The Iraq refugee crisis, highlighted by the regional tour of UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres last week, received wide press coverage in the region both in print media and satellite television. Much of the focus was on the enormous financial and social burdens caused by the influx of refugees and debate over who will bear the costs of supporting them.
Economic Strain On Jordan
The Amman-based "Jordan Times" noted on February 12 that Jordan, which has historically hosted thousands of Palestinian refugees, did so with financial support from the international community. "For some reason, Jordan is now left to cope alone with the heavy burden of accommodating tens of thousands of Iraqis. This happens at a time [when] Jordan has to adjust for losing the Iraqi market for exports [Iraq was Jordan's biggest trade partner] and the Iraqi oil, which, for 12 years, was flowing at favorable terms," the daily reported.
Wealthy Iraqis have also disrupted the real-estate market, making it more difficult for average Jordanians to afford housing. "The extra demand on consumer products, especially fruit and vegetables, raised their prices sharply," it noted, not to mention the strain on the country's security services.
While the daily and many others said they would not advocate closing the borders to Iraqi refugees, they stressed the need for their countries to be compensated for the burden of supporting the influx.
There was also criticism in the media about a U.S. announcement last week that it would grant asylum to some 20,000 Iraqis, in that the figure was too low. However, there was little discussion of the February 5 announcement by the State Department's Iraq Refugee and Internally Displaced Persons Task Force.
Thousands Flee Monthly
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said last week that an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 Iraqis are leaving their homes monthly, prompting the UNHCR to issue an emergency appeal for $60 million in international aid. The UNHCR also called for the convening of an international donor conference for refugees in April. Iraqi parliament speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani issued a similar appeal on February 11, saying a conference should be organized to address funding for states that take in refugees.
Al-Mashhadani also said a parliamentary commission would be formed to discuss the issue with Arab and European states. He also recommended the Iraqi government allocate a portion of its emergency budget to aid refugees and displaced persons. There are an estimated 1.7 million Iraqis displaced from their homes inside the country.
Iraqis have been fleeing the country in growing numbers since 2003. Until now, many of those displaced outside Iraq's borders had not registered with the UN. Families with the financial means were some of the first to take up residence in neighboring states, buying homes, opening businesses, or joining the workforce.
The less fortunate ended up in slums, with many begging on the streets. While the influx of Iraqis in many ways benefited the economies of countries like Jordan and Syria, it also placed an enormous burden on them, with negative impacts on their infrastructure and society.
Iraqis Overwhelming Damascus
The UNHCR on February 9 quoted Syrian authorities as saying the influx of refugees, many of whom are in Damascus, has led to a huge strain on schools, medical facilities, and other social services, and has driven up rents and other prices in the capital. The effect is much the same in neighboring Jordan.
A decision by the Syrian government last month to regulate the number of Iraqis entering the country prompted demonstrations by scores of refugees, and garnered the attention of international organizations.
That decision has reportedly been reversed, at least for the time being, following a visit by UN High Commissioner for Refugees Guterres to the region. The threat of deportation, however, has prompted thousands of refugees to seek official status. Over a two-day period this week, UNHCR staff provided applications to over 5,000 people in Damascus, the agency reported.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is slated to meet with Guterres to discuss the U.S. role in the crisis on February 14. A gathering of EU justice and home affairs ministers is expected to address the issue the next day.
Sweden's EU Affairs Minister Cecilia Malmstroem has already called on EU states to share the burden of refugees who make it to Europe more equally; Sweden currently takes in more than half of all Iraqi asylum seekers that come to Europe -- 9,065 in 2006, according to euobserver.com.
It is a generally accepted figure that some 2 million Iraqis have left Iraq since 2003, though the exact numbers could be far higher. Once refugees are registered, the UNHCR will have a better idea of the number of displaced they are dealing with. However, a true number may still be difficult to come by, as it will not include the number of Iraqis living outside the country that have not sought assistance.
The Imam Al-Mahdi Army on parade (epa)
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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.