By Nick Winnie
Two million Iraqis have fled their home country in the four years that the U.S. has been militarily involved in Iraq, according to a recent UN estimate. Every month approximately one hundred thousand Iraqis flee the nation’s growing sectarian violence in search of the relative safety foreign nations appear to offer. The large scale displacement of Iraqis has created what refugee rights groups are calling the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world.
Refugees International (RI), a prominent Washington D.C.-based advocacy group, is one such organization attempting to bring awareness of this growing crisis. In November 2006, RI conducted a month-long mission in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, the three largest host countries for Iraqi refugees, in order to examine the conditions refugees face and to assess the international response on their behalf.
Megan Fowler, a spokesperson for RI and a UC Santa Cruz alumna, explained, “according to the refugees our organization spoke with, very few of these people ever plan on returning to Iraq.”
She said that the approximately two million Iraqis who have fled the country, along with the six hundred thousand who have been displaced from their homes within Iraq, are relocating because they fear for their lives within the environment of escalating sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
“A lot of those who have fled are middle-class professionals,” Fowler said, using the term “Brain Drain” to refer to the mass exodus of Iraq’s mostly urban, highly educated, largely secular doctors, lawyers, professors and other academics. Many political analysts are extremely worried about the possible consequences of this trend.
“The people leaving are the ones who have a chance at saving the country; the intelligentsia, the professors and scholars—the would-be Jeffersons and Madisons are forced to leave,” explained Heather Stephens of the UCSC Democrats.
According to Fowler and RI, the so-called “Brain Drain” is a result of two factors. First, many in the Iraqi middle class have the resources to obtain the visas and plane tickets necessary to safely exit Iraq, often heading as far as Europe. Secondly, this group of professional elites has increasingly been targeted by Sunni and Shi’a groups for a variety of reasons, resulting in the assassination of Iraqi professionals and the bombing of bookstores in Baghdad’s intellectual centers.
Still, according to Ronnie Lipshutz, UCSC politics professor, these middle-class professionals are not the only Iraqis fleeing the war-torn country, and “those leaving now often have fewer resources.” She added that this less affluent group of Iraqi refugees is becoming a larger portion of the population movement.
While these two groups of Iraqi refugees are leaving their nation under different financial situations, they often confront similar problems once they leave.
Fowler said, “While Syria has allowed the refugees into the country, Jordan has basically closed its doors.” In addition, these Iraqis are considered as “guests” in their host countries, and face problems finding work and receiving government services as these countries scramble to protect their public systems from collapsing under the weight of a million new residents.
Speaking of the growing refugee crisis, Professor Lipshutz said, “It’s a huge burden on these foreign states. The question is, ‘why should they have to support these refugees?’”
This question has significant political implications for the United States and the Bush administration, who are urged by many in the international political community, along with refugees’ rights groups like Refugees International, to take a more active role in providing asylum and aid to Iraqi refugees.
“This war is four years old, but up until last December the administration hadn’t done anything to acknowledge the refugee crisis,” Fowler said, referring to the recent legislation passed in December allowing for the entrance of seven thousand Iraqi refugees into the United States.
The administration’s decision to provide at least some sort of relief carries extremely delicate political implications, whether reflief comes in the form of granting citizenship rights to Iraqi refugees, providing direct financial assistance to host countries in the Middle East, or strengthening international organizations such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
As Lipshutz said, “To expand the scale of American aid to the refugees would be to admit failure, to anticipate failure.”