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December 2011

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Iraqi Refugees and Their Uncertain Future
by C. Eduardo Vargas Toro

During the heat of the 2008 election season, the Obama campaign underlined the “moral and security reasons” why the Iraqi humanitarian crisis must be resolved and pledged to seek $2 billion to assist NGOs and countries dealing with Iraqi refugees.

To date, urgent economic and security issues have not enabled the President to ask Congress for the $2 billion, however presently the US has taken a more prominent leadership role in this crisis, in contrast to its embarrassing absence in prior years.

Since 2007, American humanitarian assistance contributions have amounted to $1.3 billion[1]. Of The United Nations Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) Iraq Appeal in 2008, over 51 percent was funded by the US, and has at times provided additional monetary assistance to their appeals. Additionally, resettlement of Iraqis to the US has increased from a little over 200 in 2005 to exceeding their goal of 18,000 in 2009. However, much still needs to be done.

In August 2009, President Obama named Samantha Power of the National Security Council (NSC) to coordinate Iraqi refugee relief efforts among different government agencies and Mark Storella as the then Senior Coordinator for Iraqi Refugees and Displaced Persons in Iraq. Nonetheless, beyond these appointments, there still seems to be no comprehensive policy solution for this humanitarian crisis.

This does not mean the US cannot commence developing and implementing a number of practical solutions that provide immediate relief—and hope—for the almost 5 million displaced Iraqis. Practical solutions that focus on concrete areas such as education, resettlement and greater protection for displaced Iraqis provide a useful starting point.

Of particular concern for displaced Iraqis are the barriers to education. Of the children that are not working to provide for their families, the school enrollment rates (just of those who are registered with UNHCR—there are many more who are unregistered) in Syria (15 percent)[2] and according to Caritas Internationalis, less than 50 percent in Jordan[3], seem disproportionally low considering education is free in both countries[4]. Lack of money for school uniforms and supplies, different educational curriculums and fears of subsequent identification and deportation of families hinders the ability of Iraqi children to attend school.

Even greater distress stems from the increasing numbers of Iraqi adolescents dropping out of school before graduation due to stricter graduation requirements in Jordan and Syria than those found in the Iraqi educational system. Such factors are producing a “lost generation” of Iraqi youths with inadequate education and skills essential for integration into society. The corresponding lack of employment opportunities and resulting marginalization of these Iraqi youths in host countries are the perfect ingredients to fan the flames of fanaticism.

To compound the problem, Iraqis with a college education find that Iraqi degrees are not recognized in most host countries, thereby limiting the work opportunities of qualified Iraqi professionals. A process for degree homologation would prove useful to those Iraqis residing in neighboring countries, whereby they could validate their credentials and fill the shortage of doctors, nurses and psychologists in the countries that host such large refugee populations. A similar homologation program would reap rewards for college-educated bilingual Iraqis resettled in the US, as opposed to having them rely on the government refugee cash assistance program for the eight months they are entitled to.

Aggravating this crisis is the fact that most host countries for Iraqis are not signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention, thereby reducing the protection UNHCR can offer. Countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Syria already have a delicate and precarious balance of ethnicities and religions that is being offset by the inflow of refugees from Iraq, which could have disastrous results. Since displaced Iraqis in these countries are not viewed as “refugees” but rather “guests,” their legal options in host countries are limited, if they exist at all. Despite the fact that the US is also not a signatory to this convention, it can—and has—tied aid to host countries not only taking in Iraqi refugees, but treating them appropriately. Although Iraqis in countries such as Jordan and Syria have been to a certain extent welcomed, as time progresses, they become an increasing “burden”[5] and are susceptible to discrimination and persecution. Legal and physical protection must be emphasized while their displaced situation is resolved.

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That said, a greater opportunity to resettle in third countries is a must if this crisis is to be resolved in a dignified manner. Presently, the widely accepted figure in 2007 of a 2 percent chance of resettlement is too low for refugees to improve their chances of changing their current limbo status. However, this slim chance of resettlement is what most Iraqis still hope and pray for. Despite the increases in US resettlement quotas and new countries opening their doors to refugees, many more resettlement doors have been shut and are continuing to close. Of particular concern are the forced returns[6] to Iraq of asylum seekers[7] from such European nations as the UK and Denmark. Even Sweden, the bastion for progressive refugee protection, has greatly diminished the conditions in which Iraqis can seek refuge or asylum in that country.

In addition, Iraqi refugees overwhelmingly refuse to consider returning to their homeland in fear for their safety.[8] While more pressure needs to be exerted on the Iraqi government to provide security, property compensation and social services to encourage Iraqis to return, it is incumbent upon such actors as the US, UK, EU and the Arab League to exert such pressure while providing more opportunities to resettle Iraqis.

Ultimately, the ideal solution would be the return of displaced Iraqis to their homes and their homeland; however, much has yet to be done to ensure their safety if in fact they were to return home.

Given the US’s unique role in Iraq and its position as a global leader, it is not surprising that first asylum countries and the refugees themselves hold much resentment towards America’s diminished role in this crisis during the past few years. The consensus among the aforementioned is that the US can do more to resettle Iraq’s displaced.

Indeed, this presents an opportunity for the US. By generously funding humanitarian support programs, advocating for a greater international response and resettling larger numbers of Iraqi refugees in the US, the American government can begin to overturn the anti-American sentiment while sending a clear signal of its leadership and commitment to this issue.

To date, most UN agencies and NGOs are struggling to fund their humanitarian activities for this population at the requisite level. According to UNHCR’s former Representative in Lebanon, Stéphane Jaquemet, “donor support will not last forever and the next two years will be crucial for the refugees.”[9] The fact that funding for UNHCR and NGOs working with Iraqis is in question only adds pressure to this crisis. Facing barriers to education, diminishing opportunities to find a permanent home, no legal protection, little access to employment and social services in host countries and little opportunity for local integration, the future of Iraq’s refugees is replete with uncertainties. A bold and generous action by the US Government is crucial to resolve this problem, since the consequences of inaction could be disastrous.

[1] U.S. Department of State. United States Contributes $51.5 Million in Additional Assistance For Displaced Iraqis. 9 May 2011. Available at: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2011/05/162869.htm
[2] Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN). Iraq-Syria: Iraqi Pledge to Syria Fails to Assuage Fears, 23 August 2007. Available at: http://www.irinnews.org?Report.aspx?ReportId=73895

[3] Zarafili, S., Caritas Jordan Community Center. 12 October 2009. Personal Communication.

[4] UNHCR. Jordan, Iraqi Refugee Children Starts School, 21 August 2007. Available at: http://www.unhcr.org?news/NEWS/46cab8284.html

[5]> UNHCR. UN Refugee Agency Chief Appeals for Support for Iraqi Refugees. 26 January 2011 Available at: http://wwwunhcr.org/4d3fe3069.html
[6] UNHCR. Involuntary Returns to Central Iraq Contrary to UNHCR Guidelines. 23 October 2009, Available at: http://unhcr.org/4ae1998e9.html

[7] The Christian Science Monitor. Refugees forced back to a still-violent Iraq, prompting criticism of European policy. 7 February 2011. Available at: http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2011/0207/Refugees-forced-back-to-a-still-violent-Iraq-prompting-criticism-of-European-policy

[8] UNHCR. UNHCR poll: Iraqi refugees reluctant to return to Iraq permanently. 8 October 2010. Available at: http://unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/search?page=search&docid=4caee5a99&query=iraqi%20refugees
[9]> Jaquemet, S. 7 October 2009. Personal Communication.

Author C. Eduardo Vargas Toro is the Director of Advocacy and Public Policy and Representative to the United Nations for Intersections International. He has worked on various refugees issues through his prior position at the UN Office of Caritas Internationalis and currently with Intersections International’s Iraqi Voices Amplification Project. Vargas Toro holds an MA from The Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University..


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