Refugees near Al-Qa’im, an Iraqi town near the Syrian border. Photo: Dahr Jamail
By Dahr Jamail
Since the shock-and-awe invasion of Iraq began in March 2003, the country’s explosive unraveling has never left the news or long been off the front page. Yet the fallout beyond its borders from the destruction, disintegration, and ethnic mayhem in Iraq has almost avoided notice. According to United Nations (UN) estimates — approximately 50,000 Iraqis fleeing their country each month (and untold numbers of others being displaced internally), Iraq is producing one of the — if not the — most severe refugee crisis on the planet, a crisis without a name and without significant attention.
For two weeks in April, I was in Syria, visiting refugee centers and camps, the offices and employees of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and poor neighborhoods in Damascus that are filling up with desperate, almost penniless Iraqi refugees, sometimes living 15 to a room. In statistical and human terms, these few days offered a small window into the magnitude of a catastrophe that is still unfolding and shows no sign of abating in any immediately imaginable future.
The latest U.N. figures concerning the refugee crisis in Iraq indicate that between 1-1.2 million Iraqis have fled across the border into Syria; about 750,000 have crossed into Jordan; at least another 150,000 have made it to Lebanon; over 150,000 have emigrated to Egypt; and — these figures are the trickiest of all — more than 1.9 million are now estimated to have been internally displaced by civil war and sectarian cleansing within Iraq.
These numbers are staggering in a population estimated in the pre-invasion years at only 26 million. At a bare minimum, in other words, at least one out of every seven Iraqis has had to flee his or her home due to the violence and chaos set off by the Bush administration’s invasion and occupation of Iraq.
MORE THAN NUMBERS
Iraqis, who now comprise a little over 8 percent of the total Syrian population, tell stories about why they left their land and what they are dealing with today, which these numbers, staggering as they are, do not.
“I left everything behind,” Salim Hamad, a former railroad worker from Baghdad, told me. “My house was empty when I left, and I have no idea what became of it.” We met in a small tea shop in the sprawling Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus. It is perhaps not inappropriate that Yarmouk is primarily a Palestinian refugee camp, since the Iraqi diaspora represents the largest exodus of refugees in the Middle East since the state of Israel was created in 1948. The camp is an uninspiring mass of high, grey apartment buildings through which snake crowded roads.
Five months ago, Salim had to sell his car, his furniture, and most of his other belongings simply to raise enough money to bring his wife and three children to Syria. They had grown tired and fearful, he told me, of seeing corpses in their streets every day.
Because Jordan’s pro-U.S. King Abdullah had long since clamped down on Iraqi entry to his country, for Salim and countless others, Syria has been the only available destination. Yarmouk, with electricity and running water, is, in fact, one of the better areas for refugees.
UNHCR recently offered the following staggering projection: According to its best estimates about 12 percent of Iraq’s population, now assumed to be about 24 million people, will be displaced by the end of 2007. A report released March 22 by the NGO Refugees International calls the flight of Iraqis from war-torn Iraq “the world’s fastest growing displacement crisis.”
The primary trigger for this crisis was the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, and yet President Bush and his top officials have taken no significant steps whatsoever to share in the resulting refugee burden. To date, the administration has issued only 466 visas to Iraqis. Under recent pressure from the UN, it has said that it would offer an additional 7,000 visas — but without either announcing the criteria for accepting such refugees or even when the visas might be issued.
“I ask all nations, particularly the United States, to do all that they can to help us,” was the way Qasim Jubouri, a banker who fled Baghdad with his family in order to keep them alive, put the matter to me. “Since the U.S. government caused all of this, shouldn’t they also be responsible for helping us now?”
Iraqis who worked with, or have been in any way associated with, the American military or occupation authorities are faring at least as badly, if not worse. Everyone collaborating in any way with U.S. forces in Iraq is now targeted — along with their families.
“I used to work with the Americans near Kut,” Sa’ad Hussein, a 34-year-old electrical engineer told me, “I worked for Kellogg, Brown, and Root [then a subsidiary of oilservices giant Halliburton] to construct an Iraqi base there until I got my death threat on a piece of paper slipped under my door on my return to Baghdad. I had no choice but to flee.”
FLEEING “FREEDOM AND DEMOCRACY”
Sa’ad Hussein, who arrived in Damascus only three months ago, described the Baghdad he left as a “city of ghosts” where the black banners of death announcements hang on most streets.
“I was an ex-captain in the Iraqi Army, and I think that’s why I was threatened, in addition to working with the occupation authorities,” he explained. When asked how many of his former Sunni army colleagues had also received death threats, he replied, “All of them.” It was not safe, he told me, for him to go back to the now largely Shi’ite Iraqi Army because, “I may be killed. This is the new freedom and democracy we have.”
When I approached Eman Abdul Rahid, a 46-year-old mother from Baghdad in a black abaya or gown covering her entire body and one of her arms in a cast, she willingly told me her sad story. “I was injured,” she said, “because I was near a car bomb, which killed my daughter … There is killing, and threats of more killing, and explosions daily in Baghdad.”
“America is the reason why Iraq was invaded, so we would like the American administration to give aid to us refugees,” she added, “I would like people to read this and tell Bush to help us.”
Except taken from: “I Am Now a Refugee” — The Iraqi Crisis That Has No Name. Published April 22, 2007 at tomdispatch.com.