No Refuge Within or Outside the Country

BAGHDAD — U.S. occupation authorities and successive U.S.-backed Iraqi governments have done little to stem the flow of Iraqis fleeing their war-torn country since the beginning of the occupation.

Syria, Jordan and Egypt have accepted millions of Iraqis to stay under state controlled regulations that have varied between loose and strict in accordance with whatever situation rules the moment.

“I took my family to Syria when the situation in Fallujah and other Sunni areas became complicated in 2004,” Salim Saed from Fallujah, now a resident of Baghdad told IPS. “I thought the Americans, the UN and the whole world would definitely find a solution and so one year abroad would be enough to keep my family safe, then we would return home. I was simply wrong.”

Countless other Iraqis have had the same experience.

“Over 1.5 million Iraqi citizens are in Syria now waiting for the situation to improve in their country so that they could return home,” Mustafa Ahmad, an Iraqi expert on refugee affairs in Baghdad explained to IPS. “Iraqis are well known for their deep roots and the majority of them are thinking of home more than immigration and resettlement, but the situation in Iraq is making them search for other solutions than returning.”

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are at least 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, but many experts believe the number is now closer to two million. The number streaming across Iraq’s border is now as high as 50,000 every month.

Their influx has strained the education, health and housing systems in Syria, and pushed the government to call for international assistance and tighten visa requirements.

During the end of August, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made a three-day visit to Damascus where he pledged his government would increase support to Syria for his people living in that country, but most refugees don’t expect their plight to improve.

Syria provides Iraqis with free health-care and education facilities, but Damascus recently said the annual cost of the massive Iraqi influx was 1 billion dollars.

In a statement which did not instill hope for Iraqis in Syria, during his visit Maliki told Syrian officials, “We must guarantee stability in order to ensure (the refugees) return to their country.”

The Syrian and Jordanian governments are, between them, dealing with an estimated 2.75 million refugees. Both governments have been complaining for a long time that Iraq has not taken adequate responsibility for the refugee situation.

“Syrian authorities always opened the boarders to fleeing Iraqis,” Numan Jamil, a retired teacher from Baghdad who has just returned from Syria told IPS. “But every time a senior Iraqi official visited Syria, there were more restrictions on Iraqis. I decided to come home and face my fate with dignity rather than the humiliation of living like beggars abroad.”

Iraqi officials have long since insisted that Syria and Jordan begin to issue visas to Iraqis who enter the two countries, but both governments always refused to do so until recently.

This week, the two countries announced that Iraqis would soon be asked for visas when entering, a move which greatly complicates the situation for fleeing Iraqis, many who are doing so under the threat of death.

“This means the exile of more than half of the Iraqis from Syria,” Abbas Jawad, an unemployed lawyer from Baghdad told IPS. “Iraqis have to cross the Syrian border every month in order to obtain one more month of residence permit on their entry. Now that they have to get a visa, it means that they cannot go back into Syria, meaning they are exiled back to Iraq against their will.”

“This is the bullet in the head for us,” Othman Majid told IPS in Baghdad, “We will be hunted by the militias near the embassies and so those who could leave the country are only those who are close to the government and the militias. I was supposed to be in Syria in November to complete my medical check ups, but the new regulations mean I must forget about it.”

Countless families are now separated across Syria, Jordan, Egypt and home. Iraqis now find it more difficult than ever to leave their country, as Syria was the only country which did not require a visa. For those who have fled, the only way for them to return home is to be met with arrest, assassination, death threats and instability.

The Iraqi Red Crescent reported recently that that since the U.S. military troop “surge” began in February 2007, the total number of internally displaced Iraqis has nearly doubled, from 499,000 to over 1.1 million. A UNHCR survey released in July put the figure at 2 million.

Twenty four hours after President George W. Bush’s recent surprise visit to Iraq, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a damning report that claimed little political progress had been made in Iraq, and concluded that “violence remains high” in the country.

Bush praised the U.S. military for it’s “progress” in Iraq.

The GAO report said the Bush administration had failed to meet the vast majority of military and political benchmarks set by Congress this year. Only three of the 18 benchmarks have been met, it said.

(*Ali, our correspondent in Baghdad, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who travels extensively in the region)