Four Million Displaced as Civil War Deepens Iraqi Refugee Crisis
By Deniz Yeter
t r u t h o u t | Report

Wednesday 25 April 2007

The unfolding civil war and inter-sectarian violence in Iraq is deepening a humanitarian crisis of refugees, a Congressional Research Service Report has found. The report, entitled "Iraqi Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons: A Deepening Humanitarian Crisis?" was released in March 2007.

An estimated four million refugees have been displaced, or 13 percent of the Iraqi population. About 1.2 million resulted from the previous Gulf War and a decade of US sanctions. Two million Iraqis are already believed to have fled mainly into neighboring Syria and Jordan, with an additional two million displaced within Iraq.

Since the February 2006 bombing of the Shiite Muslim Al-Askariya shrine in Samarra that marked the beginning of intense, widespread sectarian clashes, an estimated 730,000 more Iraqis are now displaced within Iraq. They are referred to as Internally Displaced Persons or IDPs. Sectarian cleansing is being employed to take control of territory from the opposing factions. That tactic once was commonly used by former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, whose 30-year regime left an estimated 1.5 million Iraqis displaced.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, estimates that 40,000 to 50,000 Iraqis are displaced each month, with the numbers continuously increasing. At this rate, it's believed that an additional 2.3 to 2.7 million refugees will be displaced within Iraq by December. One group of refugees displaced inside Iran, who moved back to Iraq before the March 2003 invasion, are now displaced once again - this time inside Iraq.

Seventy percent of those fleeing are coming from Baghdad. Sunnis have moved from the south to the middle of Iraq and Shiites from the middle to the south. Kurds have moved to the northern areas of Iraq in areas like Kirkuk. When moving in with friends or family isn't an option, many of the displaced wind up squatting in schools, factories or mosques that are typically damaged or abandoned.

There are many groups, such as US or Iraqi government workers, those working with international organizations, and even Palestinians who are particularly vulnerable to reprisal attacks from various factions due to ethnic, religious, or political alignments.

There are also many vulnerable groups within the displaced, such as pregnant women, children, the sick and the elderly.

As a part of the surge and Baghdad security plan, US and Iraqi forces are resettling the displaced in their previous homes. The consequences of this resettling plan are yet to be seen. The CRS report suggests a re-examination of resettlement policies and strategies for refugees, especially those displaced within Iraq, and humanitarian relief funds for refugees, including those outside Iraq.

Lack of security has dramatically impacted the standard of living. Kidnappings and assassinations have become a part of everyday life for thousands of Iraqis. Health care, education and social services have all been severely crippled due to the escalating violence, constantly limiting Iraqi society.

Threats of violence have also caused many people to not sleep at their homes or to not stick with routines, to avoid following a pattern known as nighttime and daylight displacement, that could make one a prime candidate for attacks or kidnappings.

The CRS report mentions that the humanitarian crisis is quickly outpacing others in the region, noting it's the largest level of displacement in the Middle East since 1948 with the creation of Israel and the Arab-Israeli War, which has resulted in a continuing 40-year Israeli occupation. That occupation has displaced an estimated 7 million Palestinians, according to UN statistics.

Syria, which has taken in roughly 1 million refugees, including many Iraqi Christians and Shiites, is already feeling a strain on its economy from this open borders policy. Inflation and the cost of housing are rising, and there is a looming threat of water and electrical shortages.

Tensions are high inside the country, with many Syrians complaining about refugees taking jobs that were already scarce before the increase of immigration. Syrian officials worry that the sectarian violence will spill over the border and make its way into the country.

Jordan, which took in an estimated 800,000 refugees, is feeling many of the same constraints, with a population boom of 20 percent due to refugees. While the country's banking and real estate markets are growing with the increased demand for housing, the economy is also suffering from a sharp rise in inflation.

The impact of refugees on the country has increased tensions between Jordanian citizens and the displaced. In response, Jordan established more rigid immigration laws in February 2007 in an attempt to slow the incoming movement.

Iraqi government ministries try to help the displaced, with only a few humanitarian NGOs working in the country who have to operate discreetly in communities for fear of attacks.

When these parties fail, sectarian groups such as the Mahdi try to fill the gap by providing assistance and security.

Doubts are being raised about these communities and groups in Iraq and neighboring countries being able to provide for the displaced. Limited resources are creating competition for food, water, fuel, shelter, electricity and other basic items. The problems are compounded by rampant unemployment and a devastated economy.