When the Cheney-Bush administration, aided by the government of Tony Blair, flipped off the United Nations and began their campaign of blood and torture in Iraq seven-and-a-half years ago, there were millions of Iraqis living in places where they don't live now. By 2008, one estimate put the number of exiles at 4.7 million, a couple million of them scattered in 10 nearby countries, mostly Jordan and Syria, and nearly 2.8 million IDPs, internally displaced persons. That's 17 percent of the entire Iraqi population. Such numbers are always shaky because wartime refugees are not easy to count and the statistics are filled with uncertainties about the agendas of the individual sources whose various tallies are combined to arrive at a total. But refugee groups agree the invasion and its aftermath brought about the greatest human displacement in the Middle East since 1948. That massive uprooting comprises a roster of individual stories, each its own disaster.
Today, with the Iraq conflict entering a new, unpredictable phase, it's safe to say there are fewer exiles abroad and fewer IDPs in Iraq, but getting an exact number of how many have returned home is simply impossible. "Not nearly enough" is all that can be said for sure. And in a world that pours hundreds of billions into preparing for and carrying out wars, the few dollars set aside to provide relief for those dispersed by those wars is...criminally deficient.
Many Iraqis exiled outside the country are simply not going to return if they can avoid it. For one thing, despite the end of regular combat missions by U.S. troops, the insurgency that the invasion kindled continues, with at least 37 Iraqis killed today in car bombings.
Some observers doubt the capability of the Iraqi armed forces to deal on their own with the situation despite the fact that those forces were rebuilt and trained with $24 billion in U.S. reconstruction funds, nearly half the total spent for such purposes in Iraq. Those few who do trust the armed forces' ability to keep the lid on don't trust them to be impartial about it, with themselves as possible targets. The vast majority
are simply not returning, at least not yet. Indeed, while some refugees have returned, others are still coming out, according to the Financial Times:
“They are coming with similar stories of fleeing violence, fleeing threats and having had members of their family either threatened or abducted,” says Imran Riza, head of UNHCR in Jordan. “It’s not a very high number, but it more or less equals the number that are being resettled out.” ...
But life in exile can also be tough. Refugees are mostly prohibited from working and families’ savings have often been wiped out. Many who returned to Iraq did so because they ran out of money.
Their situation may be dire and their savings gone as they dwell jobless and stateless in Syria and Jordan – perhaps a million and a half of them still – not as refugees but as "guests" of those countries because neither signed the 1951 Convention on Refugees [pdf]. But many such exiles would face not only an unstable security situation but also continued poverty, assault, kidnapping, renewed ethnic cleansing and murder if they went back where they came from. Thus do exiles without the money to have themselves smuggled into Europe or elsewhere, and unwilling to face the potential consequences of returning to Iraq, live in their various limbos. Nearly 30 percent of the Iraqi exiles in Jordan are middle-class professionals, and a few, especially doctors, have managed to carve themselves an economic niche in Amman. But most are just surviving and waiting, doing unauthorized work if they can find something, living in constant fear of deportation. In Syria, where the refugee influx consisted of mostly poor Iraqis, the situation is worse.
Haidar Hamza, himself one of the luckiest Iraqi refugees, having obtained a Fulbright Scholarship, wrote recently of his visit to relatives in Syria:
In my last weekend in Syria, a group of young Iraqi men suggested we go to a party at a night club on the outskirts of Damascus. One of my companions said to me: "Here you'll find the most beautiful Iraqi refugee women ... and they are very affordable."
As we walked in, the stage was packed with women wearing heavy make up and revealing clothes. An Iraqi singer was performing live and the surrounding tables were occupied mostly by Arab men from the wealthy Gulf States and surrounding countries. Alcohol was being served and smoking was permitted. ...
The two women were cousins: Ananas, a 34-year-old pharmacist, and Dunya, a 28-year-old poetess. Ananas first came to Syria in 2006 after her brother and father were shot dead by a U.S. military convoy while he was driving during curfew hours. "They were all I had. Once they were gone, my uncles were forcing me to marry my cousin. He was 21 years older than me and already married. I escaped two days before the wedding date, got on a bus and came to Syria," she said.
As for Dunya, she got married at the age of 16. "My husband was killed by armed militiamen in our front yard. I saw it ... I was looking from the kitchen window. They stormed into our house after and raped me. I didn't try to resist because I didn't want them to go upstairs and find my daughter and hurt her. She was only 9 at the time." Dunya then fled to Syria with her daughter in 2007 and united with her cousin Ananas, who had already found her way into the sex industry.
When I asked about Dunya's daughter, she said, "Her name is Tamara. She is doing alright now. Oh, she is right there in fact," as she started waving at a young girl, now 11-years-old, with wavy hair and wearing make up.
Tamara was on the stage dancing and was occasionally joined by men to talk or dance with her. When I asked Dunya whether she worried about Tamara losing her innocence, her reply was: "Innocence? That is not something for our children. It may be for the children in America or Europe but not us. Tamara is going to grow up in a society that judges her, restricts her and takes advantage of her. Being innocent is only going to make it worse and turn her life harder."
In Iraq, the IDPs live with relatives, in squatters' camps or impoverished neighborhoods amid other Iraqis who were often none-too-pleased to see them arrive. Ten of Iraq's 18 provinces eventually closed the doors to more refugees. A trickle of IDPs, perhaps 10 percent of the total, have returned to their old homes, despite how risky it feels to many of them. For an NGO's look at the problems, see the International Rescue Committee's report, A Tough Road Home: Uprooted Iraqis in Jordan, Syria and Iraq.
For those who have made it out of the Middle East, the situation is also not so great. Sweden allowed in tens of thousands of refugees, but beginning in 2008, a backlash developed.
Many of those who got to America, thanks to the efforts of Sen. Ted Kennedy, after foot-dragging by the Cheney-Bush administration, have not fared so well either. For one thing, they only get $1800 to start out. As Alisa Roth and Hugh Eakin reported:
Bushra, a student of English literature from Baghdad, was sitting in her mostly empty living room in Phoenix, Arizona. She is unemployed. A thin woman in her thirties, she arrived in the United States in 2007, together with her husband. They were two of the approximately five thousand Iraqis that Arizona has agreed to accept as part of recent US commitments to take in more refugees from Iraq. She and her husband thought Phoenix would be the end of a life in limbo in Jordan, where they had fled from the violence. But the ordeal was not over.
Neither could find work. They became so anxious that they decided to return to Amman, where they had contacts in the Iraqi community. The situation in Jordan was still more bleak: “There was nothing,” she said, when we met last November. In the end, they came back to Phoenix, where at least they were safe. Now their only source of income was from her husband’s part-time job parking rental cars. ...
And as Bushra’s situation in Phoenix reveals, for many of those who have been accepted by the United States, the minimal refugee benefits—which assume rapid transition to regular employment and take no account of such conditions as post-traumatic stress—have been all too inadequate. Many refugees were sent to high-growth areas like Phoenix and Atlanta, but those cities have been hit especially hard by the recession. Iraqis we met in Phoenix said they depend on food stamps and food banks; in a reversal of typical migrant economics, some rely on wire transfers from family left behind in Iraq or other parts of the Middle East.
Robin Dunn Marcos, who heads the Phoenix office of the International Rescue Committee, said that the IRC has become something more akin to a welfare office. Without work the refugees “can’t survive. They can’t pay the rent or the utilities, never mind buy toothpaste and toilet paper.” Confronted with stories such as Bushra’s, Charles Shipman, Arizona’s refugee coordinator, has had to ask the refugee agencies to reduce the number of Iraqis they are agreeing to resettle in the state, despite the US’s pledge to take in another 17,000 in 2010. “And I know every other state is making the same request,” he said. “I’m not sure where those additional refugees will end up.”
The United States did a bang-up job of breaking Iraq, destroying lives, generating a resilient insurgency, letting loose sectarian slaughter and putting millions of exiles out of their homes. We're nowhere near paying restitution for that crime.