Everyday we can count on at least one if not more stories about Iraq in the pages of our newspapers. Whether debates on when the troops will be withdrawn or recitations of the latest casualty figures, it remains the dominant story across the media. But amidst everything else one aspect of the story is being ignored.
According to figures kept by the United Nations High Commission On Refugees (UNHCR) between January and mid November of 2006 about 425,000 Iraqis have been displaced from their homes. At mid-year the displacement rate had reached the level of 50,000 people a month.
These numbers have increased the numbers of Iraqi refugees to 1.6 million people displaced internally, and 1.8 million forced to leave the country. The majority of these people have crossed over into Syria, Jordan, or Egypt. Once there they either seek permanent residency (over 150,000 Iraqis have applied in Egypt) if allowed, or continue their journey onwards to either Europe or North America.
The UNHCR’s has specific concerns for each of these populations, but primary among them is the strain being placed on those who are currently looking after the refugees inside and outside the country. The continued violence in Iraq itself is making it next to impossible for any aid agency, including the UNHCR to reach those people in most need.
Although we mostly read about the sectarian violence between the Shiite and the Sunni sects, the groups that are actually most at risk are those who comprise minority elements within the country. Christian Iraqis and an estimated 20,000 Palestinians who live on the Iraqi Syrian border are two groups currently considered at highest risk. The former are at risk because of violence directed against them, and the latter because of the inability of aid workers to supply them on any consistent basis with essential necessities.
Aside from the violence that impedes their efforts the UNHCR is also being placed under huge financial strain. With an annual budget of only 29 million dollars they have already reached a point of such overextension that they are almost broke. If that happens what little they are able to do will come to a halt and cause even worse hardship and raise even higher barriers for those wishing to emigrate to safety.
One of the services the Centre offers is to act as a referral agency for people wishing to be considered refugee claimants in those countries recognising Iraqis as refugees. Without sponsorship it’s almost impossible for a person to even apply to be considered as a refugee in countries like Canada. In Canada the ministry responsible for reviewing applications demands either a recommendation from UNHCR or sponsorship from private individuals who already reside in Canada for a person to even apply for refugee status.
One of the reasons that the UNHCR is so over extended in trying to assist and feed so many refugees is that far too many countries are refusing to designate the displaced people of Iraq as refugees. According to the organization Human Rights Watch in spite of their being over a million people displaced from their homes since the invasion, the United States, Great Britain, and the majority of Iraq’s neighbours refuse to recognise them as refugees.
Without that recognition they are unable to apply for legal admission to any of these countries. Jordan, which has one of the larger numbers of expatriate Iraqi populations in the Middle East, never granted them refugee status but allowed them to take up residency. But when the hotel bombings in Amman occurred they started to arrest and deport any that didn’t have legal status.
For those who are being deported the options are limited to either returning to Iraq or hoping to find another country to take them in. The problem is that with the system breaking down and UNHCR running out of money, avenues for legal applications are becoming virtually impossible to negotiate.
According to one immigration lawyer in Canada those wishing to apply for refugee status in Canada are far better off getting to the country one way or another, even if illegally, and filling their application here. Even though Canada has accepted over 80% of those who have been referred by UNHCR as refugee applicants that means is no longer viable.
Working in favour of those who do make it to Canada illegally is the fact that since 2003 Canada has introduced a policy of “no return” for those already over here. The situation in Iraq is considered so extreme that no one will be sent back even if their application is refused at first hearing. This way they are at least guaranteed safety and a chance to appeal the decision.
Canada doesn’t have the most unblemished record in the world when it comes to treatment of refugees in general. Depending on the government in power qualifications for approval can change at random. But it seems like even the Conservative Party of Canada can show compassion on occasion. Allowing the no return policy to stand after they took power has probably saved quite a few lives.
I have no idea why the United States is refusing to allow Iraqis to claim refugee status in their country, it’s the least they can do for the people whose lives they have turned upside for the last three years. Sure declaring them as refugees would be to admit that the country is pretty much uninhabitable in places, but isn’t it a good thing to show a little compassion at the expense of face?
Pride may come before the fall, but is it really fair to inflict your unwillingness to admit that not everything has turned out how you planned on the innocent? Wouldn’t if be nice if the reason that the headlines didn’t talk about a refugee problem was the fact that the problem really didn’t exist instead of no one wanting to talk about it?
Paying attention may not necessarily save people’s lives, but the chances are better than if we ignore them. Perhaps if all of those who gave such wholehearted support to the war would each invite a refugee to stay with them for the duration a good portion of the problem would be solved. We all have to make sacrifices in wartime.