Iraqi refugees: Plan for ongoing support in an unstable region

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Two million Iraqi refugees are increasingly desperate and few of them are willing to return home. Although the United Nations and donor governments have dramatically increased their response to Iraqi refugees' needs, these efforts must be expanded as refugees are increasingly vulnerable due to depleting assets and rising costs. Helping host countries is also essential and donor governments must fund appeals for the drought response in Syria and for resettlement of Palestinians from Iraq. To enhance regional stability and to give Iraqis the support they need to consider returning home, the international community must develop medium- and long-term assistance plans for refugees and host countries.

Support the Host Countries on Multiple Fronts

Iraq's neighbors must be recognized and supported for continuing to provide refuge to hundreds of thousands of people seeking safety. High unemployment and the global food crisis, in addition to the presence of large numbers of Iraqis and Palestinians, place severe stress on the infrastructure in the region. As a result of the economic conditions, Iraqi refugees in Syria and Lebanon have depleted their savings while facing increasing prices and exploitative, unstable work. Fuel is more expensive, rent has skyrocketed, and the cost of food is higher, especially in Syria due to a severe drought. Country-specific concerns such as the drought in Syria and the political talks in Lebanon add additional pressures on the host communities. For the stability of the region and to maintain asylum space, the international community must support the host countries as they continue to provide refuge to Iraqis.

Due to the worst drought in 40 years, Syria lost more than half of its food production. The content of the food basket subsidized by the Syrian Government at an annual cost of 8 billion dollars has been cut. In addition, herders have been forced to sell their animals at a fraction of the value and people are paying increased prices for their daily food needs. The World Food Program issued a $20 million emergency appeal to respond to the drought in Syria, yet funding commitments from donor governments have not materialized. The paltry response from donors thus far is a strategic mistake, as the impoverishment of Syrians could contribute to instability and trigger frustration with Iraqis, for whom UN appeals are well-funded. The fact that Jordan has received generous bilateral assistance from the U.S. and other donors, whereas Syria is the country dealing with the largest number of Iraqis, is also a source of frustration for the Syrians.

The U.S. and other western governments must help share the burden by increasing resettlement of Iraqis to relieve pressure on Syrian and Lebanese infrastructure. A small number of Palestinians from Iraq who live in horrific conditions along the Iraqi-Syrian border should be immediately resettled and provided with a path to citizenship. Donors should commit immediately to funding the Resettlement Service Flash Appeal for Palestinians so as to relieve the suffering of the people along the border, as well as send a positive message of solidarity to the region.

While providing financial assistance and resettlement are critical actions by donor governments, political engagement in the region is equally important. The recent U.S. military raid on the Iraqi-Syrian border underscores the necessity to engage Syria on Iraq-related issues. The U.S. should have an ambassador in Syria, as well as a full-time representative of the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. In addition, the U.S. and other governments must raise concerns about Iraqi refugees during bilateral talks with the Government of Lebanon and ensure that the issue is a priority for Lebanon and the diplomatic community.