Iraq’s refugee crisis is nearing catastrophe


Financial Times

Published: February 9 2007

Nobody in the world with access to a television can be in any doubt that the US-led invasion of Iraq four years ago has been a disaster. What they, and we, are much less aware of is that it has already produced the worst refugee crisis in the Middle East since the mass exodus of Palestinians that was part of the violent birth of the state of Israel in 1948. And what we should all be scandalised by is how little the two countries most responsible for the Iraq misadventure – the US and the UK – are doing to alleviate this crisis.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, about 2m Iraqis have fled the country and 1.8m have been displaced within Iraq since the invasion of March 2003.

The descent into anarchy, with militias, insurgents and bandits in control of roads, borders and swaths of territory, followed by sectarian warfare that now claims about 1,000 lives a week, has led to a desperate mass migration – principally to neighbouring Jordan and Syria – and the even more desperate internal dislocations caused by ethnosectarian slaughter. One out of every seven Iraqis has been uprooted. By the end of this year, on current trends, that figure will be one in five.

António Guterres, former prime minister of Portugal and head of the UNHCR, says “we are facing a humanitarian disaster”. He is currently touring the Middle East to sound the alarm and raise an extra $60m in emergency funds. This is equivalent to what the Pentagon spends every five hours on an occupation that cannot establish security and a reconstruction effort that can barely turn on the lights.

Jordan, with about 1m Iraqis, and Syria with slightly fewer, are overwhelmed. Yet the US has budgeted a mere $500,000 this year to aid Iraqi refugees, of whom it has accepted precisely 466. Britain is little better.

Partly, the two main perpetrators of this catastrophe cannot bring themselves to admit failure. Iraqis fleeing Saddam Hussein were in the past well received. Now, however, the view is that liberated Iraqis should be building their nation and democracy – and admitting them to our countries is deemed a security risk.

For the refugees, moreover, even neighbouring borders are now being closed; and a stupid decision in Baghdad to withdraw old passports has left hundreds of thousands undocumented.

The US on Monday announced a task force on Iraq refugees. It is to be hoped this is more than a committee. For it is the moral duty of those who are ultimately responsible for this state of affairs to do three things immediately.

The UNHCR needs serious money now, for services Iraq’s neighbours cannot provide. Many of those now fleeing are trapped inside Iraq’s borders as sitting ducks and must be protected. The US and UK should reconsider their refugee admission policies since, without their foreign policies, these people would not be refugees.