Most Iraqis exiles seek refuge in neighboring Arab States
LE MONDE | 27.03.07 | 14h32
In 2003, on the eve of the US invasion of Iraq, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) began preparations in neighboring countries to meet the needs of a wave of Iraq refugees, which never happened.
Its fears materialized only two years later, a result of the unleashing of violence between US occupation forces and Iraqi insurgents beginning in 2004, then between Sunni and Shi’ite militias after the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, a sacred Shi’ite site, in February 2006.
The UNHCR today estimates that there are 1.9 million Iraqis who have been forcibly displaced inside Iraq. The number of exiles is estimated at 2 million people, a massive exodus which can be added to the many departures confirmed during the decade of international embargo that followed the First Gulf War in 1991. The majority of these Iraqis are settled in Arab countries: Syria (more than a million), Jordan (750,000) and Egypt (more than 150,000) and at least 40,000 in Lebanon. High Commissioner Antonio Guterres believes that the phenomenon constitutes the largest population displacement in the Near and Middle East since that of Palestinian refugees in 1948. It touches one Iraqi out of eight.
Those who choose Syria automatically get a three-month visa, renewable once, without having the leave the country. At the end of six months, they must exit the country in order to be granted another three-month stay. A quick exit and entry at the Iraqi frontier suffices.
For Laurens Jolles, UNHCR representative in Damascus, the phenomenon is difficult to gauge because there are no reliable statistics and the refugees themselves “do not perceive themselves as refugees".
The phenomenon has also been largely underestimated by the international community, beginning with the West.
The United States admitted less than 5,000 refugees in 2006 and a little more than 7,000 are planned for 2007. However, although the United States recalled its ambassador to Damascus in 2005, the recent visit of the Deputy Secretary of State for Humanitarian Affairs, Ellen Sauerbrey, is a sign of awareness. “From now on, says Jolles, the issue will now be found on the international agenda." The UN High Commission is to hold conference in Geneva in April in order to raise funds. But for now, the UNHCR has available only half the $60 million it estimates that it needs.
Peter Kessler, the UNHCR representative in London, is furious. “Europe lives in shameful denial of the danger posed by the war in Iraq,” he laments. "This war is not going to end tomorrow and it is going to create more refugees."
In the human tide flowing out of Iraq, a small minority have encountered particular hardship. These are the Palestinians, who have lived in Iraq since the creation of Israel 1948 and who were relatively well treated by Saddam Hussein. They are now targets of the Shi’ite militias.
According to the director of UNRWA, Panos Moumtzis, half the 30,000 Palestinian refugees in Iraq have left the country. “The wealthiest were able to buy an Iraqi passport illegally for enormous sums to escape abroad with little impediment", says a Western diplomat. "But they’re a minority."
Syria at first welcomed a group of Palestinians, installed in the al-Hol camp. But to avoid creating an official precedent on this politically sensitive issued, it later closed its borders to new arrivals.
Many are trapped on the Iraqi side of the border (approximately 500) while others (nearly 400) are in no-man’s-land on the Syrian side. They are forced to camp in the open desert.