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Iraq: Refugee Crisis Could Become Regional Security Threat

Iraqi refugees registering in Damsacus in April (epa) July 19, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- In a mid-year report issued on July 17, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) warned that the rate at which Iraqis are being driven from their homes since the bombing of the Al-Askari Mosque in February 2006 has not subsided.

According to data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), approximately 2.2 million Iraqis are currently internally displaced and an additional 2 million have fled to neighboring countries, particularly Jordan and Syria.

With Iraq experiencing such massive displacement, the situation may soon become a regional crisis with major security implications.

Rising Resentment In Jordan, Syria

The influx of Iraqi refugees into neighboring Jordan and Syria has created a huge burden on the resources of both.

In Jordan, which is hosting up to 700,000 Iraqi refugees, some officials as well as economists have claimed that the prices of basic commodities such as well as housing have tripled over the past three years because of the Iraqis. According to the International Monetary Fund, Jordan's consumer price index rose 6.3 percent in 2006, the highest increase since 2003.

In addition, with an unemployment rate of 15.4 percent and with 30 percent of the population living below the poverty line, the flood of refugees has increased the competition for unskilled labor. Iraqi refugees have allegedly driven wages down across the board by working for significantly less than the previously prevailing rate, thereby sowing resentment among the local population.

Syria has taken in some 1.4 million Iraqis and by UNHCR estimates the number is growing by 30,000 a month. While Syria has continued to abide by an "open-door" policy towards the refugees, the tremendous goodwill displayed by the Syrians has begun to show signs of strain. The sheer number of refugees has created a huge strain on Syria's education, health, and housing infrastructure. Schools and hospitals are flooded with Iraqis. Housing costs and prices for basic goods have increased, leading to bitterness among many Syrians.

"Little by little, the attitude of the Syrian population to the Iraqis is changing," Laurens Jolles, a UNHCR representative based in Damascus, said at press conference on May 13. "While there still is a degree of empathy, they are also starting to feel the consequences of this very large number of Iraqis in terms of schooling and access to clinics."

Marginalized Population

Many Iraqis who have fled the violence in Iraq to neighboring countries have been left in limbo. Both Jordan and Syria have refused to officially label the Iraqis refugees, instead referring to them as "visitors."

Jordan is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention and it has no asylum procedures. According to the UNHCR, Iraqis are treated as guests and allowed entry via temporary visas, but those who cannot renew them become illegal and are either asked to leave or are sent back to Iraq.

Are the Iraqi refugees ripe for radicalization? (AFP file photo)

Furthermore, Jordan has put in place more stringent security measures for Iraqis who want to enter. Since the November 2005 suicide bombings in Amman that killed 60 people, Iraqis seeking to enter Jordan now must be over 40 or under 20 and have sufficient funds to support themselves while staying in the kingdom. Those who do not meet these criteria are turned away.

Those Iraqis who manage to stay in Jordan are often stigmatized and treated as second-class citizens. With violence showing no sign of abating, the overwhelming image of Iraq is a state caught up in a vortex of sectarian bloodshed. Among the local populations, Iraqi refugees are viewed with suspicion and could be unfairly labeled as "carriers of conflict," potentially marginalizing an entire population.

In fact, a Congressional Research Services report on Iraqi refugees released on March 23 warned that Sunni-Shi'a tensions may have followed the refugees into Jordan and are simmering below the surface.

'Security Time Bomb'

While Iraq's neighbors struggle with the flood of refugees, humanitarian organizations bemoan the lack of funding from the international community to help them. The creation of a so-called "humanitarian assistance vacuum" potentially opens the door for armed groups to establish a foothold within the refugee populations.

If the Gaza Strip is any indication, then these are legitimate concerns. The Islamist organization Hamas emerged as the preeminent movement among Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, not only for its vigor in fighting the Israeli occupation, but also for providing much needed social services that the Palestinian government did not or could not. In fact, Hamas's 2006 election victory may have had less to do with broader ideological goals of the movement than the basic services they provided to people on the ground.

Although, Hamas has moved into the political mainstream, it is still considered a terrorist organization by many Western states, and it is currently in a power struggle with Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas.

Indeed, there are concerns that today's Iraqi refugees could end up like the Palestinians: a large population of displaced and disenfranchised people with the potential to become radicalized. And such a large and radicalized population would not only be potentially destabilizing force for the host country, but by extension the entire region.

Human Rights Watch's U.K. director, Tom Porteous, described the refugee crisis as a security time bomb, Reuters reported on June 26. "Unless this crisis is addressed, we may well look back in 10 years' time and see the seeds of the next generation of terrorists," he warned.

Iraq's Refugee Crisis

Iraq's Refugee Crisis

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)


Neighboring States Call For Help With Refugees

Refugees Under Pressure in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon

Displacements Upset Religious, Ethnic Communities

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