Friday, June 25, 2010

Iraqi refugees still in limbo, still need help

In 2006, I joined other U.S. peace activists on a visit to Jordan and Syria because I knew my country's assault on Iraq had unleashed carnage throughout the region and I wanted to see for myself. What we saw, then little noticed in the United States, was that millions of Iraqis were on the move, escaping violence at home by flooding into a very reluctant Jordan and a somewhat more accommodating Syria. I wrote about meeting some of them here. In Amman, our delegation visited the U.S. embassy to ask what our government was doing about the human crisis it had set in motion.

Deborah Amos' Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, Exile, and Upheaval in the Middle East brings the refugee story up to date -- and much more as she wrestles with making sense of the wider power shifts that the U.S. invasion kicked off among and between the nations and religious sects in the area.

I don't have the expertise to evaluate the latter facet of this book. There aren't many people who do. Amos has deep experience covering the Middle East for NPR, but even she would probably agree that her broader subject is difficult and labyrinthine; I instinctively suspect that on some geopolitical matters she has over-interpreted anecdotal data. But I greatly appreciate her account of what has happened with Iraqi refugees and would recommend the book highly to anyone who wants to know what our hubristic little war has wrought among that ancient society.

Central to Amos' story is that the violence that forced one fifth of Iraqis out of their homes resulted from the sectarian conflict that the U.S. invasion made possible. Saddam had repressed inter-communal strife; clueless Washington proconsuls pulled out the cork, raised the stakes, and watched the scrabble for spoils unfold. And people suffered. She writes:

As of 2009, of the two million Iraqis who fled the country, only about 5 percent have returned. The fundamental problems that fueled the insurgency and the civil war are unresolved, as the exiles know all too well. An estimated 60 percent of the refugees are Sunni Arabs. Fifteen percent are Iraqi Christians. Secular Shiites, Mandaeans, Yazidis, and Kurds are adrift, too, the losers in a brutal civil war that sealed the power of Shiite nationalists.

Yet the sectarian nature of the crisis has been largely overlooked. This shifting population is a huge loss to Iraq, a vast problem to neighboring governments, a collective tragedy for many caught up in it, and a significant indicator of the health, stability, and viability of Iraq and the Middle East. The newly stateless have become the most important indicator of the next phase of the region's history. In their individual stories are found the religious, tribal, and sectarian challenges and conflicts that must somehow be settled for the violence to end. ...

UNHCR, the United Nations' refugee agency, tried to quantify the human damage in a study conducted in conjunction with the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. The polling data showed that the vast majority of exiles suffered from depression and anxiety. More than 60 percent said they experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Most were in deep emotional despair, far more so, according to the study, than refugees from any other recent conflicts. The statistics revealed that an extraordinary number of exiles had experienced violence firsthand. According to the data, 77 percent of respondents had been affected by air bombardments, shelling, or rocket attacks; 80 percent had witnessed a shooting; 68 percent had undergone interrogation or harassment by militias; and 75 percent knew someone close to them who had been killed. In Iraq, the targeting of victims had a horrific logic in a zero-sum game where "sectarian cleansing" was employed to assert a new Iraqi identity -- an identity based on sectarian allegiances that Saddam's regime had submerged. ...

For the exiles, the outcome of the struggle to define Iraqi identity was vital to the prospects for their return; they simply had to know the essential nature of the new nation-state of Iraq. ...When the state collapsed, Iraqis took refuge in tribal and religious loyalties, often not out of conviction but because they believed they had to belong somewhere. A country that was forced together by the army was now torn apart by the mosques. While the exiles had fled for safety, many had also run from a raw sectarian identification that had swept the country and replaced the older nationalist identity of the educated class of Baghdad.

Marooned in Jordan and Syria, the exiles, often educated professionals, were/are largely unable to work legally. Sometimes they could/can pick up low status jobs, but such pursuits were dangerous. They existed on meager savings, in chronic fear of running afoul local authorities. They dreamed of home and eventually of resettlement somewhere, anywhere, else.

The most poignant chapter of Amos' book is the story of an evening's excursion with an otherwise matronly Iraqi woman who feeds her family and sends her child to school by picking up paying male patrons in a Damascus bar. Shame and necessity war within the exiles' psyches. Amos recounts an aid worker's reaction to the prevalence of prostitution and other forms of exploitation among the exiles:

Asir [Madaien of UNHCR] finally settled on an all-embracing summation for the shocking behavior of desperate people. "We have learned over time that Iraqis have lost hope. They don't believe in a future any longer. They have become survivors."

Their quest for survival has had ramifications all over the area. They were never legally allowed in Lebanon; however Sunni extremists did sneak across closed borders and soon were embroiled in Islamist violence in the Tripoli area.

Refugees in Jordan tended to be relatively well-off and/or Christians.

Arafat Jamal, the deputy representative of UNHCR in Amman, Jordan, described the Iraqi population in Jordan as highly professional people who would not consider going back without some resolution for their property claims and·the reclamation of lost government jobs. "It's less dishonorable to be a refugee than to be out of work in Iraq;" said Jamal. As for the Christian minorities in Amman, Jamal was convinced they would never return. By 2009, the European Union had stepped up resettlement quotas, promising places for as many as ten thousand Iraqis, mostly threatened Christians, ...

Syria never closed its borders to Iraqis, though the Assad regime had no intention of incorporating them fully either. Amos believes Syrian willingness to serve as a kind of safety valve for this U.S.-unleashed human disaster has reaped a profit.

If there was ever a serious plan for Syria to be next in the Middle East dominoes of falling dictators, that plan was off the books [by 2008]. As the Bush administration faded, there was a revival in the belief that Syria was a difficult but necessary player in the Middle East with a role in the interlocking conflicts. ... With the strategic mistakes in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, the United States had actually weakened its ability to shape events. ... Syria's hospitality and willingness to assume the economic burden for the care of the human crisis spawned by the war in Iraq had paid off. ... Assad had gained a great deal at very little inconvenience to Syria, and without any risk to his personal rule.

Of course, Iraq -- their homeland -- was where the exiles hoped to return. But for most, this wasn't going to happen. The present elected government was hostile to them.

Behind closed doors, Maliki routinely called the exiles "cowards" and "traitors" so often that many United Nations officials repeated the quote to me whenever I asked about the prime minister's seeming lack of compassion for the exile population. The theories for Maliki's poisonous observations divided into two camps. Maliki didn't understand the post-sectarian war trauma because his experiences were shaped by his protected seat in the Green Zone. Or his views were shaped by his own long experience in exile when the international community took little notice of Iraq's exiled politicians and he had to fend for himself. There was a third possibility. Many top officials knew the majority of exiles were Sunnis. ...

Iraq was effectively a different country, transformed by the sectarian civil war. The Shiites had won, the Sunnis had lost. There was no getting around that. In the current political climate, there was little hope of restoring Baghdad's historic character, a city where Iraq's rich sectarian mix once lived side by side. Instead Baghdad had a distinctly Shiite spirit...

Europe took in some of the refugees -- Amos charges that the European Union cherry-picked among these for Christians and the highly skilled; thousands more sneaked into the E.U. illegally. And, as after all of our wars of empire, thousands of the people we displaced have ended up in the United States.

By 2009, Iraqi refugees were the largest group resettled in the United States. But the lobbying coalition of NGOs and refugee agencies that had campaigned to increase the resettlement quotas now had a newly pressing concern. The U.S. program, strained by the global economic downturn, was failing the new arrivals. ...

Our resettlement program was based on the expectation that we had plenty of jobs for newcomers. Unhappily, with the Great Recession, Iraqi refugees (and their trashed country) have slipped out of our national consciousness and concern.
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Last Sunday was United Nations World Refugee Day. CNN reported that the UNHCR had announced that 100,000 Iraqi refugees have been approved for resettlement (though not yet actually resettled), the largest fraction in the United States.
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In this Gay Pride month, I'd be remiss if I didn't bring forward another Iraqi refugee group, the country's gay population. Taylor Asen and Zach Strassburger, students at the Yale Law School, explain at Foreign Policy:

...the fanatical Mahdi Army is responsible for much of the violence towards gays. "Death squads" murder men, then leave their destroyed bodies in public as warnings to other gay men. Their brutality is matched only by their frighteningly systematic methods: before murdering their captives, the squads interrogate their victims, search through cell phones and demand information on each contact. In this climate, no gay Iraqi whose sexual identity is known to even one other gay man is safe. ...

America has a singular responsibility to protect these men. ...

The writers urge that the Secretary of State used expedited resettlement procedures to help more of these endangered men to escape a horrible fate.

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