Overview of numbers and conditions of Iraqi refugees in the Middle East and internally displaced persons in Iraq

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has warned that a war in Iraq could lead to the flight of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees.=A0 There are, however, already hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees outside their country, and a review of their current conditions suggests that Iraqis who flee if there is a new war may encounter hostile receptions and difficult conditions.
More than 300,000 Iraqis who fled persecution in their homeland are living as refugees in neighboring countries.=A0 Another 300,000 Iraqis who may have left Iraq for similar reasons are also living in these countries without refugee status.=A0 In recent years, some 30,000 Iraqis have applied for asylum in Europe every year.=A0 European countries deny a majority of those claims.=A0 The United States granted asylum to about 71 percent of Iraqi asylum seekers (some 4,400 cases) between 1991 and 2001.=A0 As many as 700,000 Iraqis are displaced within Iraq.

Iraqi refugees generally endure harsh conditions and many are at risk in the countries where they have sought refuge.=A0 Some countries bordering Iraq prevent=A0 Iraqi refugees from entering and detain some who manage to enter.=A0 Jordan and Syria have rounded up and returned Iraqi refugees to probable imprisonment and maybe death in Iraq, while Lebanon has deported Iraqi refugees to other neighboring countries.

Following is an overview of conditions for Iraqi refugees in various countries of asylum and for internally displaced persons in Iraq.

IRAN:=A0 Iran hosts some 203,000 Iraqi refugees. Iraqi refugees, like Afghans, are dispersed throughout the country, although they, too, are concentrated in areas bordering their homeland.=A0 Most have been in Iran since the 1980s, and many were expelled from Iraq purportedly for being of Iranian ancestry.=A0 Iraqi Shi'a Arabs congregate along Iran's southwestern border, while Iraqi Kurds are mostly in the northwest.

The Iranian government has been increasingly intolerant of refugees and immigrants, many of whom have lived in Iran for nearly two decades.=A0 Citing high unemployment, the government has set several deadlines in recent years for refugees to leave the country, generally declined to register new arrivals from Afghanistan and Iraq as refugees, attempted to round up and confine refugees to camps, and deported many summarily.

SAUDI ARABIA:=A0 Following the 1991 Gulf War, more than 90,000 Iraqis who participated in a U.S.-encouraged uprising against Saddam Hussein that Hussein's forces brutally crushed sought refuge with coalition forces in the occupied zone of southern Iraq.=A0 Some 33,000 were moved to camps in Saudi Arabia, from where most were eventually resettled to other countries, including the United States.

The vast majority of the approximately 5,200 Iraqis still living in the one remaining camp, Rafha camp, are ethnic Arab Shi'a Muslims, primarily from urban areas and the marshes of southern Iraq.=A0 Although Saudi Arabia provides health care, air cooling in living quarters, and primary and secondary schooling, Rafha remains a closed, prison-like camp.=A0 Saudi authorities prohibit refugees from leaving the camp, which is located in a highly militarized zone. Saudi soldiers regularly patrol the camp in armed vehicles and strictly enforce a nightly curfew.=A0 Many of the refugees exhibit increasing signs of strain and frustration, resulting from their confinement in the camp and the poor prospects for resettlement or repatriation.

Iraqi refugee women suffer disproportionately from the restrictions Saudi Arabia place on them; Saudi authorities allow women to move about the camp only when fully veiled and in the presence of a male escort.=A0 About one-quarter of the Rafha camp population are children under the age of nine who have known nothing but life in the camp.=A0

In June 2001, 40 refugees held a hunger strike and about 200 others demonstrated in the camp to demand a resumption of resettlement from Rafha, which had been terminated in 1997. Although reports alleged Saudi mistreatment of some demonstrators, the reports could not be independently confirmed.=A0 UNHCR considers the Iraqi refugees in Rafha camp as one of its highest priority groups worldwide in need of third-country resettlement, but have had little success persuading the United States to offer resettlement to the remaining Rafha refugees.

UNHCR does not promote repatriation to Iraq because Iraq refuses to ensure the safety of the returning refugees and restricts access to them.=A0 There have been unconfirmed reports that the Iraqi authorities have arrested and detained some Iraqis who did repatriate from Rafha.=A0 Other returnees reportedly disappeared or died under mysterious circumstances.

JORDAN:=A0 Estimates of the number of Iraqis living in Jordan range from 200,000 to 350,000. It is unclear how many are refugees. UNHCR recognizes only some 1,100 Iraqi refugees in Jordan, although some 4,000 Iraqis have asylum applications pending.=A0

Iraqis often enter Jordan legally on Iraqi passport, which they can procure in Iraq by paying bribes.=A0 They canremain in Jordan legally for up to six months, after which they must either return to Iraq or depart to a third country to renew their visa.=A0 Other Iraqis slip across the border into Jordan clandestinely.=A0 The Jordanian government generally allows persons with refugee claims pending with UNCHR to remain in the country until they receive a decision and are resettled abroad, but this treatment only applies to official asylum seekers and to recognized refugees.=A0 Discouraged by long waits for interview dates and UNHCR's low rates of approval, the overwhelming majority of Iraqis in Jordan have not approached the refugee agency.=A0 While UNHCR provides modest assistance to Iraqis and others whom the agency recognizes as refugees, the broader population of Iraqis receives little to no assistance.

During a November 2001 site visit to Jordan, the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) found that many Iraqis are among the poorest in Jordanian society, eking out meager existences in jobs such as street vendors.=A0 They live in overcrowded and sometimes unsanitary conditions, lack basic health care, and education, and some experience malnutrition.

There have been reports of the Jordanian authorities deporting hundreds of Iraqi nationals residing illegally in Jordan. It is unclear if any of the deportees were refugees or had claims pending with UNHCR.=A0 Iraqi government agents reportedly operate in Jordan, contributing to a climate of insecurity and unease for many Iraqis.

SYRIA:=A0 Some 1,600 UNHCR-registered Iraqi refugees are in Syria. As many as 40,000 Iraqi nationals not registered with UNHCR live in Syria, many of whom may be refugees. In June 2001, Syria amended its admission and residence procedures for citizens of Arab countries generally, and for Iraqis specifically.=A0 Whereas Syria previously had allowed nationals of Arab countries (except Iraqis) to reside indefinitely in the country without applying for a residence permit, the new regulation required Arab-country nationals to apply for, and renew, a residence permit every three months. The regulation also rescinded the prior requirement that had obliged Iraqis to obtain a security clearance from the Syrian authorities to enter and remain in the country.=A0 Syria reportedly refouled between 180 and 300 Iraqis to northern Iraq in December 2001.=A0 The Iraqis had originally sought refuge in Lebanon, which deported them to Syria.

LEBANON:=A0 There are some 1,900 Iraqi refugees in Lebanon.=A0 Other Iraqis have pending asylum claims.=A0 The situation of Iraqi refugees in Lebanon is precarious.=A0 The Lebanese authorities routinely arrest, detain, and deport undocumented foreigners, including Iraqi asylum seekers and refugees.=A0 On December 22, 2001, Lebanon deported between 180 and 300 Iraqi nationals to Syria, including UNHCR-registered refugees and asylum seekers.=A0 Syria, in turn, deported them to northern Iraq.

The Surete Generale, responsible for border control, reportedly detains hundreds of foreigners pending deportation-mostly Iraqis, Sudanese, Egyptians, and Sri Lankans-in poor conditions. There have been credible allegations that Lebanese authorities mistreat these detainees.

TURKEY:=A0 Turkey hosts some 600 recognized Iraqi refugees, though other Iraqis have asylum claims pending. The Turkish authorities had a 78 percent approval rate for Iraqi asylum seekers in 2001.=A0 Turkish border authorities routinely arrest, detained, and deport undocumented foreigners attempting to cross into Turkey from Iraq and other countries. In 2001, the government reported apprehending about 94,000 people attempting to cross its borders without proper documents. The migrants came from a wide range of countries, including Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh.

The overwhelming majority of asylum seekers and refugees in Turkey do not receive assistance.=A0 Most are destitute, living on the margins of Turkish society. The only durable solution for recognized Iraqi refugees is resettlement to a third country.

INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS IN IRAQ:=A0 There are about 700,000 internally displaced persons in Iraq.=A0 A majority of the displaced, some 600,000, are in the three northern governorates of Dohuk, Erbil, and Suleymaniyah.=A0 They include not only long-term internally displaced persons and persons displaced by Kurdish factional infighting, but also at least 100,000 persons, mostly Kurds, Assyrians, and Turkomans, more recently expelled from central-government-controlled Kirkuk and surrounding districts in the oil-rich region bordering the Kurdish-controlled north.=A0 Many of the displaced reportedly still live in tents or in open, unheated public buildings and remained dependent on humanitarian assistance.=A0 At least another 100,000 persons are internally displaced elsewhere in Iraq, mostly in the southeastern marshlands.=A0

Baghdad continues its systematic efforts to "Arabize" the predominantly Kurdish districts of Kirkuk, Khanaqin, and Sinjar at the edge of government-controlled Iraq near the Kurdish-controlled zone.=A0 To solidify control of this strategically and economically vital oil-rich region, the government expels Kurds, Assyrians, and Turkomans-at times, entire communities-from these cities and surrounding areas.=A0 At the same time, the government offers financial and housing incentives to Sunni Arabs to persuade them to move to Kirkuk, Mosul, and other cities targeted for Arabization.=A0 New Arab settlements were constructed on expropriated Kurdish land holdings.

Under the Arabization program, known as "nationality correction," the government forces ethnic minority civil servants to sign a form "correcting" their nationality.=A0 Persons who refuse to sign the forms-for example, a Kurd who declines to "correct" his nationality and list himself as an Arab rather than a Kurd-are subject to expulsion to northern Iraq or the no-fly zone in the south.

Most expellees move north to the Kurdish-controlled governorates where they often have relatives and the support of persons sharing their language and culture.=A0 However, they pay a price: those going north can not take their belongings.=A0 Few victims of internal deportation can sell their properties and belongings or receive a fair price for them in the brief time before expulsion.=A0 Kurds are forbidden to sell their homes to other Kurds or non-Arabs.=A0 The few who opt to move to predominantly Shi'a southern Iraq are permitted to take their belongings.

U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) executive director Lavinia Limón, USCR Communications Director Hiram Ruiz, and USCR policy analysts Ahmed Jabri and Michael Scott, who focus on Iraq and the Middle East, are available to provide analysis and comment on the refugee aspect of developments in Iraq.

USCR is a public information and advocacy program of Immigration and Refugee Services of America (IRSA), a nongovernmental, non-profit organization.=A0 Since 1958, USCR has defended the rights of refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced persons worldwide.

For further information:=A0Hiram Ruiz, 202/347-3507=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0=A0