Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The human cost of the war in Iraq

The humanitarian aspect of the war in Iraq was the topic of discussion at Georgetown University Wednesday as the University commerated Iraq Remembrance Week. Dr. Susan Martin, the director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University, introduced four panelists, who each highlighted different aspects of the severity of the humanitarian crisis in Iraq as a result of the war. Each panelist also discussed various approaches to assistance.

Roberta Cohen, of the Brookings Institution, began the discussion with an overview of the relationship between the ongoing sectarian violence and displacement. Extremist groups are driving out Iraqis, essentially creating a “de facto ethnic segregation,” Cohen said, since those fleeing their homes are relocating to areas where they are part of an ethnic majority. The extremist groups, both Sunni and Shia affiliated – with Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army at the forefront – use threats, violence and discrimination to keep asylum seekers from considering returning home, according to Cohen, and resort to gruesome tactics, such as sewing dog heads on corpses, to do so.

Estimates indicate that roughly1.9 million Iraqis have been displaced in all. More than 700,000 of those have been internally displaced since the February 2006 bombings in Samarra, Cohen said. With Red Crescent assistance, about 4,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) currently reside in government-run improvised shelters.

Adam Shapiro, a human rights advocate and independent filmmaker, addressed the estimated 15,000 Palestinian refugees who have been living in Iraq since the onset of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 1948. Since 2003, the Iraqi government has been unwilling to grant long-term residency permits to the Palestinians, instead forcing them to update their permits on a monthly basis. Many, however, refuse to do so, since Palestinians, who are considered an outsider group by many Iraqis, Sunni and Shia alike, are often kidnapped and targeted for attack on the basis of their national identity by the Badr militia, Shapiro said.

The vast majority of these Palestinian refugees have attempted to flee from Iraq to neighboring countries, but are stuck in “no man’s land” at the closed Iraqi borders of Jordan and Syria, Shapiro said. Additionally, traditional resettlement countries have accepted very few Palestinian refugees from Iraq. Governments are hesitant to assist the group due to the political implications of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and association with a Hamas-led government, according to Shapiro. The group also does not fall under the care of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, as they reside outside of the limitations of the agency.

Wendy Young, of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Washington Regional Office, referred to the situation as the “largest refugee crisis since the Palestinians in 1948” with every 1 in 8 Iraqis being displaced or having fled the country, resulting in 40,000-50,000 individuals displaced each month. Iraqi IDPs face a plethora of challenges, Young said. More than 100 Iraqis are killed and 200 to 500 are injured each day, 80 percent of Iraqi doctors have abandoned their professions, more than 50 percent of the population is unemployed, inflation is above 70 percent, 75 percent of Iraqi children no longer attend school, and 70 percent of all Iraqis lack access to clean water.

As the last panelist to speak, Larry Bartlett, the deputy director of the Office of Assistance for Asia and the Near East with the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, focused on steps the U.S. has already taken to provide humanitarian assistance. The U.S. must continue to ensure the preservation of first country asylum, he said, meaning that a refugee should be able to seek asylum in the first country s/he enters after leaving Iraq, rather than having to continue on to an additional country. This requires an assurance from the governments of Jordan, Syria and Egypt to keep their borders open and permit Iraqi asylum seekers access to schools and other basic services.

Bartlett’s second point was that the U.S. will continue to fund programs for vulnerable Iraqis through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), various international organizations and nongovernmental organizations. The U.S. has allocated one third of their funding for UNHCR’s appeal. Bartlett made clear, however, that the State Department believes efforts should be multi-lateral, as other countries should make substantial contribute to the appeal.

The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program grants entry to the largest number of asylum seekers worldwide, Barlett said. While the number of Iraqi refugees permitted to resettle in the U.S. thus far has been minimal, by the end of the year 7,000 additional refugees should be resettled in the U.S. Bartlett acknowledged that the program is a “work in progress” and “will never be a primary solution to the problem.”

In addressing proposed solutions, Cohen specifically called on the U.S. government to increase its financial assistance to UNHCR and to increase the number of Iraqi refugees to be resettled in the U.S., due to the “special obligation” that accompanies the U.S. role in the conflict. She also mentioned that proposed ethnic partitions of Iraq could result in a view that the international community is facilitating ethnic cleansing. Shapiro urged all members of the audience to pressure their Congressional representatives to grant the State Department the funds needed for additional assistance.

UNHCR recently issued a $60 million appeal. Once those funds are received, an additional appeal will be issued. One third of all of these funds will go towards IDP protection. Additionally, durable UNHCR solutions will focus on resettlement to third countries and reintegration into the countries refugees have entered to seek asylum, since repatriation is “not feasible” due to security concerns, according to Young. Set to refer 20,000 refugees for third country resettlement by the end of the year, UNHCR will concentrate on 11 categories of vulnerable individuals, including religious minorities, unaccompanied children, and high profile individuals such as journalists and contractors for Western companies/governments.

The severity of the humanitarian conflict, which was vividly highlighted by each panelist, is undeniable. Though steps have been taken towards progress, the proposed solutions still fall well short of all that is needed to reduce the human cost of war in Iraq.


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