by the stormy present
Tue May 15th, 2007 at 03:38:09 AM EST
Nir Rosen has a long, detailed and exceedingly bleak assessment of Iraq's refugee crisis -- and the way the "international community" and especially the United States are failing to cope with it -- in today's New York Times Magazine.
He writes that the outflow of refugees from Iraq has now reached up to 50,000 people a month:
At a meeting in mid-April in Geneva, held by António Guterres, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, the numbers presented confirmed what had long been suspected: the collapse of Iraq had created a refugee crisis, and that crisis was threatening to precipitate the collapse of the region. The numbers dwarfed anything that the Middle East had seen since the dislocations brought on by the establishment of Israel in 1948. In Syria, there were estimated to be 1.2 million Iraqi refugees. There were another 750,000 in Jordan, 100,000 in Egypt, 54,000 in Iran, 40,000 in Lebanon and 10,000 in Turkey. The overall estimate for the number of Iraqis who had fled Iraq was put at two million by Guterres. The number of displaced Iraqis still inside Iraq's borders was given as 1.9 million. This would mean about 15 percent of Iraqis have left their homes.
Much more after the jump.
Front-paged on DKos, time it was front-paged here! - afew
Leaving aside, for the moment, the question of why it would have taken the UNHCR until April to realize this, Rosen's piece raises important points and is well worth the read.
Many of Iraq's neighbors initially welcomed the refugees. These countries were motivated by self-interest as well as by generosity. Certain political refugees, like Baathist officials, who were among the first to leave Iraq, had a political use in negotiations with the American-led occupation and the Iraqi government that succeeded it. And the well-to-do early refugees -- those who could meet Jordan's requirement of $100,000 in the bank to qualify for a residency permit, for example -- brought much-needed capital.
This is depressingly familiar. From Palestine to Rwanda, refugees and exiles have been too often treated more like political pawns than people. We shall return to this theme in a moment.
But the numbers and the welcome became unsustainable: Jordan and Egypt have made it very difficult for Iraqis to enter, and even Syria, with a long history of welcoming refugees, has passed regulations, like restrictions on the purchase of property and on access to free health care, that are intended to ensure that Iraqi refugees are only temporary residents. Iraq's neighbors take the position that Iraqi refugees are not in fact refugees at all, because refugee status enables refugees to make claims on the host country. Iraq's government has itself taken roughly the same position, because it cannot afford to acquiesce in the loss of its population or acknowledge its own failure to provide security. The United States and Great Britain, as the principal authors of the current war, have been urged by rights activists to shoulder responsibility for the war's refugees -- a responsibility they have so far evaded. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the principal international body for refugee issues, succeeded in finding new homes for just 404 refugees in the first nine months of 2006 and says it hopes to resettle 20,000 by the end of 2007. That would be 1 percent of the current total. The agency's fund-raising mark for 2007 is $60 million -- for humanitarian relief rather than resettlement -- of which it has so far raised only half. As with the war itself, the situation of the war's refugees is at once dire and full of dangers for the region and the world -- and no one seems to know how to resolve it.
What follows is a series of snapshots, scenes from countries where Iraqi refugees have settle.
In Egypt, where restaurants in some Cairo neighborhoods now bear names like "Baghdad Nights," this city of some 18 million has been able to absorb a hundred thousand new residents without too much trouble. (I know some of them.) But Cairo is an uncomfortable place for Shi'ites; many of the Iraqi refugees have brought their sectarian differences with them and continue to suffer from the patterns of Sunni-Shia hostility, a divide tacitly encouraged by the Shia-phobic Egyptian president. (OK, maybe I'm editorializing here a little, but only a little.)
Syria, on the other hand, has thus far managed to tamp down those tensions, allowing Sunnis, Shia and Christians to live side-by-side. Syria is itself far more multi-confessional and multi-ethnic than Egypt, and its government is the most resolutely secular in the Middle East. A Sunni barber from Baghdad told Rosen, "Praise God, thanks to the Syrian government we have no problems. If anything happens, they deal with it when it happens. As shop owners we are not allowed to talk about sectarianism. Word spread to all business owners: You live in a different country, not your country; you have to respect their rules." (Editorializing again, I will note that in addition to being more secular, Syria is also a more effective police state able to exert more control over its residents than Egypt... although Egypt is apparently working on catching up.)
And then there are the Iraqi Palestinians, the "double refugees," consigned to a grim existence in no-man's-land tent camps along the border: "My grandfather was my age when he was expelled," a teenager named Ayman told Rosen. "Now, it wasn't Jews who expelled us, it was Arabs."
And then we come back to the politics:
As in the Palestinian case, solidarity with Iraqi refugees runs up against the competitive self-interests of states. The governments that are sheltering Iraqi refugees are extracting whatever political utility they can from their guests, mainly by using them as pawns in the game of Iraqi power. Nearly every Iraqi political movement has representation in Syria.
And with politics comes manipulation. And with manipulation comes vulnerability, and danger.
"The temptation is there," a top official at the U.N. refugee agency told me, referring to the possibility of bringing the refugees into the civil war. "The money from Bin Laden is there. If the international community doesn't help, then the other groups will, and all hell will break loose. Iraqis are sitting in Syria and Jordan where the Baathists and Wahhabis are strongest. If 1 percent of the two million can be bought, then that is very dangerous." He noted that money came from Saudi Arabia to Jordan and was disbursed there. "This problem will be with us for a long time," he said, shaking his head in frustration.
And then there are the insurgents, or their backers, those who support what they call al-muqawama al-sharifa, "the honorable resistance."
In this self-serving op-ed in today's Washington Post, L. Paul Bremer, the former American czar of the CPA, tries in vain to defend his legacy. He repeats that old Bush Administration canard about Baath party "dead-enders" collaborating with Al-Qaida: "They're fighting because they want to topple a democratically elected government and reestablish a Baathist dictatorship. The true responsibility for today's bloodshed rests with these people and their al-Qaeda collaborators."
But Rosen makes it clear that, whatever collaboration might have happened in the past (and he doesn't really delve into that much), it appears to be over now:
What's most striking about these men is the sense that they have become trapped -- militarily, at least -- between Al Qaeda and its ilk, on one side, and the Americans on the other, with a dangerous Shiite-dominated, Green Zone-based government to the east and an irritable, secessionist Kurdish region to the north.
And so we return to the issue we laid aside at the beginning -- why the UN (and the "international community" as a whole) has been so woefully tardy and insufficient in its response to the refugee crisis.
"It's the fastest-growing refugee population in the world," said Kenneth Bacon, president of Refugees International and assistant secretary of defense for public affairs from 1994 to 2001. "It's a crisis in response to an American action. This is a refugee crisis that we triggered and aren't doing enough to deal with.
"What I find most disturbing," Bacon went on to say, "is that there seems to be no recognition of the problem by the president or top White House officials."
And now, gentle readers, if you aren't sitting down, perhaps you should. Do not attempt to eat or drink while reading this next section, because you're likely to choke. In fact, I can feel my lunch struggling to return as I type this.
But John Bolton, who was undersecretary of state for arms control and international security in the Bush administration, and later ambassador to the United Nations, offers one explanation for this lack of recognition: it is not a crisis, and it was not triggered by American action. The refugees, he said, have "absolutely nothing to do with our overthrow of Saddam.
"Our obligation," he told me this month at his office in the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, "was to give them new institutions and provide security. We have fulfilled that obligation. I don't think we have an obligation to compensate for the hardships of war." Bolton likewise did not share the concerns of Bacon and others that the refugees would become impoverished and serve as a recruiting pool for militant organizations in the future. "I don't buy the argument that Islamic extremism comes from poverty," he said. "Bin Laden is rich." Nor did he think American aid could alleviate potential anger: "Helping the refugees flies in the face of received logic. You don't want to encourage the refugees to stay. You want them to go home. The governments don't want them to stay."
But only speechless for a moment. I have cringed at many outrageous things that John Bolton has said in the past, but this ranks right up there with the most outrageous. Can somebody please book Mr. Bolton a nice cell in the Hague?
Since 2003, the United States has accepted only 701 Iraqi refugees. In the first four months of 2007, it took in 69 Iraqi refugees, fewer than the number it accepted in the same period in 2006.
The United States is really just beginning to grapple with the question of Iraqi refugees, in part because the flight from Iraq is so entwined with the vexed question of blame.
Well, that's been the issue since the refugees first started fleeing Iraq. The Bushistas have never wanted to call them refugees, because they keep trying to pretend they've done something good for Iraq, and good things don't produce refugees, right?
"What that has mostly meant," Rosen writes, "is that the Bush administration has left the task of dealing with Iraqi refugees to Iraq's neighbors." (With the exception of one category of Iraqi refugees -- those who have worked for the Americans.)
What? The Bush Administration passing the buck? Sloughing off the responsibility for its own mistakes onto someone else? Surely not.
That will leave everyone else to fend pretty much for themselves and depend on the kindness of Iraq's neighbors. Barbara Bodine, a longtime U.S. diplomat in the region who was brought in to be the temporary "mayor" of Baghdad in 2003, told me there was a simple reason for the White House's denial of a refugee crisis: "When you affirm you have refugees and I.D.P.'s" -- internally displaced persons -- "you are admitting that the average Iraqi has little or no expectation that Bush's surge can reverse a security situation that has spun utterly out of control. This is not a loss of faith in Iraq, per se, but in the current governments of Iraq and Washington."
Rosen's story, as I mentioned (and as should be clear from the length of this diary!) is quite long, and filled with details. I have dealt with only a fraction of it here, and if you can stomach the depression, I recomend reading it in its entirety.