Iraq: the Refugee Crisis Five Years On

Five years into the war in Iraq, more than two million Iraqis are refugees outside of their country, and more than two million are displaced internally but unable to flee across the borders. Iraqis have been targeted for persecution and forced from their homes for virtually every reason imaginable. Women who encouraged their peers to participate in the constitutional referendum were threatened with death and driven out of the country. Sunni families searching for the bodies of their loved ones at the morgue in Baghdad have been kidnapped and brutalized. The churches, villages, and homes of Iraqi religious and ethnic minorities have been bombed and burned down. Doctors, dentists, hairdressers, members of parliament, professors, men, women, and children have fled, abandoning property, careers, and their communities in fear.

Refugees in the region and internally displaced persons (IDPs) inside Iraq urgently need humanitarian assistance, but the U.N. refugee agency may have to start cutting its assistance programs in June because the international community has failed to respond to its appeal for $261 million. According to the United Nations, up to 100,000 of the most vulnerable refugees urgently need resettlement, but the United States—the global leader in refugee resettlement—has committed to taking only 12,000 this year.

Perhaps worst of all, for Iraqis today, fleeing their country is no longer an option. It is a principle of international law that refugees not be turned back at the border. Jordan—a very small country—allowed some 500,000 Iraqis to enter, but began imposing restrictions in 2005 and effectively closed the border in January 2007. Syria kept its border open until October 2007, but now imposes a strict visa regime that excludes many refugees. Both countries have been overwhelmed and dismayed at the international community’s failure to share responsibility for the crisis.

On the fifth anniversary of the war, Human Rights First calls on the international community to fully fund the U.N. refugee agency’s appeal for Iraqi refugees and to provide bilateral assistance to countries hosting Iraqi refugees. We also ask President Bush to acknowledge the refugee crisis publicly and direct his agencies to take the lead in providing resettlement to the most vulnerable Iraqis and humanitarian aid to refugees and IDPs.

Human Rights First would also like to share the stories of three Iraqis we interviewed in Amman, Jordan, in September. The refugees’ names have been changed for their protection.

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Sami, a father of three and a Sunni Muslim, fled Iraq after an assassination attempt against him and a mortar attack on his home.

“The Jaish al Mehdi began to wage war against the other militias in my neighborhood. On March 17, 2007, a mortar round hit our home. My younger daughters were playing in the yard. Hana was killed immediately. Yasmin, who is 10, was hit by the explosion. Her body is full of shrapnel now. She’s blind in one eye, and paralyzed below the waist. I couldn’t get any help from the government hospitals in Iraq because we are Sunni, so we fled to Jordan. Now, we can’t afford her medical care. An NGO is helping us pay for some physical therapy. They’re doing their best, but the funds are limited. I need 500 JDs for MRIs and kidney tests and I can’t pay. We have no savings left, and I’m not allowed to work here in Jordan. With the proper treatment she might be able to walk again. I used to have goals for myself, but now my only goal in life is to save this child. I would travel to any country in the world that would give her treatment.”

Khalid worked as an interpreter with the 3rd U.S. Cavalry in western Iraq. He showed us his bullet scars.

“After October 2003 I could no longer move freely because of my work as an interpreter. Extremists followed me. They shot at my car, and tried to bomb my house—my sister was injured. I have a scar from where one of their bullets grazed my head. Eventually, they kidnapped my younger brother on his way to college. They left a threat for the rest of us. It said, ‘We will kill all the men in your family and rape the women.’ Then I knew I had to disappear. I asked our commander for help escaping, but he just told me to wait until March, and so I fled to Jordan. For Iraqi refugees like me, yesterday was better than today, and today is better than tomorrow will be.”

Jana is a 12-year-old child from one of Iraq’s religious minorities, a Gnostic group called the Sabaeans.

“It was like hell in Iraq. Before the collapse of Saddam’s regime, nobody told us we were Sabaean. But after the collapse, the other children would call us infidels and point their fingers. They used to spit in our faces. We complained to our teachers. Our teachers told us, ‘You should be Muslims. You are not supposed to live in this country anymore.’ It got worse. They tried to kidnap me and my brother. They abducted many kids in my neighborhood. They kidnapped a girl I knew and threw her in the river. I was very frightened. We came to Jordan on July 11, 2005.”


Published on March 19, 2008


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