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The State Department's Rosy Deception on Iraq Refugees E-mail this
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Noah Merrill, Electronic Iraq, Feb 9, 2007

Noah Merrill is in Amman researching the refugee problem. For more on Iraqi refugees, see his report on a press conference held earlier this week by UN High Commissioner on Refugees Antonio Guterres. For a more intimate look at the problem, see David Smith-Ferri's recent eIraq op-ed.

A press release by the State Department dated February 6 describes the creation of a new task force on Iraqi refugees created by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.

In a friendly sort of way, this piece highlights the good intentions of the US government, describing new steps to be taken, from "emergency cash assistance" to counseling by social workers to "small infrastructure projects" to aid provided to "education and vocational training." The message from the State Department paints a picture that is filled with the positivity of good works being carried out in the name of America.

From Jordan the view is different. Here, close to a million Iraqis, forced to flee violence in their neighborhoods and throughout their country, try to keep a low profile and scratch out an existence in a climate that is neither welcoming nor supportive. As more and more Iraqis are displaced inside and outside Iraq, the attitudes of host governments are becoming more and more hostile.

Granted, these governments have reason to be concerned about the strain placed on their infrastructure and services by the more than 1.6 million (and counting) Iraqis now living outside Iraq. The international community has been shamefully negligent in providing support to help these governments, especially the governments of Syria and Jordan, which host the largest population of Iraqi refugees displaced by what the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees calls "the largest long-term population movement in the Middle East since the Palestinian crisis of 1948," following the creation of the State of Israel.

The US claims to have spent $3 million in 2006 on refugees in the region. None of the organizations I've heard from here have seen this money, nor, based on yesterday's UNHCR briefing, has the UN or the Jordanian government.

What makes the reception of the State Department story so bitter - even insulting - can be illustrated with a quick crunching of numbers.

Even if that $3 million were only used in Jordan, it would come out to something like $3.5 per person. The cost of living in Jordan has risen sharply in recent years, and basic commodities here can quickly overpower even people with a modest income, let alone Iraqi refugee families living with health problems, injuries, no work permits, and tenuous (at best) residency status. Jordan is an expensive country, and $3.5 will not help anyone - not even for a day.

There is presently little hope of integration into host countries or resettlement outside of the region for more than a handful of Iraq's displaced. Iraqis here have nothing to do but wait and pray for some calm in the nightmarish chaos that is Iraq today. The programs described by the State Department release, when compared to the scale of the problem, are either non-existent or so miniscule and invisible as to be as good as nonexistent.

If the State Department was interested in helping Iraqis displaced by the violence, it could start by fully funding the UNHCR's current request for $60 million for operations both inside and outside Iraq.

Second, it could devote a few hundred million dollars to shoring up the needs of countries in the region (especially Jordan and Syria), allowing them to act as friendly hosts to Iraqis who are going to be in their countries for a long time.

They could try using the money from just a few hours of what the US spends on military operations in Iraq that help to fuel the violence and displacement every day.

Next, it could work to change draconian new rules created by the US that prevent Iraqis from traveling to countries outside the Middle East (and to some within the Middle East) without a new kind of passport that is only available in - you guessed it - Baghdad. That's right, Iraqis who are living as refugees, in order to travel to other countries for work, school, or to seek safe haven must now go to Baghdad and wait about a month to be issued a new passport (if they aren't caught by the ongoing cyclone of violence before that happens).

A good fourth step would be to begin working for some kind of real political process for Iraq based on inclusion, not exclusion (the foundation of the current order).

But none of this is on the agenda. Keep watching: in a few days or a few weeks the US will announce that it plans to make a generous offer to resettle a large number (maybe even 15,000) of the most vulnerable of Iraqis from the region to the United States. And any action taken to help Iraqis is commendable. But let's make sure we keep it in perspective when we hear the news.

Asked earlier this week about the potential for resettlement of Iraqi refugees to third party countries outside the Middle East, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees emphasized that resettlement was "not an option" for the majority of Iraqi asylum seekers, given the sheer scale of the problem. To illustrate, he cited the statistic that roughly 50,000 refugees were resettled worldwide last year, compared with the more than 750,000 that UNHCR estimates to reside in Jordan alone.

Let's remember that the US created the crisis of refugees and internally displaced people in the Middle East, and so bears a responsibility to all of them - every single one - not just a few.

And let's also remember that the cause of the crisis lies within Iraq, and so must be addressed there with real political solutions that will bring security and basic services to people in their homes, neighborhoods, and places of worship.

One more thing: the publicity piece mentions that Iraq, "as far as we can tell, is shifting into a country where there are no longer mixed neighborhoods, there are rarely mixed cities. People are moving and shifting across sectarian lines." As far as we can tell? In 2003, Coalition Provisional Authority Administrator Paul Bremer ordered the creation of a new Ministry within the Iraqi government for "Migrants and the Displaced." At that time, there was no displacement crisis warranting the creation of its own government ministry. But, of course, there is now. Is the State Department telling us they didn't see this coming?

Electronic Iraq contributer Noah Merrill has worked, studied, and reported on conflicts and peacebuilding efforts in Africa, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East. From 2004-2006, he served on the Middle East Task Force of the American Friends Service Committee. He holds degrees in Anthropology and Cross-Cultural Conflict Transformation.

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Page last updated: Feb 9, 2007 - 8:01:00 AM

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