Iraq’s Invisible Refugee Crisis

As violence in Iraq reaches levels not seen in years, untold numbers of Iraqis are once again seeking refuge elsewhere.

With April the bloodiest month in Iraq for nearly five years, more Iraqis are seeking safety in Jordan (Reuters)
Amman, Jordan – Maki al-Nazzal, a 57-year-old Iraqi from Fallujah, returned to Amman a week ago from a visit to his home city in Iraq. Having lived in Jordan since 2007, Nazzal, like most refugees, wants nothing more than to return to his home country.

He had returned to test the waters, after having to flee in 2007 under threat to his life from having been first an outspoken critic of the US occupation of Iraq, and more recently having been critical of the regime of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

“When you tell the truth about what is happening in Iraq, this puts you in danger,” Nazzal, a political analyst who has frequently appeared on television, told Al Jazeera. “After two of my sons were arrested in Fallujah, I left Iraq. I had no choice but to leave.”

Nazzal, like so many Iraqis in Amman today, struggles financially. Having no home in Amman, and little if any work, he struggles to get by.

According to UNHCR figures, there are currently 450,000 Iraqis in Jordan.

But what there aren’t figures for, is a growing influx of Iraqis fleeing the increasing violence wracking Iraq.

Fleeing government ‘repression’

“Most everyone in my city in Iraq are now hoping to leave,” a man from Iraq’s western al-Anbar province, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera.

He arrived in Jordan three weeks ago in order to try to make arrangements to bring his family here.

Protests across predominantly Sunni areas of Iraq, which have been ongoing for several months now, have turned violent when security forces of the Maliki government began killing protesters. Ongoing violent crackdowns by the government have led to retaliatory attacks, and violence in Iraq today is worse than it has been in years.

The UN mission in Iraq recently announced that more people were killed in violent attacks across the country in April than in any other month since June 2008, making it the single deadliest month in nearly five years.

The UN figures released this week underscore concerns that security is quickly deteriorating in Iraq, where violence spiked as April drew to a close.

The UN says it recorded 712 people killed last month, including 117 members of the Iraqi security forces. The last time Iraq witnessed this level of violence was between 2006 and 2007, when the country was on the brink of civil war.

“The situation in Iraq is so tense, all of us are on edge,” the man, who asked to be referred to as Ahmed, continued. “There are random arrests, no freedom of speech or opinion, and the security forces are completely politicised. We can’t sleep there because we are so worried all the time. Who can live in a country like Iraq is today?”

The demands of the ongoing protests in Iraq are focused on the tactics being used by the Maliki government against predominantly Sunni areas in Baghdad, and across al-Anbar. It is now well documented that the Maliki government has been engaged in arbitrary detentions, assassinations, and widespread torture and raping of prisoners.

Not only are these demands not being met, but security forces continue to target Sunnis, according to people Al Jazeera has interviewed in Iraq, as well as Jordan.

“Everybody who has a chance to leave are trying to leave,” Ahmed added.

He said that in his city, if anyone has a guest stay the night in their home, they are now required to register this person with the police.

“This is now the government policy in all of Iraq’s western cities, that just happen to be predominantly Sunni,” he said. “Who can live under this kind of repression? This is worse now than even under Saddam Hussein.”

Ahmed said his situation is desperate enough that he is willing to quit his job with the government in Iraq and sell his house there in order to leave, despite knowing that eventually his money will run out in Jordan, and he will be in the same situation as Nazzal.

“Me and my family have been living in such a bad situation these last ten years,” Ahmed, who was visibly exhausted from lack of sleep and stress, said. “We’ve been hoping things would get better, but now they are only getting worse.”

‘Prisoner in my own house’

Al Jazeera spoke with another Iraqi man who had recently arrived in Amman, also on condition of anonymity because he fears government reprisals for speaking to the media.

“I am leaving because I feel like a prisoner in my own house,” the man, who asked to be referred to as Rashid, told Al Jazeera. “Life isn’t life anymore. When arrests and assassinations began and were based on your sectarian identity, I knew it was time to leave. When the gorillas of the Ministry of Interior’s forces came and cursed me for being Sunni, and cursed our women, we knew it was time to leave.”

Last week, three of Rashid’s friends from his home city of Baghdad sold their homes and are moving to Jordan.

“I know so many Iraqis who are now trying to leave,” he added.

An Iraqi man from Ramadi who arrived in Jordan ten days ago came to find housing and work possibilities, because he too fears things will only worsen in Iraq.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, he asked to be referred to as Mohammed.

“I’m confused about what to do, because it’s not easy to consider leaving your home country,” he told Al Jazeera. “We used to live comfortably there, but now we are struggling to survive because of our horrible economic situation, but also because the government forces are attacking us. We used to live with dignity, but year after year it is worse, and now we fear the absolute worst.”

Like Ahmed, Mohammed said that everyone he knows in Iraq who has enough money to leave are leaving for Jordan.

Another huge displacement

At the height of the 2006-2007 bloodshed across Iraq, official UNHCR figures showed 750,000 Iraqis in Jordan, and more than one million in Syria.

While what is happening now is nowhere near that level, Iraqis Al Jazeera has spoken with fear the current trend of displacement will continue to worsen.

“This is another huge displacement of Sunnis,” Mohammed said. “In Baghdad, Anbar, people are coming either to Jordan, or becoming IDPs [Internally Displaced Persons] now.”

Ahmed agreed: “As long as the Maliki regime stays in power, we will be repressed. No human rights, no safety, no respect. Now the border with Jordan is closed, and Syria is obviously not an option, and this scares us even more because we fear a collective punishment and an inability to flee.”

Violence has forced Iraqi political analyst Maki al-Nazzai to remain in Jordan (Dahr Jamail / Al Jazeera)
Ahmed, who continued to hold his head in his hands, and stare out the window often said while lighting another cigarette, continued. “The stress is constant. It’s a stress generated by a constant worsening of the situation, and fuelled by dread of what may come next. A dread of the unknown.”

Nazzal said his fate was no longer in his hands. “I’m asked hundreds of times daily by Iraqis in person, on the phone, and on the internet, what do I think is coming next,” he told Al Jazeera.

“I tell them it’s unknown. It’s in the hands of the international community. But we believe, sooner or later, there will be a major internal war in Iraq that will affect the entire area, and shred the Iraqi social tissue. I can say that at least 85 per cent of all the younger Iraqis I talk to think the situation cannot get better without fighting.”

Mohammed said he too is concerned that “we watch all the Iraqi leaders sending their families out of Iraq, and building their homes in other countries, so what message does this send us? Not a good one. How are we supposed to have any hope?”

‘Better in Baghdad’

Saleh al-Kilani is the refugee affairs coordinator at Jordan’s Ministry of Interior.

Saleh al-Kilani, of the Jordanian interior ministry, advises Iraqis to ‘seek assistance in Baghdad’ (Dahr Jamail / Al Jazeera
“The Iraqi refugee crisis has never ended,” Kilani told Al Jazeera in his office. “Most Iraqis living here are seeking asylum and have no intention of returning to their homes.”

Yet, with the Jordanian government dealing with the monumental task of coping with a massive influx of refugees from Syria, it has little capacity to deal with a fresh wave of Iraqi refugees.

Kilani, when asked what his government is doing about newly arriving Iraqis, did not sound hopeful.

“It’s better for them to seek assistance in Baghdad,” he said.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC), an NGO that is working to assist refugees and IDPs both in Iraq and Jordan, is dealing with the huge number of IDPs in Iraq.

The IRC’s Ned Colt told Al Jazeera that he too is aware of an increasing number of Iraqis again looking to come to Jordan, although was unaware of any official numbers available, given that it is such a new situation, along with being greatly overshadowed by the Syrian crisis.

“We know there are what we call ‘invisible refugees’ who are not registered with UNHCR, so are not receiving any support,” Colt said. “Nevertheless, the refugees coming both from Syria, and those in Iraq coming to Jordan or who are IDPs in their home country, are coming from a traumatising experience into a new experience, and this is obviously extremely difficult for them.”

Dr Mohammed al-Haddad is an Iraqi who fled to Amman in 2006 during the height of the sectarian bloodshed. He now volunteers with the International Relief Development NGO where he works to assist other Iraqi refugees.

“I think it’s safe to say that in the last six months, at least 10,000 Iraqis have come to Jordan from both Iraq and Syria,” Haddad told Al Jazeera. “I didn’t think the sectarianism, that never existed in Iraq before 2003, could get worse than it was in 2006, but now it seems to be doing just that.”

Haddad’s own brother has been missing since 2008, and he fears he is either dead or “in one of Maliki’s prisons”, as he said.

“In Iraq right now I personally know too many Iraqis who are trying to come to Jordan,” Haddad added. “So many of the Sunni there are trying to flee because they fear being killed by Maliki’s forces. It’s a war, and it’s starting to explode, and Maliki is behind this.”

Nazzal is not hopeful about the future of Iraqis who have had to leave their country.

“All of us Iraqis have very limited choices,” he said. “It’s a matter of survival with very limited choices. Our passport is harmful to us because it is nearly impossible for us to get visas anywhere. We stay in Iraq and risk death, or leave and suffer elsewhere. We feel we are being wasted, and for no purpose.”