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Iraqi Refugee Crisis

UNHCR New America Foundation Fellow Nir Rosen has been out and about speaking on this issue. Rosen recently published an article entitled “The Flight From Iraq,” the cover story for the May 13th issue of The New York Times Magazine. It is estimated that 4 million Iraqis have been displaced since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. 2 million of these are refugees outside the country, the majority of whom are living in Syria and Jordan, but not without profound effects on the states themselves and the region at large. You can check out a web-cast of the event here.

Highlights from the story and the talk include the possible destabilization on the state economies of those absorbing the refugees. Aside from the damage to Iraq internally, Rosen is concerned that the spillover beyond its borders has already “transformed the Iraq War into a regional conflict.”

An interesting side issue Rosen brings up is how the refugee crisis has affected Iraqis of Palestinian origin, who now suffer from statelessness on a second level. Rosen has called them “doubly cursed”:

Under Saddam Hussein, the Palestinians, who are mostly Sunni, received subsidized housing and, according to Shiite opinion, preferential treatment. Immediately following the American invasion and occupation, the Palestinians were among the first victims of reprisals by the inchoate Shiite militias. They were expelled from their homes and often ended up in tent communities. Palestinians are now obliged to register in Baghdad once a month, but merely to approach the (Shiite-dominated) Ministry of the Interior to register is to risk kidnapping, torture and murder. So most Iraqi Palestinians are essentially illegal now in Iraq. Yet without any papers it is also extremely difficult to leave. One Iraqi diplomat I spoke to in Cairo denied that Palestinians were being singled out, insisting that they lived better than most Iraqis. He accused them of supporting Al Qaeda and building car bombs in their neighborhoods. The Syrians and Jordanians also refuse to take them in. “They want to make a point that the solution for Palestinians is not settlement in the region,” a United Nations official explained to me.

Rosen is careful to analyze some of the more subtle and oft-forgotten historical elements of the conflict in Iraq, noting that the consequences from what was a poorly managed and perhaps initially political issue has caused the articulation and intensification of radical sectarian identities on a regional level as well. But these identities may not always have been so politicized. WhileIt's bad in Iraq many of the Iraqis he interviewed now speak on sectarian terms, Rosen has noted that this classification of Sunni or Shi‘a was a rare -- if non-existent -- element in Baghdad before the invasion.
Ultimately the refugee crisis poses an issue for the United States as well as the Middle East. The United States helped resettle Iraqis since the mid-1970s. We have resettled more than 37,000 refugees total, most of whom were persecuted under Saddam Hussein. According to Ellen Sauerbrey, the Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration, since April 2003 the United States has resettled only 692 Iraqis due to security reasons following 9/11.


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Daniel Levy


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