Refugees Forsaken Even By Their Own Gov't

WASHINGTON - As Iraq's refugee crisis continues to worsen, the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is failing to help the estimated five million Iraqis who have been displaced by conflict, says a new report by the International Crisis Group (ICG).

"Failed Responsibility: Iraqi Refugees in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon" acknowledges that while things have gotten better for many Iraqis with the relative success of the U.S. troops "surge" strategy, Iraqi refugees in neighbouring countries are still living in harsh conditions.

Refugees face a desperate economic situation and rigid policies while the Iraqi authorities and the international community -- especially the occupying U.S. government -- does too little to support them, it says.

"Flush with oil money, it has been conspicuously ungenerous towards its citizens stranded abroad," says the report of the Iraqi authorities.

The Iraqi government makes life difficult by encouraging tough visa policies by host countries and giving refugees limited access to Iraqi documents.

The refugees, says the report, view the moves as the Interior Ministry in Baghdad trying to control the flow of people and restrict what it sometimes sees as Ba'athists and other collaborators who left because of the new order.

"No doubt there are senior former regime figures among the refugees, but this does not excuse callous neglect of overwhelming non-political people who loyally served Iraq rather than a particular regime," says the report, noting that Iraq has lost much of its professional class.

Many of the white-collar refugees reportedly had their diplomas and other documents seized as they fled violence in Iraq, making it difficult to find skilled professional jobs in the limited instances where host countries would have allowed it.

With refugees unable to work, the report points to their dwindling resources as leading to "a growing pauperisation of Iraqis" that could, in turn, lead to radicalisation.

"Increased destitution and unemployment among Iraqi refugees are worrying factors," says the report, "and some observers warn against the possibility of young male refugees joining al Qaeda type militant groups."

The exact number of refugees is unknown -- roughly five million -- but the scale is certain: Iraq is the second biggest crisis, preceded only by Afghanistan.

ICG acknowledges the large burden on by Syria, Lebanon, and other neighbours, who have taken on about half of the total displaced, but it says unfriendly treatment leaves Iraqis there with few services and opportunities.

The U.S. and others in the international community, including wealthy Arab states, also contribute to the crisis by neither resettling their share of refugees nor giving enough financial support to host countries and aid organisations, ICG says.

"Donor countries and Iraq bear the greater responsibility to assist both refugees and host countries," said the report. "Western nations have been happy to let host countries cope with the refugee challenge, less than generous in their financial support, and outright resistant to the notion of resettlement in their midst."

With host countries strained and so little international and Iraqi aid, most refugees "rely chiefly on personal savings and remittances from relatives in Iraq and elsewhere."

The report notes that crime in refugee camps and other areas is already on the rise in areas where there is little access to education for Iraqi children, and they and women are often exploited. The conditions have become so deplorable that some refugees return to war-ravaged Iraq because the situation in host countries is so bad.

But the numbers of those returning -- though they are publicised -- are limited. Oftentimes, refugees cannot return home because their formerly mixed neighbourhoods experienced sectarian cleansing and members of rival sects, often settled by militias, occupy their homes.

While sectarian lines still starkly exist in refugee communities, there has been little "spill over effect" of the sort of strife seen in Iraq.

"Of course they talk about Sunni-Shiite problems; of course they rant in front of you. But that is all they do," an Iraqi Sunni in Jordan who says he encounters all stripes of Iraqis told ICG. "It's their way of making sense of their lives and of their past."

With Iraq still such a violent and chaotic place, ICG recommends that the Iraqi government put a mechanism in place to both help refugees abroad and -- while discouraging large-scale returns until security improves -- to assist those returning to Iraq.

Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon also need to dramatically step up their efforts to organise the refugees.

In Jordan, says the report, "Even Iraqis fleeing violence were not granted refugee status; instead, they were referred to as 'guests' and at times treated far worse than that."

By limiting even yearly-renewable residency permits -- initially more widely available to at least the affluent Iraqis -- to those who already met a particular high threshold of investment in Jordan, the host has created a "closed-door policy."

In Syria, local officials claimed to ICG that Prime Minister al-Maliki had encouraged the visa restrictions placed on Iraqi refugees beginning in September 2007.

The restrictions on movements -- effectively ending the open-door policy -- coupled with poor relations with the West and particularly the U.S., have worsened conditions in Syria.

ICG calls for the U.S. to end its politically motivated low aid levels and isolate the humanitarian crisis from other political considerations with Syria. The report noted that none of the involved parties are dealing with the refugee crisis that exists, and should another one break out, it would be disastrous.

(c) 2008 Inter Press Service

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