Surge In Numbers Seeking Asylum
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced on March 23 that fleeing Iraqis topped the list of those seeking asylum in the 50 most industrialized nations. Despite the increasing number of Iraqi asylum seekers, the overall number of asylum applications of all nationalities declined for a fifth straight year.
Asylum applications by Iraqis rose in 2006 to 22,200 from 12,500 in 2005, a 77 percent increase. It was the largest number of Iraqi asylum seekers since 2002, the last full year Saddam Hussein was in power, when 50,000 Iraqis applied for asylum. The rise was particularly sharp in the last quarter of 2006, when 8,100 Iraqis applied.
UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond said that during the Hussein regime, Iraqis mainly fled because of persecution, whereas now they are fleeing because of violence and instability. He stressed that recent data indicated that the security situation in Iraq was grave and no solution was in sight, Voice of America reported on March 23.
"It is difficult to say how many are actually getting outside Iraq, because it is getting more and more difficult to leave," Redmond said. "But we fear that this situation in Iraq is going to get worse before it gets better, and that you are going to see increasing numbers of Iraqis fleeing inside and also externally."
Iraqis Being Turned Away
The influx of Iraqi refugees into neighboring Jordan and Syria has created a massive strain on the resources of the two nations. The UNHCR has estimated that there are 700,000 Iraqi refugees in Jordan and 1.2 million in Syria. To stem the flow, authorities in both countries have imposed stricter border controls, particularly in Jordan.
Iraqis seeking to enter Jordan now must be over 40 or under 20, have sufficient funds to support themselves while staying in the kingdom, and most importantly, posses the new Iraqi passport.
In 2005, the Iraqi government announced that passports issued under the former regime, called the N series, and those issued shortly after fall of the Hussein government, called the S series, would no longer be valid. These passports were to be replaced by the G series, which is more difficult to forge.
However, the new passports were never delivered to Iraqi consulates abroad, meaning that anyone needing the new passport can currently only obtain them in Iraq, where they are often expensive and difficult to obtain. Not possessing the new passport essentially amounts to being refused entry into Jordan.
Although there no figures on the numbers of Iraqis denied entry into Jordan, a Jordanian Interior Ministry official speaking on condition of anonymity told the UN Integrated Regional Information Services (IRIN) on March 1 that more than half of those who attempted to enter had been denied.
Regardless, the decision by Jordanian officials to essentially turn away Iraqis fleeing the violence presents refugees with a stark choice: remain at the border, where conditions at the border camps are dire, or take their chances and return to Iraq.
"The fundamental question is whether the Jordanian government will continue to do this despite the fact that customary international law prevents you from effectively pushing someone back into a burning building," said Bill Frelick, refugee-policy director of Human Rights Watch, "The Christian Science Monitor" reported on March 20.
Refugees Or 'Guests'?
Those Iraqis who are lucky enough to enter Jordan or Syria face a precarious situation. Both countries have refused to label the Iraqis "refugees," but instead refer to them as "guests" or "brothers."
"Some governments prefer to keep people as guests, or brothers, or visitors, so as to avoid the firm and solid obligations stemming from the refugee status," UNHCR director for the Middle East and North Africa Radhouane Nouicir said.
Jordan is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention and, according to UNHCR, it has no legislation regarding the status and treatment of refugees. Iraqis are allowed entry via temporary visas, but those who cannot renew them become illegal. Iraqis who are seized by the authorities may be sent back to Iraq, but those who manage to stay are often stigmatized and treated as second-class citizens, potentially creating a disgruntled and marginalized population that could become radicalized.
In Syria, Iraqis are given a 15-day visa and have to apply for a longer stay. Iraqis applying for extensions must leave Syria for a month before reapplying, most likely a temporary stay in one of the decrepit refugee camp along the border. On February 5, nearly 200 Iraqi refugees protested outside the UNHCR offices in Damascus against Syria's treatment of refugees. Many described being forced to leave Syria for a month as akin to deportation.
Indeed, there are concerns among international humanitarian organizations that the increased burden on the resources of Jordan and Syria may force them to shut their borders altogether to the refugees. In order to prevent this, the UNHCR announced on March 26 that it would start building emergency camps in Jordan, Syria, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, separating the refugees from the local population and economy, AP reported.
"The countries neighboring Iraq would prefer that we establish what they call 'safety zones' inside Iraq," the UNHCR's Nouicir said. "I don't want to imagine the scenario whereby Syria and Jordan would close their borders, because that would be really a humanitarian tragedy."
International Community Urged To Do More
While there seems to be no end to the continuing violence and the ensuing influx of Iraqi refugees, the UN has implored the international community to do more. In a blunt statement issued by UNHCR spokesman Peter Kessler to the BBC on March 20, he accused the international community of systematically ignoring the worsening plight of Iraq's refugees.
"There has been an abject denial of the impact, the humanitarian impact, of the war, the huge displacement within Iraq of up to 1.9 million people who are homeless because of the war, and those people who are homeless and never got back to the homes after Saddam Hussein was overthrown," Kessler said.
The U.S. recently announced that it would accept 7,000 Iraqis in 2007, up from 202 the previous year. However, Jordanian officials said that figure would barely make a dent in helping alleviate the problem. They claim that one-tenth of Jordan's total population is now Iraqi.
Amnesty International said in a statement on February 12 that the United States bears a particular responsibility to protect those who have been displaced due to the conflict in Iraq.
"U.S. policy and military action helped create the dreadful situation that now prevails in Iraq, yet up until now very few Iraqis displaced as a result of war have been allowed to take refuge in the U.S.," Malcolm Smart, the director of Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa program, said. "The U.S. authorities must stand up to their obligations on this issue and help lead the effort to provide long-term, durable solutions for Iraqi refugees."
Children at an Iraqi camp for displaced people outside Al-Nasiriyah in May 2006
REFUGEES FLEE SECTARIAN VIOLENCE The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has estimated that over 2 million Iraqis have fled sectarian violence for Jordan, Syria and other neighboring states, while an equal number may be internally displaced within Iraq..... (more)