The Iraqi Refugee Crisis Continues

Despite the Ceremonial Withdrawal of US Troops from Iraqi Cities, a Country Shattered by the Invasion and Occupation Remains

Today, as the deadline for US troop withdrawal from Iraq's cities
arrives, peace and stability seem as distant as ever. Iraq's continuing
middle class refugee disaster is perhaps the central barrier to a
durable peace in Iraq, and shows no sign of abatement. Far from making
front-page headlines, this "invisible crisis"--the largest human
displacement since 1948--has been largely ignored for the past six years.

In sheer humanitarian terms, the media's failure to report this
massive tragedy is disappointing but perhaps not surprising given the
plethora of underreported humanitarian crises extant in the world
today. However, this is not simply a distant humanitarian catastrophe.
The Iraq refugee disaster has grave and gravely unexamined consequences
for the future of Iraq, a shattered nation that desperately needs its
native professional class to return and help rebuild the country.

With some estimates of civilian injuries numbering in the millions,
the need for health care in Iraq has never been greater. Unfortunately,
there are half as many health care professionals in Iraq today as there
were in 2000. Iraq still lacks basic electricity, water, and sanitation
services as well. This is a startling fact when one considers the
hundreds of billions of dollars US taxpayers have poured into
rebuilding Iraq. The stark and unacknowledged reality is the refugee
disaster has made rebuilding Iraq impossible at any cost; there are
simply not enough professionals left in Iraq with the technical skills
and desire necessary to rebuild their homeland.

Forty percent of Iraq's middle class now rent apartments in
neighboring Jordan and Syria. These refugees live off their dwindling
life savings and whatever assistance they can scrape together from
relatives, friends, charity organizations and income from
under-the-table employment. Like undocumented workers in the United
States, these Iraqi refugees' professional certifications are invalid
and they cannot legally work. Doctors, lawyers and engineers have
turned to street vending, day labor and prostitution.

The United Nations estimates that 4.7 million Iraqis--nearly twenty
percent of Iraq's pre-war population--have been displaced. Despite
relative calm in recent months, less than seven percent of the
displaced have returned home to their communities. The United States
is in the process of leaving Iraq. Why isn't Iraq's middle class
returning home?

Aside from the still-dangerous security situation, many do not have
homes to return to. Years of ethnic cleansing have homogenized
once-diverse Iraqi neighborhoods. Millions of displaced Iraqis have
discovered that squatters--many of whom are displaced themselves--now
occupy their homes. Unresolved property disputes are one of the main
reasons displaced Iraqis are not returning home, yet neither the United
States nor the Iraqi government has shown any willingness to adjudicate
these disputes.

Taking advantage of the lull in violence caused by successful
ethnic cleansing, the United States has spent the past two years
sealing off entire neighborhoods in Baghdad with miles of concrete
barriers, effectively endorsing the newly homogenized reality and
making movement around Baghdad extremely difficult. While this may have
been an effective short-term tactic to quell sectarian violence,
Baghdad's walls carry the long-term risk of discouraging Iraq's middle
class from returning.

The Iraqi government, understanding the importance of the displaced
middle class to rebuilding efforts, has offered $800 per family and
free airfare to refugees who decide to return. The problem is that Iraq
is not yet able to reabsorb the refugee population; citing continued
security concerns, the United Nations is not recommending the
large-scale return of the refugee population. Consequently, many of the
relatively small number of Iraqis that have returned from neighboring
countries are now internally displaced inside Iraq. The Iraqi
government is attempting to put the cart before the horse, so to speak,
by making returns a component of its security strategy rather than a

As June 30 arrives and recedes into history, it's worth
acknowledging for the first time the Catch-22 at the center of Iraq's
problems: The displaced Iraqi middle class holds the key to a stable
Iraq yet they fear returning to the unsafe, unfamiliar and ethnically
homogenized hell that Iraq has become. The solution is far from
obvious, but the first step toward solving any problem understanding
its dimensions and, indeed, that a problem exists.

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