Iraq: The Ignored Victims

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B. Heger/UNHCR
Children playing in a neighborhood populated mostly by Iraqi refugees, Damascus, Syria, August 2007

President Obama announced on August 31 that the main force of US troops had left Iraq, leaving about 50,000 Americans to help maintain the peace and support the Iraqi army and police. This was good news for American servicemen, their families, and the nation. But this departure should not be accompanied by a withdrawal of our support for the Iraqi people, particularly the millions of Iraqis who have fled their homes and who continue to live in limbo both inside Iraq and in other countries. During a recent mission to observe the situation of these displaced Iraqis, this reality became painfully clear to me.

The humanitarian consequences of this seven-year war on Iraqi civilians are too often unreported. Since 2003, 2.5 million Iraqis have fled the country, mainly to Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, while another two million have been dislocated inside Iraq, many of whom are now living in makeshift camps on the outskirts of Baghdad and other cities. Neighboring countries have by and large been willing to allow in fleeing Iraqis, though often without offering them any legal status; and this influx has created severe strains on their own populations and resources. To be fair, the international community, led by the United States, has provided basic assistance to these Iraqis and a small number have been resettled in third countries, including in the US and Europe, but a long-term solution to this mass displacement has been elusive.

Of the Iraqi refugees I visited in Jordan, for example, many lived in small apartments already occupied by one or more families, with their savings almost depleted, with no legal residency, and with little hope for long-term employment in the host country. Some families have been forced to send their children to work as domestic help during the day, keeping them out of school and leaving them vulnerable to exploitation.

More and more Iraqi girls and boys have become subject to human trafficking and child prostitution. One young woman, a victim of sexual violence, told me of the pain of being ostracized by her family, who held her responsible for having become a victim. Nearly everyone I met expressed a fear of returning to their former homes in Iraq—if in fact their homes were not already taken over by others—particularly now that the US troops are leaving.

Moreover, the international community has been reducing its support, not increasing it as it should. The United States has maintained its level of funding, but has not raised it sufficiently to meet current needs. This year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the agency charged with responding to the refugee crisis, says it is 25 percent short of the nearly $700 million necessary to meet projected requirements. According to a recent report, “So far, resettlement countries have admitted fewer than half the 80,000 [Iraqi] cases referred by UNHCR. The vast majority …

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