The World’s Fastest-Growing Refugee Crisis

Dahr Jamail’s Eyewitness Report

Dahr Jamail is an independent journalist whose previous reports from Iraq provided a crucial “unembedded” look at the reality of the U.S. occupation. Earlier this year, Dahr returned to the Middle East to cover one of the unreported tragedies of the Iraq war — what the United Nations calls the fastest-growing refugee crisis on the planet.

Eric Ruder: You witnessed firsthand the scale of the Iraq refugee crisis. Can you talk about that?

Dahr Jamail: For starters, it’s important that people know the numbers to get an idea of the scope of the crisis.

The office of the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] estimates that between 1 and 1.2 million Iraqis are in Syria. But the regional public information officer for UNHCR, a woman named Sybella Wilkes, said that the real figure is probably closer to that given by the Syrian government, because the UNHCR doesn’t have the money or the personnel to have someone on the border keeping a tally.

(See Dahr Jamail, speaking on “Beyond the Green Zone: An Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq,” at Socialism 2007, April 14-17 in Chicago. See the Socialism 2007 Web site for more information.)

According to the Syrian border information, there’s between 1.4 million and 1.5 million Iraqis in Syria. But even going with conservative figures, what we’re looking at is that Iraqis are now roughly 8 percent of the population of Syria.

Within Iraq, we have another 1.9 million internally displaced people, according to UNHCR. In Jordan, there’s over 800,000 Iraqis — that’s the most conservative figure. Then another 150,000 to Lebanon, another 150,000 to Egypt, and we don’t know how many to Iran, we don’t know how many to Kuwait, we don’t know how many to Saudi Arabia.

At the end of the day, about one out of every six Iraqis has had to flee their home because of the violence spread by the occupation. It’s the largest exodus in the Middle East since the state of Israel was created in Palestine in 1948, and it’s increasing by the day.

The UN calls it the fastest-growing refugee crisis on the planet. Just in Syria alone, we’re talking about 50,000 people a week coming over the border.

Just as important as the figures is what this looks like on the ground in Syria.

Syria is a country that had roughly 25 percent unemployment before this crisis began, and now there’s an additional 1 million to 1.5 million people added into that economy. Iraqis aren’t allowed to work. They’re welcomed into the country by Syria, and they’re not going to be kicked out, but they’re not allowed to work.

So Iraqis are flooding into these areas that are already very poor — they’re renting anything they can find, and now there’s a big housing shortage, and the prices of everything are being jacked up because of this influx of people. People are coming out desperate, and they need a place to put their families, so landlords are asking exorbitant prices to rent an apartment, and they’re paying it. It’s the typical situation where a lot of people are taking advantage of the desperation to make money.

The concern to Iraqis, to the government of Syria and to UNHCR is how much of this can Syria bear. This is a poor country. It’s small and doesn’t have the resources.

UNHCR got an increase of about $16 million in 2007 for this crisis, but that still adds up to just barely over $13 per Iraqi refugee–and that’s not including UNHCR’s overhead.

So people are lining up at the UNHCR buildings to get appointments to try to get aid, and right now, there’s a six-month wait. That’s the minimum waiting time right now, and it’s increasing every month. It used to be they could get an appointment the same day, then it was a month wait, then it was two months, then it was four months, and now it’s six months. And that, of course, is going to keep increasing.

The UNHCR is completely overwhelmed. They don’t have enough money or enough people. They’re doing the best they can, but it’s a situation where, of course, they’re under-budgeted, and the crisis is escalating.

ER: What did the Iraqis you talked to say?

DJ: Among the Iraqis that I talked to in Damascus, many are terrified to give their real names or have their photo taken. The majority of people leaving are completely traumatized. They left under desperate conditions, many of them having received direct death threats.

I spoke with many people who were still getting death threats, even though they had left the country. They were getting text messages on their cell phones or getting e-mails. I interviewed a couple of Sunni doctors who had to leave simply because their name is Omar, which is a classic Sunni name.

Specifically, the most common thing people were afraid of was the Mahdi Army — that they would be able to reach them in Syria.

Who knows if that’s really possible? I did look into whether there was sectarianism now in Syria, and so far, I hadn’t heard any reports of that, and none of the refugees I spoke with were concerned about that.

It’s a mix of people. One would think they must be primarily Sunni, but actually, they’re quite mixed. The majority are Sunni, but my rough estimate is that 60 percent are Sunni, probably 20 or 25 percent are Shia, and 15 to 20 percent are Kurdish. Actually, there’s been a large influx of Kurdish people, according to the UNHCR — who are fleeing either for economic reasons, or because of threats that Turkey is making.

ER: What are the conditions that people are living in? Are there camps? Are people just living on the streets?

DJ: The situation runs the gamut. Those who can afford it — usually, the upper middle class, who were able to get their families out and had enough money put away — are either buying houses or renting apartments, and able to house everyone relatively comfortably. Although now, they don’t have jobs, and so it’s only a matter of time until their money runs out.

Then, as you move down the economic ladder, those at the very bottom are living in some of the areas that are well known for being more poverty-stricken. Those people are literally begging on the streets for food. They have nothing. They left Iraq literally with the shirt on their backs, whatever they had in their wallets, and their lives.

They’re in an area of Damascus where the poor refugees go, and people go through there to try to pick up day laborers. There’s prostitution. It’s a very, very dismal scene.

Then there are other areas around the city, and depending on which you go to, you’re going to find people in different economic situations — maybe they’re staying with relatives, or they’re renting apartments, and there are 15 people staying in a room.

There are actual refugee camps, with the stereotypical tents, open sewage and really horrible living situations. But for the most part, the majority of people are going into the poorer neighborhoods.

A lot of people are going into the Yarmouk camp, which is the big Palestinian area in Damascus. It’s called a camp, but it’s actually a part of the city, with high-rise apartment buildings, water and electricity. You drive into it, and you think you’re in a different part of the city, but it’s still referred to as the Yarmouk camp. There’s loads of Iraqis living there, simply because it’s more affordable.

Overall, the mood is grim, because nobody knows what the future will bring. Because where do they go from here? They can’t travel. If you’re an Iraqi, you can’t travel outside of Syria or Jordan or Iraq — those are the three countries you can go to with an Iraqi passport nowadays.

They don’t know what they’re going to do for work, and what happens when their money runs out.

People are in a state of shock. They made a big push to get out to Syria with their lives, and they get there and they’re relieved. But then, the reality sets in: Where do we go from here, how am I going to feed myself, how am I going to feed my family?

Going back to Iraq is just completely out of the question. It’s absolutely not an option, because their country is completely destroyed. Nine out of ten people I spoke with just want to leave the region altogether. They’re fed up with the war and the conflict and the instability, and they want to go to Western Europe. So what does that mean regarding the future of Iraq?

ER: What did people tell you about the conditions in Iraq today?

DJ: There’s just nothing left. Everyone that I spoke with, whether they’d arrived in Damascus from Baghdad the day before, or they had been there maybe six or eight or 10 months, was saying that nothing is functioning. There’s no garbage collection, there are no jobs, there’s only violence — just bombs and gunfights going off all night and all day.

People said they would sit at home, and hopefully nothing would happen — either bombs going off nearby or people coming into their home, looking for whomever. They tried to minimize their time outside, only going out to try to find food. Otherwise, they sat at home and tried to figure out when they should try to leave the country altogether.

There’s just no security whatsoever, and the Americans aren’t able to do anything at all to control the situation. If you talked about the surge or the Baghdad security plan, people would just laugh — including the UNHCR folks.

I was standing outside one of the UNHCR processing centers, and there were thousands of Iraqis literally waiting to get in, and this was just to schedule an appointment for six months down the road. And one of the UNHCR fellows turns to me and says, yes, looks like the Baghdad security plan is working great.

People are leaving absolute hell. UNHCR is interviewing all these people, and the Damascus information person for UNHCR, Adham Mardini, said that it’s some of the grimmest information he’s ever heard — that it’s just unfathomable what people are running away from. And those who aren’t able to leave are having to stay and try to live through that.

The majority of people we spoke with had lost some family member or relative, or at the very least, a close friend. Everyone knows someone who’s been killed. The Lancet report, which found 655,000 dead since the invasion, is now almost a year out of date — the report came out in October of last year, and the survey was actually conducted in July.

There’s death and killing everywhere. We would ask people whether there was a moment or an event that occurred that made them realize it was time for them to go, no matter what it took.

I remember this one couple from Baghdad we spoke with. The woman was a retired teacher, I think around 65, and her husband was around 75, and we asked them what was the moment they decided to leave. And the man said, “I woke up one day, and looked out, and there were three more bodies in our front yard, and I just got tired of that. We knew it was probably only a matter of time before something would happen to us, so we decided to leave.”

ER: So how do people get out of Iraq?

DJ: It’s expensive. Most people are taking buses or hiring cars.

We used to go in and out of Iraq the first year of the occupation — before that became untenable — in these GMC trucks. You’d hire a seat in those trucks for like $30 or $40, and they’d drive you in and drop you off wherever in Baghdad.

Those trucks are now being hired out at exorbitant rates to take people to Syria or Jordan. When you go to these areas in Damascus where loads of refugees congregate on the streets, you can see rows of these GMCs, with luggage strapped on top, coming in and dropping people off. People are paying anywhere from $250 to $300 for a seat to get a ride up to Syria.

ER: The U.S. government claims it’s recognizing the refugee crisis and offering more options for Iraqis to come to the U.S. Is that true?

DJ: This was just propaganda. From March 2003 until today, the Bush administration has issued 466 visas to Iraqis. Under pressure from the UN a few months ago, the Bush administration said it would issue 7,000 more visas. But they never said when they would issue them, and under what criteria they would be issued.

To date, there’s no evidence that any more beyond the 466 have been issued. But even if they issued all 7,000 visas tomorrow, we’re talking about 7,000 out of 4 million displaced people.

There’s really nothing to salvage in Iraq now as far as the sentiment toward the United States. Anything left of the idea that the U.S. had any decent intentions of helping the Iraqi people was lost long before most of these people left the country. They sat there and watched their country burn, to the point where there’s really nothing left, so they finally just fled.

So you can imagine that the sentiment toward the United States was already quite anti-American, long before they had to leave. Who wants to leave their home and willingly become a refugee? There’s no guarantee of a future, there’s no infrastructure where you going, and you’re literally leaving all of your life, all of your history, all of your memories, behind.

Most of the people I spoke with had to leave everything. You can’t decide, well, I’m going to leave, so I’m going to sell my house in Baghdad. It’s not like there’s a housing market there. It’s an exodus. People are leaving their houses full of furniture, they’re leaving their pets, they’re leaving cars, they’re leaving most of their belongings at home.

To reach that point where they’re willing to make that decision to just leave, they long before lost faith in anything the United States was going to do regarding their country.

It’s disconcerting, because even a couple years into the occupation, when I was in Baghdad, people would still make the distinction between the government of the United States and the people.

But people don’t really make that distinction anymore. They see what happened in 2004. From what most of them know, there was a legitimate election in the U.S., and Bush was re-elected, so the majority of the people must support him. That compounded with what’s happened in their country, and there’s really nothing but broad anti-American sentiment now.

ER: So the idea of the U.S. waging a “war on terror” is completely discredited.

DJ: Nobody really ever bought that. Just about everyone in the Middle East is so much more politically astute and aware than the average person here. They’ve been living with U.S. and Israeli policy making their lives miserable for decades.

When you talk to people in Iraq, or coming out, the most common thing you hear is: “Who’s the terrorist now? We’re the ones being terrorized. We’re the ones who are having to flee our homes. We’re living in terror because of this U.S. policy, so you tell us who the terrorist is.”

They’ve heard the propaganda, and they know it all too well. That’s what was used to justify the invasion and occupation, so Iraqis are real quick to spin that around, and ask who the terrorist really is.

ER: IN YOUR description of the Middle East, there seems to be two competing tendencies — of people uniting in opposition to U.S. imperialism and Israeli violence, but also the divide-and-conquer tactics of the U.S. stoking a sectarian civil war, and driving people apart. How do you think the pendulum is swinging now?

DJ: When we talk about sectarianism, it’s important to remember that the primary cause is the occupation. There are differences between Shia and Sunni, and there have been tensions between them in the past, but there’s never been civil war in Iraq. There’s never been instances of Shia attacking Sunni or vice versa simply because these are different sects of Islam.

The conflict has been propagated, fostered and sponsored by the occupation forces. It’s well documented that the death squads in Iraq were being set up under U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte. And the same policies continue to this day — so soldiers of the Shia Badr Brigade militia or Kurdish peshmerga militia members are sent into Falluja to fight against a primarily Sunni resistance.

We can’t leave that out of the mix when we talk about the civil war that’s happening in Iraq. I would argue confidently that when you take the U.S. factor out of that equation, there will be ongoing bloodshed and chaos in Iraq, but Iraqis would have a legitimate chance of sorting things out and working things out politically.

As long as the U.S. is there pulling strings behind the scenes and supporting a puppet government that doesn’t represent Iraqis on the ground, then there will be no peace.

As we speak, there are groups working together that are representing Sunni, Shia, Kurdish, Turkamen, Christian and secular trends — there are groups trying to make this happen. But these attempts won’t have any broad national support across Iraq, because the U.S. won’t allow it. The occupation depends on pitting these groups against one another and maintaining the divisions — deepening them and widening them.

That’s another solid argument one could make about why the occupation has to end sooner rather than later. Because until it does end, there won’t be a chance for a unified Iraq.

Eric Ruder writes for Socialist Worker where this article first appeared. Thanks to Alan Maass. Read other articles by Eric, or visit Eric's website.

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  1. Kim Petersen said on May 23rd, 2007 at 10:02pm #

    Dahr is great, but he might be more careful and accurate with his terminology — rather than seizing upon the terminology of the imperialists. In this interview, he says, “So you can imagine that the sentiment toward the United States was already quite anti-American, long before they had to leave.” In another instance, he says, “That compounded with what’s happened in their country, and there’s really nothing but broad anti-American sentiment now.”

    First, the term “anti-American” is used in a most biased manner. Dahr does not refer to the “anti-Arabism” of US-sponsored or direct aggression against Arabs. Second, it seems absurd to expect “pro-American” sentiments from victims of US aggression. Third, to the extent that there is ill will against US imperialism, the term “anti-American” is very broad, general, and imprecise. I submit “anti-occupation” or “anti-imperialism” are much more precise descriptions of what Arabs are feeling, as opposed to the wide-tarring “anti-American.”