Prima Facie Refugees

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The Progressive

Prima Facie Refugees

There's not much talk these days about Iraqi refugees even though the numbers haven't changed much. About 2 million Iraqi refugees live in the neighboring countries of Syria and Jordan. Another 2 million are internally displaced.

There's not much talk these days about Iraqi refugees even though the numbers haven't changed much.  About 2 million Iraqi refugees live in the neighboring countries of Syria and Jordan. Another 2 million are internally displaced.

"The majority of Iraqi refugees come from urban areas-Baghdad, Mosul, Kirkuk-and those are still volatile areas," says Tim Irwin, senior media officer at the United National High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). "You see in the news that there are fairly regular suicide bombings, particularly in Baghdad. So the majority of Iraqi refugees do not feel like it's safe enough for them to return."

Most Iraqis, especially Baghdadis, are "prima facie refugees," says Irwin. "We know the situation they fled was one of violence and persecution."

Conditions for Iraqis in Damascus and Amman are difficult. They are living in rented accommodations, for the most part. They are not able to work legally and often have trouble getting their children into schools. They have been living off of their savings for several years but now funds are running low.

The UNHCR surveyed a group of Iraqi refugees who returned home and asked them why they did so. "Most of them said they were returning home because they had run out of money," says Irwin. "They had run out of options in their countries of asylum. They could no longer support themselves so they needed to go home and try to find work."

"While the host governments are very generous in allowing Iraqi refugees to stay, they still face hardships," he says.

A year ago I visited Iraqi refugees living in Zarqa, Jordan, a bleak industrial city forty minutes north of Amman. The squalor of some family's living quarters was shocking. (Several refugees were quite critical of the UNHCR, saying the agency wasn't doing enough for them.)

One woman, Athra Al-Duleimi, fled Baghdad due to death threats. She said her family was targeted by Shias after the U.S. invasion. She had a cousin in construction in Baghdad. His neighbors said he was a spy and he was shot in the head in front of her house. Her husband was shot and she was, too, but they both survived. Her cousin did not.

Athra said her husband had a grocery store near a palace taken over by U.S. troops. He sold goods to everyone. People said he was a spy and became a target for Shiite militias.

Days after her cousin's death, she found a threatening letter and four bullets-one each for her, her husband, and two sons-outside her house. So they left everything and went to Jordan in October 2006.

I bet that Al-Duleimi is still living in Zarqa. She told me she had applied for immigration to the United States but was denied.

In 2007, the United States had only admitted 1,608 Iraqi refugees, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. For fiscal year 2008, the number jumped to 13,823, though it's still is a pretty small number considering the Iraq War has displaced at least 4 million Iraqis. As of February 4, 2009, the United States has admitted 4,479 Iraqi refugees, 0.1 percent of the refugees its war created.

(The quotes from Tim Irwin come from an interview on the 8 O'clock Buzz, a radio program I work on at WORT-FM. Click here to listen. It starts about 10 minutes in.)

Elizabeth DiNovella

Elizabeth DiNovella is Culture Editor of The Progressive. She writes about activism, politics, music, books, and film. She also produces Progressive Radio, a thirty-minute public affairs program hosted by Matthew Rothschild.

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