The situation for Iraqi refugees in the Middle East continues to deteriorate, while the scale of the crisis continues to dwarf the international response. As the number of displaced Iraqis has reached an unprecedented level - more than 4.5 million - Iraq's neighbors have increased restrictions on the refugees. These restrictions are at least partially a response to the lack of support received from the United States and other donor governments, as well as the government of Iraq itself, to lessen the tremendous burden that the host countries are assuming.
Given the humanitarian needs of the displaced and the risk of regional destabilization in the Middle East, the United States must demonstrate more concretely and more vigorously than it has to date that the displacement crisis is of paramount concern. The U.S. must engage at all levels with the countries of the region, including Syria, and must also lead donor efforts to provide bilateral and multilateral assistance to support host countries in dealing with these large influxes. The United Nations has an important role to play as well, and needs to improve its overall response and coordination mechanisms.
1. Engaging at All Levels
Iraqi refugees in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon are facing political obstacles to receiving basic assistance. Pre-existing security and political policies of the host governments are impeding the humanitarian response. In Lebanon, the history of internal sectarian violence, as well as Lebanon's stated policy of not serving as an asylum country, has led the government to deny Iraqis any rights or access to services. In Egypt, internal concerns over mass poverty among its citizens and rampant unemployment have resulted in a policy of indifference to the needs of Iraqi refugees, who are misperceived as wealthy compared to the majority of Egyptians.
United States political support and diplomatic initiative in responding to the assistance needs of Iraqi refugees remains conspicuously absent. Three of the four primary host countries have close ties to the United States government, yet coordinating an effective large-scale response to the crisis from these allies in the region is not on its Middle East political agenda. Meanwhile, U.S. diplomatic relations with Syria remain estranged even while Syria has played a positive role in hosting the largest number of Iraqi refugees. The U.S. government and other donors have also failed to approach the Arab League on the issue, forcing the institution to resort to a televised campaign to gather funds to respond to the needs of the displaced. Finally, the absence of a regional, senior-level representative from the U.S. State Department Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration gives the impression that the U.S. government does not take the refugee issue seriously.
2. Improving Protection for Iraqi Refugees
Sectarian violence within Iraq continues to force Iraqi civilians to seek refuge in surrounding countries and has prevented the return of Iraqis already living abroad. Fewer refugees are actually able to leave Iraq, and Iraqis are increasingly finding themselves with nowhere to go. Syria has imposed visa restrictions on Iraqis crossing the border at the request of the Government of Iraq. Furthermore, Iraqi refugees increasingly in need of protection are often not able to get it in countries of first asylum. As the number of Iraqis who fled their homes reached unprecedented levels, Iraq's neighbors, overwhelmed and concerned about their own stability, have started imposing a variety of measures and restrictions on refugees. In some cases, Iraqi refugees have resorted to paying smugglers to reach safety, and in other cases Iraqi families are separated by cumbersome visa restrictions. In an effort to crack down on Iraqis in Lebanon illegally, the Lebanese government has taken to detaining Iraqis, placing them in jail with common criminals. Additionally, reports are emerging of Iraqis being strongly encouraged to return to Iraq from Syria. Meanwhile, in all three countries, Iraqis traumatized by the violence and fearing deportation sometimes avoid registration with UN agencies and other service providers, leaving them increasingly vulnerable to detention and to a worsening humanitarian situation.
3. Meeting Humanitarian Needs
According to an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) study conducted last June, at least 25% of Iraqis living in Syria are in need of a broad range of humanitarian assistance. NGOs in all countries report that the humanitarian situation of the refugee population is rapidly deteriorating. Yet Iraqis across the region face the misperception that they are financially capable of supporting themselves, while being hosted by governments concerned about the economic burden placed on ministries and agencies providing basic services. Iraqi refugees in Syria who are receiving assistance are receiving much of it through the Syrian ministries of Education and Health, as well as through the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, an official government agency. The Syrian government insists that the Syrian Arab Red Crescent oversee all humanitarian response, but the agency is overwhelmed by the needs and lacks the necessary capacity. The refugees are putting a great strain on an overburdened system, and it is clear that the existing health and education infrastructure is insufficient to meet the needs of the Iraqis. In Egypt, Iraqis are struggling to obtain basic services as the Egyptian government has not allowed access to public systems and international NGOs cannot expand their work to Iraqis.
Throughout the region, delays in fully funding UN and other multilateral appeals, as well as the lack of earmarked bilateral assistance, are leaving Iraqis in desperate need of food assistance, education and health services. Access to mental health support is practically nonexistent and badly needed for a highly traumatized population.
4. Improving UN Response and Coordination
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has taken the lead in responding to Iraqi refugee needs in all affected countries. Other agencies have recently started planning and implementing programs, but the response remains insufficient. In Lebanon, UNHCR remains the only UN agency that is actively responding to needs, but it requires support. In Syria and Egypt, different appeals have been submitted by various UN organizations, many of which were issued with little coordination and consultation within the UN country team. In all countries, the UN resident representatives have not taken a strong role in ensuring that the overall response is coordinated and that appeals are funded by donors. This has resulted in some UN agencies having all their budgetary needs met while others are paralyzed by lack of funding.
5. Improving Resettlement Processes
Despite the US government's promise to resettle 7,000 Iraqi refugees in FY 07, only 1,608 were admitted by September 30; only 450 were admitted in October towards an FY 08 goal of 12,000. UNHCR has referred 12,607 cases to the U.S., and will continue to refer more in the future. Until now, the processes have been unforgivably slow, leading to large numbers of vulnerable Iraqis becoming more destitute as they anxiously wait for their interviews or final approval. In particular, UNHCR is extremely concerned about the limited numbers of slots available for medical cases. With the U.S. Refugee Coordinator for the region based in Cairo and in charge of 15 countries, the U.S. lacks the human resources needed to improve its response and reach its resettlement targets.
1. The U.S. immediately appoint a senior PRM official to be based in the region and charged with coordinating both the assistance and resettlement components of its response;
2. The U.S. immediately appoint an ambassador level diplomat to be based in Syria;
3. The U.S. and other donors provide earmarked bilateral assistance to countries hosting large numbers of Iraqi refugees, either directly or through a Trust Fund established by the UN or the Arab League;
4. The U.S. fund all pending UN appeals at a level of 50% or more;
5. The UN country teams make responding to Iraqi refugees needs a priority, with the UN resident representatives acting as coordinators of the overall national UN response and as liaisons with the diplomatic and donor communities.
Advocates Kristele Younes and Jake Kurtzer just returned from a one-month assessment of conditions for Iraqi refugees in Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt.