Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Friday, November 16, 2007

CHRC hold briefing on Iraqi refugee crisis

The Congressional Human Rights Caucus held a briefing Thursday on “the plight of Iraqi refugees.” The panel of witnesses included representatives from the Untied Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Human Rights Watch (HRW), the United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), Refugees International, and Amnesty International.

Wendy Young of UNHCR began by saying that since the Iraqi refugee issue was last addressed by the Caucus earlier this year, the situation has just gotten worse. There are now 2.2 million internally displaced Iraqis and 2.3 million that are displaced outside of the country’s borders. Young addressed some of the problems the Iraqi refugees are facing today. First of all, the influx of refugees is putting enormous pressure on host countries that have inadequate infrastructure to meet their needs, Young said. Also, problems with obtaining visas have left many refugees unemployed. Moreover, many women and girls have resorted to prostitution and reports show that these numbers are growing.

Richard E. Scott of IOM chose to focus his testimony on the state of Iraq’s internally displaced person (IDP) camps, which he described as very crowded and dangerous, with the residents afraid for their lives. On the reasons for camp overcrowding, he said “today [the refugees] have fewer places to flee to,” referring to the fact that neighboring countries are beginning to close off their borders. Scott also said that 34 percent of IDP camp residents do not have any access to medications and that many children are forced to work because their families cannot afford to send them to school.

Media reports describing the return of many Iraqi refugees seem to suggest that the situation inside the country has improved significantly. However, Bill Frelick of Human Rights Watch gave a contrasting account. Frelick said that the refugees are really coming back because they cannot obtain work in their host countries, have exhausted their life savings and are unable to feed their children. The pressure has taken a toll on host countries, especially Jordan and Syria, which together more than 90 percent of the refugees. While the situation is difficult for these countries, Frelick said that circumstances are particularly dire for the refugees. “Now that both have closed their doors, the situation is looking especially bleak for today’s and tomorrow’s victims of war and human rights abuse inside Iraq who will have no place to seek asylum outside their country. We need to convince Jordan and Syria to reopen their doors,” he said, adding that doing so “rises to the level of a moral imperative.”

The testimony of Sarnata Reynolds of Amnesty International was along the same lines as the other speakers in that it addressed the critical circumstances of displaced Iraqi children, more than 60 percent of whom have missed at least one year of school because of work and other reasons. Reynolds said that free clinics have been set up to serve the children, but that because of a lack of funding they cannot treat severe illnesses. She also commented on America’s obligation to resolve the crisis. “The U.S. must take extraordinary steps to resolve the [refugee] situation,” Sarnata said.

Kristele Younes of Refugees International said that a major problem is the fact that there are little available resources to treat mental health patients, adding that many of these people has been victims of rape, kidnapping and other crimes. “These are things that have to be addressed immediately,” she said.

Younes also said that many families have been separated while host country borders have been closed. She made clear that as Syria has closed its borders and threatened to deport people, many refugees have no other option but to return to Iraq, and this has nothing to do with an improved security situation there. “We are not talking about victims; we are talking about highly educated people,” Younes said, adding that they now feel humiliated, as if they are nothing. Before they had families and friends and were highly regarded in their communities, she said.

Younes said that if the U.S. does not show interest and try to support other countries in the region; this massive displacement can cause problems and destabilize the region.

Lavinia Limon of USCRI spoke about the importance of U.S. assistance, saying, “the U.S. will help Iraqi refugees like every other refugee, not more not less.” She said that many think the situation now is America’s fault. “We have a responsibility,” Limon said. She also argued that the U.S. could take in more Iraqi refugees, saying: “It’s clearly a matter of will; we have done it before.”

Limon also agreed with the other witnesses on the importance of education and healthcare, but said that the primary needs are more critical, as people first need food and shelter. However, assistance efforts haven’t focused explicitly on their primary needs, because these are too difficult to meet.


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