A new report says hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who fled their homes during seven years of war and now live as refugees and internally displaced persons are living in poverty and chronic uncertainty.
The report, titled "A Tough Road Home,"
was issued by the New York-based relief organization International Rescue Committee (IRC) and says Iraqi who are unable to return home face growing desperation in exile. It describes an alarming situation where the needs of the displaced "have grown more acute, while international concern and assistance has begun to fall off." RFE/RL correspondent Nikola Krastev spoke with Bob Carey, IRC's vice president and one of the report's authors.RFE/RL: How are the Iraqi refugees being treated in the countries where they have fled?
The largest numbers of Iraqi refugees are in Jordan and Syria. And in many respects they've been quite generous because they've allowed a large number of Iraqis to stay there. At the same time, they are not signatories to the Geneva [Refugee] Convention -- they don't recognize the legal right of refugees to exist in their country -- so they refer to them as "guests." And what this means is that [the Iraqis] don't have a level of protection or services that they may have somewhere else. They can't legally work; they're living in a very insecure situation. Technically, they could be returned back to Iraq at any time.
Those countries are poor countries. They have been generous to the Iraqi refugees, but at the same time they need international support if they're going to be continuing to do that. And what we found on our most recent trip was that the conditions for return have not improved. So return right now for the overwhelming majority of Iraqis is not safe or realistic.RFE/RL: What have you learned about what life is like for these Iraqis?
The Iraqi refugees I've met with -- and we've met with many -- were beginning to run out of the savings that they had with them when they fled Iraq, and some did come out with savings. What we're finding now is people, if they did come out with any funds, they've run out of them; they've exhausted all their money.
And certainly we've met, I met, a number of refugees who had come out [of Iraq] and really didn't know how they were going to pay their rent next month or they were then doubling up in apartments with other people. They're increasingly desperate because they were people who don't really know how they were going to feed their children.
And increasingly you have young people who don't have access to ongoing education or jobs. They really don't have a future. There's also a group of people that's almost universally traumatized -- physical trauma or psychological trauma because of the violence they've experienced and witnessed in Iraq. And that's true of every refugee that I've interviewed in three trips over a three-year period.RFE/RL: How does the psychological trauma these people have suffered affect their lives?
People are not receiving critical medical or psychological care and many of the people we've met with were clearly depressed. They were not even able to come forward to get services. They are not able to take care of their own needs very effectively. They live in fear. They don't know if they will be able to stay wherever they are, whether it's Syria or Jordan, Turkey or Lebanon.
There have been instances where people have been forced back. And then there also have been instances where people we've talked to have had relatives who went back into Iraq -- usually Baghdad -- to try to get more money by selling something or getting access to something, A lot of those people have never been heard from again and are presumed dead. They're really being forced to choose between the safety of their family or their own safety and their ability to support their family. And that's a horrible position to be placed in for people who've already suffered an enormous amount.RFE/RL: The UN Assistance Mission in Iraq has received high marks for its work in Iraq from Iraqi officials. How do you feel the UN is doing?
We met with officials from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Jordan, Syria, and inside Iraq and certainly they're doing what they can, but they are not a government. They still operate with the permission and support, or lack of support, of a government. They're doing great things in terms of providing support to refugees and displaced [persons], but their funding has also been cut back significantly and the need is only getting greater.
So they're very limited in what they can do, in part because they don't have the funding to do it. They're not funded as a government. They're an international organization that has a mandate to protect refugees and internally displaced people, but they don't have the resources to completely fulfill their mission and they need the support of the governments in the countries in which they're operating.RFE/RL: The report describes what it calls a "lost generation" of Iraqi youth -- young people whose education was disrupted by the war. Describe what's happened to them.
In essence, [this is] an entire generation of young people who were in grade school, high school, or university, who don't have opportunities for ongoing education or employment. And it's really what is becoming a lost generation for Iraq. Many of the people who fled were very well educated and [part of the] professional class, like doctors, lawyers, [and] teachers -- the intellectual capital of Iraq. And they are not able to contribute and their children are losing their opportunities. Essentially you're looking -- unless something is done -- at a lost generation.
Also, in the long term, I think, that it's a security issue. There's a population, a large population of Iraqis, who are left without any future, without any status, without any access to education in a region that already has security issues. I think it's in the interest of the international community to do something to ensure that these young people have a future.