UN High Commissioner Counts Over 4 Million Iraqi Refugees

As reports from Iraq continue to focus on the country’s rising death toll, which now includes 3,550 Americans and more than 500,000 Iraqis, World Refugee Day on Wednesday served as a reminder that more than four million Iraqis have also been displaced from their homes since the 2003 invasion.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 2.2 million Iraqis have fled to neighboring countries, mainly Syria and Jordan, with another 2 million displaced internally within Iraq.

While Iraqi men account for the majority of those killed as soldiers, police or victims of bombings or kidnappings, their widows and children make up the vast majority of refugees.

The lack of humanitarian aid and resettlement options has meant that many Iraqi female-headed households are now resorting to previously unthinkable alternatives – surviving on the earnings of prostitution and living in shanty towns.

Carolyn Makinson, executive director of the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, said, “The rampant insecurity within Iraq and the lack of humanitarian assistance in neighboring countries puts women and children at great risk of abuse. There are reports of Iraqi women and young girls forced into prostitution to survive and children forced into labor and other forms of exploitation.”

Reports on Iraqi refugees in Syria have noted that girls as young as 13 years of age are working as prostitutes in the night clubs of Damascus. Most of the cars parked outside the clubs appear to belong to Saudi men.

A recent article in the New York Times featured an interview with a woman who called herself Umm Hiba (mother of Hiba). She said her daughter had been a high academic achiever and a devout girl who rose early each morning to pray before going to school.

They fled their home in Baghdad and arrived in Syria last spring, where the family soon found it difficult to survive without access to employment. Now 16 years of age, Hiba brings in the family’s sole income by working as a prostitute.

“We Iraqis used to be a proud people, but during the war we lost everything. We even lost our honor,” said Umm Hiba. “I’m so angry. Do you think we’re happy that these men from the Gulf are seeing our daughters’ naked bodies?”

Mouna Asaad, a Syrian women’s rights lawyer, said that the government is sympathetic but cannot provide for the needs of more than one million refugees; out of desperation many girls and women take on sex work to support their families.

“Sometimes you see whole families living this way,” she said. “We don’t have shelters or health centers that these women can go to. And because of the situation in Iraq, Syria is careful not to deport these women.”

One sixteen year-old Iraqi prostitute named Zahra, recently interviewed by The Independent, said she takes care of her 13 year-old sister, who now also works in the same Damascus night club. “What can we do? I hope things get better in Iraq, because I miss it. I want to go back, but I have to look after my sister.”

Yet back in Iraq, there are nearly as many Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) as there are refugees who have fled the country. The number of Iraqi refugees continues to grow by 50,000 each month, and an increasing number of families are setting up camp in shanty towns.

Andrew Harper, head of UNHCR’s Iraq support unit in Geneva recently told CNN, “What we do know is that Iraqis detest living in camps and the fact that we are now seeing these types of camps being established is a very bad sign that other options are no longer available.”

One of the refugee camps Mr Harper visited in May, Al-Manathera in Najaf province, had a population of more than 2,000. Ninety percent of the shanty town’s residents were women and children. Living conditions were deplorable: there was an inadequate water supply, no toilets and a lack of medical care for children suffering from typhoid, diarrhea and skin rashes.

On Wednesday, Senators Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and others introduced a bill detailing their proposed Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act. The draft legislation sets out a plan to provide humanitarian aid for refugees in Iraq and neighboring countries, and to increase the US intake of Iraqi refugees who were made especially vulnerable to revenge killings due to their association with the US as employees, consultants or contractors in Iraq.

The US has been widely criticized for taking in only 466 Iraqi refugees since the 2003 invasion; however, plans were recently announced to resettle 7,000 Iraqi refugees in the US this year.

The Bush administration previously resisted pressure to take in Iraqi refugees, arguing that this would pose a threat to US national security and might be interpreted as an admission that the US had lost the war in Iraq.

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

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