Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Iraqi refugees: still unsettled


United Nations staff register Iraqi refugees in Syria. Ramzi Haidar photo.

According to Ken Bacon who works with refugees:

When President Obama met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki in Baghdad last week, he mentioned the U.S. interest in helping displaced Iraqis return home.

That is a welcome change. The Bushies liked to obscure the fact that their invasion and occupation had displaced some 20 percent of the Iraqi population. When we visited the region in 2006, an obvious feature of life in Jordan and Syria, as yet largely unmarked by Western reporting, was the flood of Iraqi refugees set in motion by the war. They are still there -- and huge numbers of people are still displaced inside the country as well. It is hard to envision peace when so many people have no settled homes and communities.

Refugee returns are currently a political football in Iraq. According to a report by Refugees International, the al-Maliki government wants to declare the refugee problem is over whether it is or not. It has offered transportation from Jordan and Syria for those willing to return and aims to close down its record of "internally displaced persons" this year. But returns are still rare.

Refugees International recently met with Iraqi officials, who all expressed the desire to see the "IDP file" closed in 2009, as there are "no longer reasons to be displaced" in Iraq. As a result, internally displaced people are no longer being registered as the government hurries to make the displacement problem disappear.

Moreover, Prime Minister Al Maliki’s Shi’a government has little sympathy for the largely Sunni refugees in neighboring countries. Syria and Jordan state that almost two million such refugees are still in their countries, but the Government of Iraq states that there are no more than 400,000, and fewer have registered with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). According to a UN diplomat in Baghdad, the Prime Minister sees all refugees as "traitors" or "baathists" who prefer "getting money without working" rather than helping to rebuild their country.

Returns remain a trickle rather than the solution of choice for most displaced.

The occupation has made -- or allowed the emergence of -- an Iraq segregated by sect and ethnicity. Individual families became flotsam in the great sorting.

The U.S. has an ongoing obligation to fund efforts to enable all these people to get settled again. At the end of 2008, the U.N. appealed for $547 million to help Iraqis inside and outside the country. So far the appeal is falling short amid the world financial downturn. The least the U.S. can do is fund it generously.
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Meanwhile, Iraqis hoping for a better future continue to leave their country. For years, because U.S. authorities wanted to pretend all was well in "mission accomplished land," we allowed very few Iraqis to immigrate to the United States. Under humanitarian pressure, the annual quota has now been raised to some 17000. And, naturally, after six years of occupation, there are a considerable number of Iraqis whose marketable skill has become working with Americans. A New York Times reporter explains his thinking about why he has decided to join the exodus, now that he can:

It’s been really hard for all of us living in Iraq. Things are better now but still fragile and uncertain. The security situation may be better but life isn’t that normal yet. The American-led invasion has changed Iraq for good and for bad. Bad things can’t be removed in one night, especially in Iraq. It’s been hard to predict the future of Iraq lately, but I think it will be easier in the States.

I have a good job with The New York Times now. I get a decent salary compared with the living standards in Iraq. But I still lack many other things as a young man: I don’t get the chance to date a girl or have fun like the others around the world because of the recent situation in Iraq.

I’ve also applied for my family to come with me. That includes my parents, my younger brother and my sister’s family which consists of four members and is considered a part of my immediate family because social relations are very strong in Iraq. We’re all looking for a change outside Iraq, and are willing to start over in America.

I bet he'll do well here, like millions of immigrants before him. Too bad we had to tear up his country to push him to this decision.

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