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Iraqi Refugees Flee War-torn Country

July 26, 2007 at 6:45 PM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: Despite the U.S. military troop surge in Iraq in recent months, Iraqis are still fleeing the country, more than 40,000 each month, according to the U.N. Others don’t leave, but relocate inside violence-torn Iraq.

For more on the ever-worsening refugee situation, we’re joined by Kristele Younes of Refugees International, a humanitarian organization. She recently returned from a trip assessing the situation for Iraqi refugees in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. She was in northern Iraq earlier this year.

And Dana Graber Ladek of the International Organization for Migration, based in Amman, Jordan, she monitors internally displaced refugees inside Iraq. She visited northern Iraq just a couple of weeks ago.

Welcome to you both.

Kristele Younes, you began a recent piece you wrote saying that Iraqis are now the third-largest displaced population in the world, after the Palestinians and the Sudanese. Is it really approaching that scale?

KRISTELE YOUNES, Refugees International: Absolutely. And not only is it the third-largest refugee population in the world, it’s also the fastest-growing refugee population in the world. So it is likely to grow again. We are now at 2 million, at least, Iraqi refugees in the Middle East, and those numbers are growing by 40,000 to 50,000 every month who are still getting to Syria.

MARGARET WARNER: These are the ones who have left?

KRISTELE YOUNES: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: And how about internally?

KRISTELE YOUNES: Internally, according to the International Organization for Migration, and to the U.N. — and Dana can speak to that — there are now 2.2 million internally displaced persons inside Iraq, and those numbers are growing, as well.

MARGARET WARNER: So are we talking about 10 percent, maybe 20 percent of Iraq’s pre-war population?

KRISTELE YOUNES: Yes, we are, and those numbers will continue to grow, at least as long as the Syrian border remains open. Unfortunately, other countries neighboring Iraq have now closed their borders, and we’re now facing a situation where people want to flee but have nowhere to go.

Why Iraqis are fleeing

Dana Graber Ladek
International Organization for Migration
Some of [the refugees] and their families have been told, "You either leave, or we will kill you."

MARGARET WARNER: Dana Ladek, give us a sense of why they're fleeing. I mean, they're clearly fleeing the violence and the chaos, but are they being deliberately targeted? Are they going forced to flee?

DANA GRABER LADEK, International Organization for Migration: Yes, they are. People are fleeing basically because of the violence and the instability in Iraq. People are fleeing because of sectarian violence. They're fleeing because of military operations. They're fleeing because of military attacks on certain areas, militias attacks, insurgents activity, and just generalized crime, but the main cause is sectarian violence.

MARGARET WARNER: And do they feel they've been deliberately told to leave?

DANA GRABER LADEK: Some of them have. Some of them and their families have been told, "You either leave, or we will kill you."

MARGARET WARNER: And who determines which ones actually leave Iraq and which ones stay and just relocate?

DANA GRABER LADEK: Well, basically, it depends on whether the Iraqis have the ability -- whether it's financial or the networks -- to be able to leave the country. If they don't, then they tend to just look for a safer haven within the country.

MARGARET WARNER: Going back to the Iraqis who have left the country then, Kristele, now, when we spoke last December on this program, you said, one, they were primarily going to Syria and to Jordan, and that at first these countries in the Middle East have been fairly welcoming, but that strains were beginning to show. Have those trends continued?

KRISTELE YOUNES: This has now become obvious. In my latest mission, I could see very well that now resentment is growing within the host population, but also within the refugee population, because they're getting very little assistance. The welcome has started wearing thin, and the countries in the Middle East -- Jordan and Syria in particular -- are getting increasingly resentful that they're not seeing much help from the international community in dealing with this crisis.

Life as a refugee

Kristele Younes
Refugees International
Most refugees actually live in an urban setting. Most of them rent houses in poor neighborhoods in Damascus, in Jordan, in Amman. It makes it very difficult to reach them and to see them.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, how do these people live? Where do they live? Are they in camps? Are they in apartments? Do they have jobs? Do they go to school?

KRISTELE YOUNES: Most refugees actually live in an urban setting. Most of them rent houses in poor neighborhoods in Damascus, in Jordan, in Amman. It makes it very difficult to reach them and to see them because they're like ghost populations. They are living amongst the host populations.

But a lot of them are living in a very difficult situation right now because they don't have access to public services. Children are not going to school; people cannot access hospitals; and it is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain themselves.

MARGARET WARNER: And what form does the anger that you said the refugees are feeling take?

KRISTELE YOUNES: Well, there is growing resentment towards the host population. There is a feeling that they're not being provided with basic services. It is a minority of Iraqi children who can access public schools.

This used to be one of the most educated populations in the Middle East, and now it's an entire generation of children who is not going to be going to school. So obviously there's growing resentment.

Certainly, when I was there last time, people were yelling at us, telling us they don't want to speak to us anymore because they're not getting any help. People who used to get treatment in Iraq for their cancer, for example, are not getting anything in Jordan, and they're now left basically waiting to die.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Dana, the ones who have stayed in Iraq but relocated, you described last time they'd relocate to their own ethnic communities. Are those communities welcoming? And how are these refugees living?

DANA GRABER LADEK: It's very difficult for the local communities, because they're already oversaturated with displaced populations from decades of displacement due to the various wars or the policies caused by the former regime. And then, on top of that, we've got a competition for local resources, as Kristele mentioned. We have the educational sector, health care, many different areas are affected by this influx of displaced populations. So it's very difficult for the host communities, who themselves are suffering from the same conditions.

International aid

Dana Graber Ladek
International Organization for Migration
As displacement becomes longer and more protracted, the displaced populations are not planning on returning back to their homes.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, is one ethnic community moving around more than any other? And is there enough of this going on that you can say that already Iraq is becoming internally partitioned?

DANA GRABER LADEK: Well, populations are moving from mixed communities to the homogenous communities, and we are seeing that there's a polarization within the communities, so this is becoming a problem. And as displacement becomes longer and more protracted, the displaced populations are not planning on returning back to their homes.

MARGARET WARNER: So who is helping to pay for all of this? I mean, is the U.S. government putting any money into this? Is the Iraqi central government or international relief organizations?

KRISTELE YOUNES: Well, certainly, the international community as a whole has a responsibility in responding to this crisis. This is a humanitarian crisis.

MARGARET WARNER: But I mean -- what I'm asking is, what is the situation? Is there aid? What kind of aid?

KRISTELE YOUNES: There is aid, and thankfully there is growing aid. The U.N. budgets are growing, and there are more and more organizations that are now settling in these countries.

However, for any response to be really comprehensive, the local governments really need to be involved. And to do so, they need significant resources. Countries like the U.S. must significantly increase bilateral aid to Jordan and Syria to help them cope with such large influxes.

MARGARET WARNER: And inside Iraq -- really the same question -- is the Iraqi central government helping the local communities who are having to absorb these internally displaced refugees?

DANA GRABER LADEK: It is trying, especially the Ministry of Displacement and Migration, whose mandate is to assist these communities. However, with the security situation, it's very difficult.

It's also very difficult for humanitarian organizations to reach these populations. Some have already closed their offices due to a lack of funding. And, certainly, the International Organization for Migration is assisting many of these populations. But our recent appeal has only been funded 18 percent, so it's something that our organizations are struggling with.

Not safe to go home

Kristele Younes
Refugees International
Those countries -- Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt -- have been traumatized 60 years ago by the Palestinian crisis ... the last thing they want to see happening is another protracted crisis with the world indifferent.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you've said in the past that you found most of these refugees say they don't want to go home. Is that still the case?

DANA GRABER LADEK: It is still the case, and increasingly still the case. I think that there are a percentage -- about 30 percent -- who would like to return home, but the majority are saying it's not safe to go home. And the longer that they are displaced, they start to develop roots where they're currently living. And it becomes more difficult to return home.

MARGARET WARNER: And is it your sense, Kristele, from being in the region multiple times that, in countries like Syria and Jordan, if the resources were there, the welcome would be there?

KRISTELE YOUNES: Well, I think for us to see this, we need to provide the resources first. It's very difficult to gauge at this moment. I think the international community, and the U.S. in particular, must show leadership, but also significant engagement on the long-term to help deal with these crises.

Those countries -- Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt -- have been traumatized 60 years ago by the Palestinian crisis. They still have to deal with very large numbers of Palestinians. And the last thing they want to see happening is another protracted crisis with the world indifferent. We need to show that we care and that we're here in the long run.

MARGARET WARNER: OK, Kristele Younes and Dana Graber Ladek, thank you both.

DANA GRABER LADEK: Thank you.

KRISTELE YOUNES: Thank you.