Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Worsening Iraqi Refugee Problem

The number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Iraq is now over 2.25 million:

Some 480,000 Iraqis have registered as internal refugees or IDPs since the start of 2007, bringing the total in the country to more than 2.25 million, the IOM relief body said on Wednesday.

The IOM, or International Organisation for Migration, said most of those leaving their homes were fleeing sectarian violence -- with 88 percent saying they had moved after being targeted for their religious identity.

"The situation is becoming a displacement catastrophe," Dana Graber Ladek, a Jordan-based official for the IOM, told a news conference. "It is certainly the worst crisis of its type the whole (Middle East) region has seen since 1948."

In that year, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled their homes in Arab-Israeli fighting that followed the establishment of the state of Israel.

The number of externally displaced Iraqis is even higher -- as many as three million. Syria alone has taken in about 1.7 million refugees, and thousands more are coming in every day.

Nir Rosen has a long and wide-ranging article in the Boston Review about the refugee crisis and how it's affecting the region:
“You have now entered Iraq,” my taxi driver joked. We had in fact just entered Sayida Zeinab, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus. This shrine city, long a destination for Shia pilgrims, had become home to an estimated one million Iraqis seeking refuge in Syria. “Everybody is Iraqi,” laughed another driver after several people he had asked for directions replied in Iraqi Arabic that they did not know. Indeed, walking through the alleys of Sayida Zeinab I felt as though I were in Iraq, except it was safe. After nearly three years in the war-torn country, I had started to fear Iraqi men; all strangers were potential kidnappers.
Unlike many Shia refugees in Syria, mostly men who have come alone in search of work, most of the Sunnis and other Iraqi minorities have fled with their families. Since the spring of 2003 up to three million have fled Iraq, adding to the two or three million Iraqis who had been exiled before the overthrow of Saddam. All together, they compose a vast Iraqi diaspora throughout the Arab world, with the largest numbers in Syria (about 1.7 million) and Jordon (about 750,000). At least another two million are internally displaced, stranded inside Iraq, with many seeking shelter in Kurdistan. Kristele Younes of the Washington, D.C.–based Refugees International, who recently completed a tour of the affected countries, estimates that 50,000 are displaced within Iraq each month and tens of thousands are leaving. Few can imagine returning home.

Reading this article, you realize if you didn't already that it is a literal impossibility to overstate the seriousness of this humanitarian catastrophe. Aside from the suffering of the refugees themselves, it has strained the resources of the countries to which Iraqis are fleeing -- especially the two countries that have absorbed most of the refugees, Syria and Jordan. It has created sectarian and ethnic tensions that did not exist before, and is causing intractable political problems. Rosen points out that the Middle East was already dealing with serious negative political, social, and economic consequences stemming from the Palestinian diaspora, and from the several million Iraqi refugees from Saddam Hussein's regime who were living throughout the Arab world before the U.S. invasion. So this latest torrent of displaced persons is complicating a regional source of instability that already existed:
The crisis in Iraq has the entire region on edge waiting to see if Iraq will come to them. While Sunni leaders in the region, whether in Egypt, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia, have had to pay lip service to anti-imperialism and Arab nationalism by calling for an end to the occupation, the truth is that off the record nothing frightens them more than an American withdrawal from Iraq.

Fear of successive waves of Iraqi refugees resonates throughout the Middle East, and no discussion of Arab governments’ reluctance to acknowledge their plight can begin without reference to the Palestinian experience. In 1948 up to 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from Palestine by Jewish militias. They were dispersed throughout the region, unable to return home and unable to assimilate fully into the countries to which they fled. Although the Palestinian cause and its initial popularity in the Arab world eased their integration into Syria and elsewhere, this generosity did not last forever and in Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, and elsewhere, the good will ran out. The Palestinians soon organized, formed armed groups, and tried to return home. These groups were often manipulated by various governments in the region for their own ends, and some even fought one another. The presence of the Palestinians also contributed to the destabilization of several countries, while in places like Lebanon they were preyed upon by more powerful militias, which slaughtered many of them. Today radical groups based in Palestinian refugee camps are exporting fighters to Iraq.

Unable to return home, running out of savings, carrying with them sectarian grudges and many with military experience, Iraqi refugees may yet destabilize much of the region. By September the Syrians had grown so concerned that they changed their open-door policy, placing severe restrictions on fleeing Iraqis unless they were businessmen or academics. Iraqis also had to apply for visas at the Syrian embassy in Baghdad. While Jordan maintained its own restrictions, and though its unofficial policy has long been to prevent Iraqis from feeling at home lest they decide to stay, it reversed itself and now allows Iraqi refugees to attend Jordanian public schools.

... [T]he one factor militating against regional destabilization is that until now Iraqi refugees, unlike the Palestinians, have not settled in camps; instead they have been absorbed into cities like Beirut, Damascus, Amman, and Cairo. That will make it harder to organize or mobilize them, but also more difficult to help or monitor them. Jordan and particularly Syria have shown extreme generosity to Iraq’s refugees, but they are both straining under the burden. Also, unlike the Palestinians, who immediately after their expulsion had an intense desire to return to their homes, most of the Iraqi refugees do not want to return, or at least do not expect to.

Laurens Jolles, of the UNHCR in Damascus, worried about the future of Syria, which has taken in more refugees than any other country. “The problems of Iraqis have not come to Syria,” he said referring to sectarianism. “The (Iraqi) refugee communities don’t integrate and the government has good control, but the refugees are less manageable and understandable because they are not in camps. One million people are uprooted and they don’t know what the future has in store for them. It’s normal to have some degree of criminality, violence, and disruption.” Among the Iraqis in Syria child labor is becoming a problem, since the parents are unable to work and children are easier to hide. Children are dropping out of school as a result, and Iraqi prostitutes are becoming extremely common. One Syrian journalist quipped that he was going to write an article titled “Pay with a pack of Marlboro, get an Iraqi girl.” UN screeners report seeing numerous victims of torture, detention, rape, and kidnapping. Most have family members who were killed, and many are intellectuals.

Syria has been generous in the past; it housed 400,000 Palestinians expelled from their homes, and during Israel’s July 2006 war against Lebanon, the country took in up to half a million Lebanese refugees. It’s population is only 19 million. “At one point Syrian society wont be able to accommodate them,” worried an International Committee of the Red Cross aid worker. Leaders throughout the Middle East are increasingly wary not only of the economic consequences of taking in such large numbers, but of the violence that could come with the spread of sectarianism, harboring terrorists, and the shift in the regional balance of power as large parts of Iraq are cleansed of Sunnis.

“What’s happening in Iraq is a tragedy in human terms,” [a senior Egyptian diplomat] told [Rosen].
... [T]he Sunni-Shia dimension is really new and really scary. People are using sectarianism to achieve political ends. People are now being labeled Sunni or Shia, and not only in Iraq. In the past you had radical, progressive, reactionary, moderate, or extreme Arab countries. Now we have the ‘Sunni Arab country of Egypt’ versus the ‘Shia country of Iran.’ I never dreamed in my wildest dreams until three months ago that I would read in the paper ‘the Sunni Arab country of Egypt.’ We always thought in terms of geopolitics. Never has Egypt thought of itself as a Sunni country defending Sunnis everywhere. When we speak to Iran it is as Iran, not Shia Iran. If Iran was Buddhist we would still be concerned about their nuclear weapons program. There is a difference in speaking politically about the axis of Tehran, Damascus, Baghdad and invoking the worst kind of religious fanaticism. It’s part of an atmosphere of confusion. Five years ago if you asked about Iran, people would think of an Islamic regime (and not a Shia one). I blame the Western media for labeling people Sunni and Shia. I heard the ‘Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein!’ I screamed when I heard that. He thought of himself as Saddam Hussein, not as a Sunni leader. So far Egypt has been immune to the sectarianism. My worry is not about sectarianism being exported to Egypt, but as a phenomenon in the region because of Lebanon, Jerusalem, radicalism, and an atmosphere of extremism, and it becomes easy to switch from what is happening in al Aqsa [the second Palestinian intifada, launched in 2000] to Iraq. There is a feeling that all these incidents feed into an atmosphere of tension, and people are more vulnerable to those feelings.

The high-ranking UN official I met in Cairo worried that the Iraqi refugees were vulnerable to recruitment by extremist organizations. “Hamas and Hezbollah are buying people through social networks” in Palestine and Lebanon, he told me. “Look at the Moroccan community in France,” he added, referring to their alienation. “Its because of frustration,” he said. “If they stay on the street you will have youth violence or terrorism. If people are in need they turn to crime or terrorism. They come to us and queue at our door for five hours to get a registration card,” he told me, whereas radical groups would be able to offer them something more substantial.

The cross-flow of millions of refugees out of Iraq, and innumerable fighters into Iraq, and the export of dangerous ideas such as sectarianism and jihadism suggests that the Iraqi civil war is fomenting regional conflict. According to Reinoud Leenders of the University of Amsterdam and formerly of the International Crisis Group, the refugees are “one dramatic aspect of an emerging Middle Eastern version of a regional conflict formation not dissimilar to the regionally entwined armed conflicts of Central and West Africa, and the Balkans.”

According to this same UN official, every autocratic, totalitarian regime in the region is benefiting from the bad name Americans have given to democracy:
If anyone thought the Iraqi puzzle itself was difficult to resolve, one hasn’t witnessed yet what, in my view, is going to come very soon: an Iraqi civil war with tentacles reaching out to Beirut,Damascus, Ankara, and Riyadh,causing all or most of the region’s problems to be immensely complicated and intensified further. Already Arab regimes and militants are rephrasing their agendas in reference to Iraq; it is like the U.S. and its messing up in Iraq has given all its regional adversaries a new political idiom and refreshed self-confidence. . . . The Syrian regime is capitalizing on the refugee phenomenon for its own gain. It has always used political developments involving its neighbors and its own role in them as a form of ‘strategic rent,’ as a resource used to extract concessions from its rivals, make deals, and turn it against its own disgruntled population that has been waiting for genuine liberalization. By hosting up to a million Iraqi refugees, the Syrian regime appears to be telling ordinary Syrians: ‘just see what a mess the U.S. made in Iraq, and here they are all safe and live normal lives. Would anyone want to be friendly with the U.S. or demand democracy? One senior Syrian official told me that there will be a moment when Syria will demand concessions from the U.S. in return for a Syrian constructive role in addressing this crisis which is the U.S.’s making. . . . And, frankly, they do have a point. Why would they be paying the price for the mind-boggling blunders that caused this refugee crisis in the first place?”

The Bush administration's unwillingness to acknowledge the extent or the seriousness of the refugee crisis -- because to do so would be to acknowledge that "the surge" is an abject failure -- only makes the situation worse:
One explanation for why the international community has been slow to act is that is has been waiting for U.S. leadership. But for the U.S. to acknowledge the size and seriousness of the humanitarian disaster in Iraq would be to admit that the recent troop “surge” is not working. According to a senior UN official, “the U.S. government doesn’t want to admit there is a refugee problem because it is a sign of failure.” It would also mean acknowledging that a massive process of ethnic cleansing has taken place under the watch of the U.S.-backed government—indeed, that it has been perpetrated by the Iraqi government’s own security forces. Iraq’s Christian and Sabean minorities were decimated and have left for good. Baghdad, now cleansed and controlled by Shias, is irrevocably a Shia city, and its former Sunni-majority neighborhoods are ghost towns.

The numbers tell that story. “First the minorities left Iraq,” a UNHCR official told me, “now we get Sunnis targeted by Shia militias.” Until February 2006 the Sunnis and Shias were proportionally represented among Iraqi refugees registered with the UNHCR. But one month later the number of Sunnis shot up, far exceeding all the others. Although Iraq’s Shias are said to compose 65 percent of its population, in January 2007 more than three times the number of Sunnis (3,144) were registered than Shia (901). The next month it was four to one. Ninety-five percent were from Baghdad. And because only those Iraqis in grave need approach UNHCR, even these numbers vastly underestimate the crisis.

Seymour Hersh tells Spiegel Online that Pres. Bush understands that ethnic cleansing is the reality in Iraq, and he's okay with that:
The Surge means basically that, in some way, the president has accepted ethnic cleansing, whether he's talking about it or not. When he first announced the Surge in January, he described it as a way to bring the parties together. He's not saying that any more. I think he now understands that ethnic cleansing is what is going to happen. You're going to have a Kurdistan. You're going to have a Sunni area that we're going to have to support forever. And you're going to have the Shiites in the South.

In other words, a balkanized Iraq "... roughly analogous to Lebanon during its civil war in the late 1970s and 1980s or Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the Soviet Army in the 1990s; a situation in which warlord militias will increasingly rule the roost. ..." And "the surge" is actually facilitating that outcome:
What General David Petreaus and his master, President George W. Bush, would like us to believe is that recent American policy in Iraq can be seen as a military success but a political failure judged in terms of the inability of the country's sectarian leaders to unite. What they cannot see is that the two are much more closely related than they are willing to admit.

One factor is that by arming and financing the Sunni tribes in Anbar Province as local militias, the U.S. military is both recognizing the lack of central government control and helping to undermine it still further.

But there is much more to it than that. The major reasons why sectarian leaders cannot come together to create a united leadership for a united Iraq is that, rather than being able to control their followers outside the Green Zone, they are now, to a larger extent, controlled by them.

All the links in this post are via Cursor.

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