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Iraq: U.S. Plans To Take In 7,000 Refugees

Iraqi children at a refugee camp in Karbala (epa) February 15, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations refugee agency has welcomed U.S. plans to take in at least 7,000 Iraqi refugees. Washington will also provide some $18 million to help with the larger problem of displaced people from Iraq.

The plans represent a change for the United States, which has taken in only about 600 refugees since toppling Saddam Hussein four years ago and they underscore the increasing gravity of the Iraqi refugee problem.

The head of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), Antonio Guterres, described the U.S. policy plans as "a very good step in the right direction."

More Help Needed

But he emphasized that much more is needed to deal with the increasing numbers of people leaving Iraq.

The UN agency estimates that up to 50,000 Iraqis are fleeing each month and that 3.8 million people have already left Iraq since the United States toppled Hussein four years ago. That makes the U.S. offer to take in 7,000 refugees a solution for just a small portion of the overall total. So far, Washington has not said exactly who will be chosen, or how.

"The UN agency estimates that up to 50,000 Iraqis are fleeing each month and that 3.8 million people have already left Iraq since the United States toppled Hussein four years ago."

But UNHCR spokesperson Astrid Van Genderen Stort told RFE/RL from Geneva that the criteria are likely to favor those who are unable to remain in their current countries of asylum."Normally, resettlement is only for those people who obviously flee a country for fear of persecution but who also cannot stay in a country of asylum, in this case, for example, Syria and Jordan,” she said. “Resettlement is for people who really are also persecuted in this place or have specific vulnerabilities, like sicknesses, that cannot be treated in that country or who need family reunification."

Equally important, Van Genderen Stort said, is the U.S. offer to provide $18 million for a worldwide resettlement and relief program for Iraqi refugees.

That follows a UN appeal for $60 million from nations around the world.

Iraqi Refugees Impact Region

Van Genderen Stort said the agency would like to see most of the Iraqi refugees remain in the region. The UNHCR broadly estimates that there are at least some 700,000 Iraqis in Syria today, and about the same number in Jordan.

Both Syria and Jordan say the refugees are straining their resources and that the influx must be reduced.

Damascus recently passed tough new requirements that Iraqis get a 15-day permit upon arrival, after which they can apply to immigration officials for a three-month permit that can be renewed just once.

Inside Iraq, the problem of people leaving their homes for other parts of the country is equally pressing.

A displaced Iraqi in a camp in Baghdad (epa file photo)

Jean Philippe Chauvez is a spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Geneva. He told RFE/RL that displacement inside Iraq was a major problem during the Hussein era. And he says it has shown no sign of easing since 2003.

"It is fair to say that Iraq has had a history of displacement over the past decade -- 1.2 million individuals were displaced throughout the 15 central and southern governorates of Iraq. And between 2003 and 2005, an additional 200,000 people were displaced,” he said. “Now, if you are looking at 2006, probably the defining factor was the bombing of the Samarra shrine [in February], and from that date onwards, we estimate -- or our monitors estimate -- about 1,000 individuals per day have been displaced,” he added.

That means some 370,000 people were displaced last year alone. And the pace is quickening. Over the past three weeks, the IOM says, 18,000 more people in Iraq have been internally displaced.

People leaving Iraq, or moving elsewhere in the country, say they are doing so to escape threats to their lives from rival sectarian groups.

The victims come from all of Iraq's diverse communities, including Sunni, Shi’ite, and the small Christian minority.

Often they arrive in their place of refuge with very few resources.

In Syria and Jordan, they join large populations of people, both well-off and poor, who must compete for housing and whatever business opportunities they can find.

Inside Iraq, the situation can be worse. Rents have soared as people seek new homes. But in Iraq's collapsed economy, finding jobs can be almost impossible and the displaced are quickly reduced to poverty.

On The Verge Of Civil War

On The Verge Of Civil War

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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.