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Week of 5.4.07

Iraqis in Exile

Kenneth H. Bacon The president of Refugees International, Kenneth H. Bacon, talks to NOW about the fate of Iraqi refugees and the challenges they face.

NOW: According to UNHCR, about two million Iraqis have fled the country since the start of the war, and 50,000 continue to flee every month. Is the situation likely to stabilize any time soon?

Kenneth Bacon (KB): No. As long as the violence in Iraq continues, people will attempt to flee the country.

NOW: The majority have fled to Jordan and Syria. How would you describe how they're being received in those countries? How great of a burden has it been for the host countries?

KB: They have been received well, particularly in Syria, which has absorbed about one million Iraqis. Getting into Jordan and staying there is tougher for Iraqis. Both countries complain about the burden that Iraqis are placing on them. Jordan says the cost of hosting Iraqis is about $1 billion a year.

NOW: The State Dept. contends that until February 2005, the US and the international community were focused on repatriating Iraqis back to Iraq, and that up until that point, most Iraqis wanted to return to their native country. What are the choices Iraqis in exile face right now as they weigh whether or not to Iraq?

KB: For many the choice is stark. It is between living in safety as refugee or facing possible danger and death back in Iraq.

NOW What are some of the main challenges refugees face while residing in these countries?

KB: The main challenge is to maintain a livelihood. In general, the refugees aren't allowed to work, yet they face everyday costs, such as rent and food. Most of the refugees live in urban areas, not in camps, so they face the costs of city life. In addition, many refugees are dealing with the trauma of loss and separation from their family and neighbors.

NOW: The United States has accepted fewer than 500 Iraqi refugees since the start of the war, and the State Dept. announced just recently that it is creating a task force to oversee the processing of some 7,000 Iraqi refugees. Why have the numbers been so low?

KB: The U.S. has been slow to recognize the growing refugee problem and slow to set up new security procedures, as required by post 9/11 laws, for processing Iraqi refugees. The Department of Homeland Security is taking too long to resolve this problem.

NOW: How does this figure compare to the amount of refugees permitted following other wars?

KB: The figure is disappointingly low. In 1975, the year the U.S. left Vietnam, we accepted more than 130,000 Vietnamese for resettlement in the U.S.

NOW: In January, the Assistant Secretary of State for Refugee Affairs, Ellen Sauerbrey, called on Iraqi refugees to declare their interest in resettlement. She said they would receive "full and expedited consideration" to enter the United States. Has that happened?

KB: Not yet.

NOW: What do you think the U.S. response should be to the Iraqi refugees? Even some of the staunchest advocates for refugees recognize that we can't resettle all of them.

KB: We need to help host countries and the U.N. provide services, such as education, employment, and sustenance, to the refugees. Most of the refugees will have to stay in the area, hoping to return home when it is safe. At the same time we need to help resettle those who fear they will never be able to return to Iraq and want to move to other countries.

NOW: Many people do not want to accept Iraqi refugees on security grounds. Do you think the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is capable of thoroughly and efficiently screening such a huge flux of refugees?

KB: It is important to understand that people are leaving Iraq to escape terror and violence, not to export it. I am confident that DHS, with leadership from the president and support from Congress, can devise workable screening procedures.

NOW: There was an international conference on the plight of Iraqi refugees in Geneva recently. Was anything accomplished there or any major policy decisions made?

KB: The Iraqi government committed to spend more resources on assisting the internally displaced. It also committed to open offices in Syria and Jordan and financially assisting the governments of these countries in hosting Iraqis.

NOW: Aside from the refugees, there are 1.7 million internally displaced persons in Iraq —those who have lost their homes but have not been able to get out of the country. What are the challenges they face?

KB: The primary problem they face is finding a safe place to flee to within Iraq. Many of the "safer" governorates in Iraq have closed their internal borders because they can't absorb the influx of displaced people. Besides security, the displaced face enormous challenges to sustain themselves, as there is very little assistance getting to them.

NOW: How perilous is the journey out of Iraq at this moment —and how difficult is to get the proper paperwork and sufficient funds to reach a neighboring country?

KB: Most countries now require Iraqis to have a newly issued passport for entry on their soil. Those passports are limited in number, and it is extremely expensive and dangerous for Iraqis to get them. Also, the roads to Syria and Jordan are dangerous, especially for Shias, and many are robbed, kidnapped or even killed along the way.

NOW: How is this refugee crisis different from previous ones?

KB: The main difference is that refugees aren't living in camps; they have been absorbed into cities. As a result the refugee populations are less visible and harder to reach with food and other services.

Related Links:

Human Rights Watch: Iraq: From a Flood to a Trickle [pdf]

Refugees International: Iraq—The World's Fastest Growing Refugee Crisis

UNHCR: Resettlement of Iraqi Refugees [pdf]

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