A Tale of 10 Post-its: The depressing fate of Iraqi refugees

Slate on June 20, 2007 published the following article by International Rescue Committee senior policy adviser Anna Husarska.

BEIRUT, Lebanon—While politicians, generals, and columnists debate the surge in troop numbers in Iraq, another surge is being largely ignored—that of Iraqi refugees.

Recently, I toured the Middle East talking to these refugees to determine what the humanitarian community can do to alleviate the situation. As I look through my notebooks, I realize that my tour generated a very scary collection of Post-its.

These Post-its are not everyday "to-do" lists, they are records of the depressing fate of the 2 million Iraqis who have fled their homeland and are now scattered around Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and Lebanon. Their situation is difficult and volatile—most of them receive no humanitarian help of any kind. Almost all of them have used up whatever savings they had and overstayed whatever visa they had. They do not have work permits in any of these countries, nor access to health care, and only those in Syria can send their children to public schools. Most risk being arrested and deported, and because of the complicated political situation in the Middle East, their ethnicity may sometimes be unwelcome, if they are an "enemy minority" in their new host country, which is the case for Shiites in predominantly Sunni Jordan and Syria, and for Sunnis in Lebanon, where Shiites are half of the total population.

One Post-it, from Beirut, contains five names written in Arabic script, and next to them my notes: ''shot,'' four times; ''beheaded,'' once. The source was an Iraqi Shiite security guard, now a refugee, describing the fate of his colleagues who worked with the U.S. military.

Another Post-it has a question that I needed to ask discreetly of a woman in Istanbul. The note, in Arabic, asked, ''Were you beaten or raped?'' I saw the answer in her face: the latter.

In Damascus, on yet another yellow sticky, I scribbled the translation of a note that a Christian electrician, now a refugee, received just a week before his brother was murdered. ''To a dollar slave,'' it said. ''We will chop off heads.''

In Amman, Jordan, I wrote down the words adu wahed (''one enemy''). This was the expression that an Iraqi Shiite used as he told a translator why, though he felt ''some fear,'' he had lived in safety under Saddam Hussein. Now, he said, there are many enemies, and he didn't know where the danger lay. So he fled, because he feared for his six children.

Yet another note has "al-Qaida" spelled out in Latin and Arabic script—an Iraqi Sunni civil engineer was explaining who had kidnapped him.

All the refugees whose fates are reflected in my Post-its fit the priority criteria used by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees: They are survivors of violence or torture, women at risk, members of targeted minority groups, persons with legal and physical protection needs, and—a category specifically created for this population—"Iraqis who [were targeted and] fled as a result of their association with ... Multi National Force, Coalition Provisional Authority, UN, foreign countries, international and foreign institutions or companies and members of the press."

None of the refugees I met have any chance of being integrated into the countries where I met them, and none have any intention of returning to Iraq anytime soon. Their only hope is to reach a third country.

The one hopeful sign I find in my notes is that most of the refugees I interviewed had relatives abroad. Next to their names, I would take down the phone number of a family member in the United States, Canada, Australia, or Europe. But how to get there? None of these places (with the shining exception of Sweden) is opening its doors very wide, some not at all.

So far, the international community's response to the massive exodus from Iraq has been unsatisfactory. In the four years since the invasion of Iraq, only 3,183 Iraqis have been resettled worldwide. The United States, which resettled just 202 Iraqis in 2006 (and just 70 in the eight months through May 2007), has set a bad example, though Washington has said it intends to accept up to 7,000 Iraqis this year.

Many Iraqis doubt that the refugee resettlement program will ever help them, and they try to make their way illegally to a country that might offer asylum.

But applying for asylum can be costly. Several refugees told me they are trying to gather the $25,000 per person they would have to pay to be smuggled from the Middle East into a European country. (The United States, Canada, and Australia are too distant to make the illegal trip affordable.)

Still, this is often viewed as the best bet. While resettlement figures for Iraqis worldwide dropped from the meager 672 in 2005 to the pitiful 404 in 2006, asylum applications by Iraqis in industrialized countries almost doubled, from 12,500 in 2005 to 22,200 in 2006, according to UNHCR statistics.

Sweden, with 8,950 cases, had almost half of the applications (and took a generous 91 percent of them). The Netherlands ranked second in the number of applications (2,765) but offered protection to only 25 percent. Denmark offered protection to only 3 percent of applicants, while Germany, which had 2,000 applications for asylum, gave positive resolution to only 11 percent of the cases.

A rejected asylum application doesn't necessarily mean deportation; Iraqis are often left in a legal and social limbo. But some countries go further and revoke refugee status or even proceed to forcibly deport Iraqis, albeit to the northern, Kurdish part of the country. The UNHCR advisory on conditions in Iraq recommends that Iraqi asylum seekers should not be forcibly returned to southern or central Iraq and that no one should be returned to a situation of internal displacement (i.e., into the Kurdish north).

As long as Iraq continues to be unstable and unsafe, there will be more people with a "well-founded fear of persecution" fleeing. Whether it is by resettling refugees, by granting asylum, or by assisting displaced Iraqis in their temporary homes across the Middle East, the "outside world" must do more. The latest data released by UNHCR on June 19, the eve of World Refugee Day, shows that for the first time in five years, the number of refugees is up worldwide. This reversal is overwhelmingly due to the flight of almost 2 million Iraqis.