the process of trying to turn Baghdad into a Shi'ite city, "Al-Hayat" reported on January 9.

"Shi'ite militias have driven the Sunnis away from Al-Sadr City, the Al-Amin, Ur, Baghdad al-Jadidah, and Al-Husayniyah areas as well as the areas east of the Baghdad canal, and are now moving toward the other parts of the capital and shelling Al-Sulaykh and Al-A'zamiyah with mortars," al-Dulaymi said.

At the same time, Jalal al-Din al-Saghir, a prominent member of the Shi'ite United Iraqi Alliance, believes that Sunni insurgents have launched a campaign to drive out the Shi'ite population in Baghdad's predominantly Sunni quarters of Abu Ghurayb, Al-Amiriyah, Al-Khadra, and Al-Durah, Al-Arabiyah satellite television reported on January 20.

Moreover, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced on January 25 that Iraqi security forces would soon begin evicting squatters from Baghdad homes they occupied illegally after the original owners were driven out. "Today or tomorrow, we will start arresting those who are living in the homes of refugees, to open the way for their return," he said.

Violence Drives Internally Displaced

The UNHCR estimates that 1.7 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) currently live within Iraq's borders, and that number that could reach 2.7 million by the end of 2007. Since the February 22 bombing of the Al-Askaria shrine in Samarra, which set off a wave of sectarian killings between Shi'a and Sunnis, about 432,000 Iraqis have fled their homes, Deputy Migration Minister Hamdiya Ahmad told Reuters on December 28.

The human dimension of the sectarian violence (epa)

"The main reason behind the rise of displaced families is the deterioration of the security situation and the death threats that people have received to flee their houses, in addition to the bombing of safe areas," Ahmad said.

Several Iraqi officials have said that many of the IDPs have fled to the relatively secure semi-autonomous Kurdish north. But as the number of refugees there swells, the region has begun to feel the strain.

Imad Maruf, the head of the disaster-relief program for the Iraqi Red Crescent in Irbil, said that his office has registered more than 5,000 families, or approximately 30,000 people, as refugees since 2005, Middle East Online reported on January 22.

Citing security concerns, Kurdish officials have begun to impose new restrictions on who can settle in the area, such as requiring a Kurdish sponsor for each refugee family.

"We started to impose new regulations relating to immigrants after September 2004, to secure the Kurdish region from any terrorist infiltration, which could destabilize security." said Yazgar Ra'uf, the head of the residency office in Irbil, Middle East Online reported on January 22.

Neighbors Feel The Strain

The growing number of IDPs in Iraq has also led to an influx of refugees into neighboring states. The UNHCR estimates that the number of Iraqis who have fled to neighboring states includes 500,000 to 1 million in Syria, up to 700,000 in Jordan, 80,000 in Egypt, and 40,000 in Lebanon.

However, the flood of refugees has placed a huge burden on these countries. The situation is particularly acute in Jordan, where Iraqi refugees account for 10 percent of the total population. The government has complained that the new arrivals place a huge strain on the economy.

Alex Haxton, the director of operations for World Emergency Relief, says the situation in Jordan is becoming critical, Reuters reported on January 23. "As Jordan struggles to cope with the influx of refugees crossing into the country, the cost of living within Jordan is continuing to soar," he said. "Hundreds of thousands of people within Jordan, including both Jordanians and Iraqi refugees who have sought safety within the country, are finding that their income cannot compete with the escalating cost of living."

Also, the growing number of refugees means more people are competing for limited resources and jobs, resulting in resentment among the indigenous population of the refugees. In Jordan, where 30 percent of the people live in poverty and unemployment is at 15 percent, the refugees create a potentially volatile situation.

"The welcome mat is starting to wear pretty thin in some of these surrounding countries, because they already have such a huge burden, and that is what we are concerned about, as well," UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond was quoted by Voice of America on January 9 as saying.

Resettlement In U.S.?

As the conflict continues and the number of Iraqi refugees swells, some humanitarian organizations have called on the United States to take a greater role and admit more refugees. They contend that the United States has a moral duty to take in more Iraqi refugees because the U.S.-led invasion preceded the refugee crisis.

In testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on January 16, Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration Ellen Sauerbrey acknowledged that only 466 Iraqi refugees have been admitted to the United States since 2003. Human Rights Watch has called on the United States to admit 20,000 Iraqi refugees in 2007, including Iraqis who have been persecuted because of their associations with the United States.

However, large-scale resettlement in the United States may be a difficult proposition, because of the post-September 11 security precautions, anti-immigration sentiment, and "Islamophobia." Likewise, Kathleen Newland, director of the Migration Policy Institute, believes that despite a high degree of antiwar sentiment in the United States, the U.S. public has yet to see the refugee crisis as a result of U.S. actions in Iraq, "The San Francisco Chronicle" reported on January 16.

"I think people in this country don't see the United States as being the main cause of the refugee flows," Newland said. "I would guess they see it more as result of Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence."
On The Verge Of Civil War

The Imam Al-Mahdi Army on parade (epa)


HAS THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ BECOME A CIVIL WAR? Many observers have concluded that the tit-for-tat sectarian violence that emerged after the February 2006 bombing of a mosque in Samarra has become a full-blown civil war.... (more)

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THE COMPLETE PICTURE: Click on the image to view RFE/RL's complete coverage of events in Iraq and that country's ongoing transition.

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