The sorry case of Iraqi refugees


When Tamara Daghistani’s cell phone rings in Amman, Jordan, the caller is usually another desperate Iraqi refugee.

As we sat together last month, the call was from a woman who had fled Baghdad with her husband and three kids. Her husband was killed during a visit back to Baghdad to bury his mother. Now the woman has no way to support three young children. She sends her boys out to nightclubs at night to beg.

Daghistani spends her time helping less fortunate countrymen. With around 2 million Iraqi refugees crowded into Jordan and Syria, and 30,000 arriving in Syria weekly, this exodus is the biggest Iraqi crisis almost no one discusses. Certainly not President Bush.

The first wave of Iraqi refugees to reach Jordan in 2003 was mostly wealthy supporters of Saddam Hussein. But their numbers have been eclipsed by waves of refugees from Baghdad and other cities.

“Most of them are fleeing sectarian violence and have been directly threatened,” says Kristele Younes of Refugees International, who just returned from Amman and Damascus. “Either they’ve been told to leave their homes or be killed, or they are Christians told to convert or leave, or they have been threatened because they’ve worked with Americans.”

The United States – and the Iraqi government – appear to hope the refugees will return home. This is unlikely for the foreseeable future. More likely: If the United States draws down troops, the Iraqi exodus will turn into a refugee tsunami. But, because Iraq is such a hot-button political issue, there is no international focus on helping the refugees and their host countries cope.

“The two countries caring for the biggest proportion of Iraqi refugees – Syria and Jordan – have still received next to nothing in bilateral help from the world community,” the spokesman for the United Nation’s refugee agency, Ron Redmond, said recently. So far, most Iraqi refugees have been left to flounder with little or no international aid.

Jordan, a resource-poor country with high unemployment, has closed its borders to most new Iraqi entries. Most Iraqi refugees can’t work legally in Jordan, or attend schools, which are already overcrowded, nor can they get health care. Jordan desperately wants to avoid another permanent refugee population, like the huge number of Palestinian refugees it has hosted for decades.

Syria still takes Iraqi refugees. But only 32,000 out of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children there can attend school because there aren’t enough classrooms. “A whole generation of Iraqi children is in danger of missing an education,” Redmond says.

Middle-class refugee families are running out of funds in Jordan and Syria, with no prospect of working; some women are turning to prostitution. Unless a solution is found for this problem, it could turn into a major security threat. What better recruiting pool for terrorists than angry young Iraqi refugees with no education, no jobs, and no chance to go home?

What’s to be done? There are three ways the Iraq refugee crisis could be defused, if the White House would lead.

First, mobilize international aid to help Syria and Jordan cope with the refugees in the medium term, in hopes that Iraq will one day calm down. The goal would not be to integrate Iraqis – neither country could handle the burden – but to help with local health, education and water systems during a prolonged stay.

Second, encourage the Iraqi government to use its oil surplus to help its refugee population. “They could create a temporary ministry for Iraqi expatriates,” says Daghistani, “and could be planning for repatriation later. It would be a tremendous boost for Iraqis who feel no one cares.”

Third, the United States must plan on absorbing a large number of Iraqi refugees, especially those under threat for working with Americans. We’ve only admitted a few hundred since 2003, but were supposed to let a few thousand in during this fiscal year. The result, so far, is shameful. We let in a whopping 63 refugees in June, according to State Department figures, and one refugee – yes, that’s ONE – in May. (Sweden, for heaven’s sake, admitted 18,000 Iraqis since 2006.)

After the Vietnam War, America resettled more than 131,000 Vietnamese. Maybe it won’t come to that with Iraqis. But history will judge us extremely harshly if we leave Iraq’s refugees to rot.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer.