Friday, October 17, 2008

The Situation of the Iraqi Refugees

Arij Bou Reslan [Terre des hommes ]

The displacement of Iraqis has been identified as the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world . The UN estimates that over 4 million Iraqis have been displaced by violence in their country, the vast majority of which have fled since the 2003 war in Iraq and its ensuing insurrection. Over 2.3 million have vacated their homes for safer areas within Iraq while some 2 million have sought refuge abroad. The figures regarding the exact number of Iraqis living in the neighbouring countries are disputed among the different stakeholders. This issue sheds light on the numerous gaps regarding many aspects of the refugees’ life in these countries. Of this 2 million, an estimated 450’000-500’000 are in Jordan and 50’000 are in Lebanon ; mainly concentrated in the capital cities. In Syria, estimations of the total number of Iraqi refugees are disputed and vary from 300’000 to 1’5 million with the vast majority residing in Greater Damascus. However, as these three countries are not signatories to the UN convention on Status of Refugees, Iraqis have few rights and face difficulties in accessing adequate assistance and services, many are in critical situations.

This massive arrival of Iraqi refugees in Syria is mainly due to its geographical proximity and because the Syrian Government was considered as tolerant among other countries in the region. But Iraqis arriving in Syria are now required to have a visa issued from the Syrian Embassy in Bagdad. Many, who arrived earlier, are now residing in Syria with expired visas and are fearful of deportation. In 2008, to obtain a visa for Syria, an Iraqi needs to be a doctor, engineer or a merchant with a commercial license. Iraqis without visas are no longer permitted to enter Syria . Those who need medical treatment can also be eligible to seek a visa. Iraqi families that register their children in Syrian school automatically obtain one year’s residency renewed on a monthly basis.

With regard to Jordan, the country has hosted an influx of Iraqi refugees since the early 90’s, some of whom conform to the local perception that Iraqis in Jordan are of prosperous backgrounds. A less-affluent flow, however, began after the 2003 US led invasion, whose peak took place during 2004 – 2005. Since this period, Jordan experienced a notable increase in the movement of the Sunni minority often fleeing sectarian violence, such as the bombing of the Samara Mosque in 2006. From the 1st of May, the Iraqis willing to travel to Jordan must request their visa in Bagdad through a private agency (TNT) responsible for the forwarding of applications to the Jordanian government.

Compared to Syria and Jordan, Lebanon hosts a relatively small number of Iraqi refugees. But the Lebanese population already hosts 250’000 Palestinian refugees while being confronted by a plethora of internal conflict and political instability. As the Human Rights Watch report states: “Lebanese are wary of hosting another refugee population whose prospects of returning to their home country in the short term are remote. The situation is further complicated because many Lebanese perceive that the sectarian tensions that plague Iraqi society might feed into, and amplify, the sectarian tensions that are ever present in Lebanon itself.”

The Iraqis who have left Iraq come primarily from urban areas and represent diverse sectarian backgrounds, including Sunni, Shi’a and Kurds as well as minority groups of Christians (who are over represented as refugees in Syria and Jordan compared to their numbers in Iraq), Sabean- Madeans and Palestinians. In Jordan, 77% arrived after 2003 and among them, 68% of the Iraqi refugees are Sunni Muslims; in Lebanon 50% are Shi’a Muslims. In Syria, 52% of the Iraqi refugees are Sunni Muslims.

Iraqis reported numerous reasons for leaving their country. Many left as a direct result of conflict and violence, mostly from the rising sectarian unrests but also from fighting between the insurgents and the Multinational Forces (MNF) allied with the Iraqi military. Many made the personal and family protection decision to leave due to the real and perceived risks present. Some of the reasons for this decision were based on: their employment with the former regime or for the MNF, their ethnicity or religious grouping and/or the lack of financial stability because they could no longer make a living in Iraq or their homes and assets had been taken.
The current situation and the profile of the Iraqi refugees are not heterogeneous and have evolved with time. While some arrived early after the beginning of the war, some have just arrived a few months ago. Some arrived with good personal savings allowing them to set up and live in relatively good conditions, some arrived without money and assets and have immediately faced particularly precarious conditions. However, progressively, with the long lasting situation and work restrictions, many people with medium savings have seen them quickly evaporated, and they are now in need of basic material, financial, social and medical assistance.

A key factor for many male Iraqi refugees is related to their previous status in Iraq. Iraqis who were involved in the Iraqi Army or connected to the previous government are afraid of being identified and targeted and are often reluctant to register for assistance delivery.

The majority of refugees interviewed described themselves as “existing between two situations or two worlds.” They are “standing by:” fleeing from the horrors and destruction of war and consider their residence in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon as ‘transitional’ before being assisted to immigrate to a western country. The reality is that many western countries are not accepting the numbers of Iraqis rumoured within the Iraqi refugee community. This reality, once realised, generates understandable stress and anxiety when families and individuals face the hard question of: What now? Compounding this lost and unwelcome positioning is that most people and families do not plan to return to Iraq, the UNHCR/IPSOS report states 89.5% of those interviewed held this view.

Because of non-recognition by host governments, most Iraqis are illegal or have/had only a tourist visa; therefore they are ineligible for employment in Jordan, Syria or Lebanon and have few or even no sources of income. For many of those who had savings, the situation is deteriorating or has deteriorated through these resources drying up. Some families receive money from relatives abroad or in Iraq, but this rarely allows for a comfortable life and is often sporadic and unreliable.

The basic cost of living is increasing in all three countries. Prices for basic items such as rice, bread, cooking oil and vegetables have been increasing and apartments are clearly highlighted to be expensive; many families are struggling to meet the rent payments. Household visits confirm the signs of urban poverty where Iraqis are more reliant on the informal economy and the underground ‘black’ market. They are moving from one area to another in search of cheaper accommodation. Families live in very small and crowded accommodation, often shared with relatives or other Iraqi families. In some cases, it was reported that housing difficulties caused some children and adolescents to avoid contact with their family and to remain on the streets late into the night. All of these factors compound and heighten the risk for children to be exploited and made vulnerable to exploitation, violence and/or abuse.

Precarious housing and difficult access to basic services and care contribute to increase most of the Iraqis’ emotional burdens, such as: stress, lack of hope for a better situation and a loss of dignity. All of these factors add layers of tension within the family unit and heavily contribute to deteriorating family relations and jeopardize the coping process, for both children and adults.

With respect to “Children and Youth”

Children, like adults, have been affected with the events in Iraq. In many cases, they witnessed or were direct victims of particularly dreadful events. They feel and share the distress of their parents. They recognize and suffer from the loss of their previous life and from their current living conditions. Some can not go back to school and have to work to increase family income. Many are in classic ‘child labour’ situations and are open to or are experiencing exploitation.

Children, like adults, have the feeling of living in a “stand-by” or “in-between” situation and do not invest their time in the host country. Manly citing they wish or feel this situation will remain temporary and unstable. The difficulty to integration within the host community contributes to make things more difficult.

Children and youth cited incidents of violence, prejudice, discrimination and aggression directed towards them by their host communities . The most vulnerable Iraqi refugees are often in lower-socioeconomic areas due the affordability of the rent. These host community members have a low understanding of the plight and experiences of Iraqi refugees and are also facing issues of political and ethnic/religious violence, unemployment, low education and difficult living conditions themselves. All of these factors assist in the easy labelling and targeting of Iraqi children and community members to be ‘the’ problem. Understandably the Iraqi children, youth and family members are selective in their movements outside of the home and who they socialise and communicate with.

Parents who themselves are in difficulty find it challenging to adequately care for their children and to have appropriate responses to meet their needs, especially psychological needs, because they are in distressed as well. Some parents expressed feelings of guilt and stress. They shared their difficulty in understanding and dealing with their children’s reactions and needs, but did recognise these needs are high. Sometimes they complained about the bad behaviour of their children and worried about losing influence and/or control over them. This is particularly complex and impacting for women headed households, given the traditional patriarchal role of men and boys in Iraqi and Arabic culture. Often this is leading to frustrated and/or angry parenting of children and youth, such as: negative discipline, over protection, verbal and/or physical violence.

Many children have not attended school for a number of years. When children have missed school for over three years they cannot be re-enrolled in the formal education system . Also, through not wanting to be identified, some families fear sending their children to school and to disclose their children’s and family identity. School remains expensive despite the support provided by some organisations and UN agencies. In some cases, because of the financial situation, families decide to send only some of their children to school. Some families prefer, or are compelled, to enrol children in private schools but cannot afford them . Moreover, differences in curricula and language of education in Iraq and the countries of relocation are additional impediments. Some children refuse to go to school through fear of failure because the curriculum is different, or they fear being teased by children or teachers. Some children are also a victim of their parent’s resettlement dreams and are not enrolled in school because their parents believe it will only be for a temporary period.

Youth are especially at risk. They are at a vulnerable stage of their development, but also since many of them have missed school for extended periods, they cannot be enrolled again unless they accept to be in classrooms with younger children. They have no possibility to enrol in Universities and vocational training opportunities are limited. Many have lost contact with their friends in Iraq and spend most of their time at home. This makes it quite challenging for parents to deal with them, especially for mothers alone. In addition adolescent boys are not really considered as “children” by their families and are often sent to work in order to support the household financially.

1.UNHCR/IOM 2007: Refugees International
2.UNHCR/IOM 2007: Refugees International
3.Fafo November 2007: International Herald Tribune
4.Danish Refugee Council (Beirut), Iraqi Population in Lebanon: A Report, November 2007
5.ICMC report, Iraqi Refugees in Syria, February 2008
6.Fafo November 2007: International Herald Tribune
7.Human Right Watch, Rot Here or Die There, bleak choice for Iraqi refugees in Lebanon, November 2007
8.Fafo November 2007: International Herald Tribune
9.Danish Refugee Council (Beirut), Iraqi Population in Lebanon: A Report, November 2007
10.UNHCR/IPSOS report, Assessment on Returns to Iraq Amongst the Iraqi Refugee Population in Syria, April 2008
11.UNHCR/IPSOS report, Assessment on Returns to Iraq Amongst the Iraqi Refugee Population in Syria, April 2008
12.In Lebanon one particular case involved the situation where an Iraqi boy was becoming friendly with a Lebanese girl. The Lebanese family severely beat the boy and threw rocks at him and his house. The result is the boy now is afraid to go out of the house too often and fears his host community. This is a common story and is faced by children in schools and while they move about their host communities. Youth also state they have been vilified for community problems and made to feel excluded and are exploited because of their ‘illegal’ status.
13.Current policy in practice in Jordan and Syria
14.It is the case for Christian families in Jordan for example, because they are not comfortable with the local schools.

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