mercredi 27 juin 2007

Where will Iraq, its refugees go next?

Consequences of insufficient funding likely to boost perpetrators of violence inside Iraq.Life in Iraq is already close to unbearable, with neighbours and marriages split apart by sectarian violence and people on all sides living in dread of car bombs, kidnappings and landmines.And yet just about everyone says it's going to get worse, both inside Iraq - for those who've fled their homes and those who so far have stayed put - and for refugees who've made it to neighbouring countries, where resources and hospitality are stretched to the limit.

No one in Iraq feels safe."Fear now dictates which market you shop at; where you got to hospital - or even whether you go at all; whether you send your kids to school; what passenger you take in your taxi, and where you are will to take him; which friends you see," Ashraf al-Khalidi and Victor Tanner say in an article in the latest issue of Forced Migration Review, published by Oxford University's Refugee Studies Centre.

It's hard to imagine things going further downhill, but observers say violence could escalate even more if it shifts from being the domain largely of armed factions to the wider population, and that would trigger even more flight.

Al-Khalidi and Tanner say violence is reaching deeper into society, as more and more people have ties to the radical groups."If open conflict erupts between tribal groups," they say, "the violence will take on an organised, popular and rural dimension that has so far, mercifully, been lacking."

All over the country and beyond, relatives and strangers have taken people into their homes, but resources and hospitality are at bursting point everywhere the displaced have fled.

Most governates in southern Iraq have begun restricting the entry of displaced people who don't come from local tribes or don't have relatives to take them in, researchers say.

In northern towns, local officials are refusing to allow newcomers in or to register for the public food distribution system, and have set up tents outside town instead.

In this depressing scenario, the only sliver of hope seems to be for more international help - whether it's cash for the places where displaced families are sheltering now, or giving thousands of them new homes in the West.

The country is haemorrhaging refugees at a rate of 40,000 to 50,000 a month, according to the UN refugee agancy, UNHCR.

In Syria and Jordan, where most of Iraq's refugees have gone, an initially warm welcome is cooling swiftly. Both countries are stretched close to the limit already, and no one from the international community has stepped in with donations to help cover the costs.

Neither country has ever signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, so there's no guarantee Iraqis will be allowed to stay.Jordan, which now hosts the largest number of refugees per capita of any country on earth, is preventing Iraqi men from entering and turning away as many refugees as it can, according to Human Rights Watch.

And you can see the logic, when the kingdom's interior ministry says Iraqi refugees are costing Jordan an estimated $1 billion dollars a year. Jordan's schoolteachers were already working double shifts before the Iraqi influx, international aid agency World Vision says in a new report on Iraqi children. Amman has contracted Norwegian think tank FAFO to determine the numbers of refugees in the country and report back on their needs.

Other nearby countries shut their doors long ago, with Lebanon sending back 40 to 60 a week, according to refugee rights campaigners from the Beirut-based Frontiers (Ruwad) Assocation.

That leaves Syria as the main remaining option, but Syrian food prices have risen 30 percent, property prices have jumped 40 percent and rents have shot up by 150 percent, according to the country's foreign ministry.

Water consumption has increased 21 percent, it says, and the refugees have put a burden on the labour market, where unemployment was previously 18 percent.

Human Rights Watch says the urgency isn't just about the moral imperative to help people, but to defuse a security timebomb that has only just started ticking."Unless this crisis is addressed, we may well look back in 10 years' time and see the seeds of the next generation of terrorists," Human Rights Watch's UK Director Tom Porteous says.

The consequences of insufficient funding could come full circle and boost the perpetrators of violence inside Iraq too.Walter Kalin, who's the the UN secretary-general's representative on internally displaced people's rights, writes in Forced Migration Review that there's a real danger the vacuum in humanitarian assistance will be filled by armed militias who provide relief as a way of increasing their control over territory.

FMR's editors note that foreign money is pouring into the war effort in Iraq - they say the US military spends more in Iraq every week than the entire annual global budget of UNHCR - yet the 70 or so non-governmental relief agencies still operating in Iraq face severe funding constraints.

And so do hundreds of Iraqi organisations, working in the most dire conditions."Iraq is undoubtedly the worse place in the world right now for international humanitarian agencies to operate," Walter Kalin says.

A Canadian aid worker writing for AlertNet, Greg Hansen, says: "Donors impose a shocking double standard, insisting on far greater accountability standards on spending for life-saving humanitarian action than for ill-conceived rebuilding schemes hatched in the hothouse of the Green Zone."

Hansen argues that donors have been slow to acknowledge the growing humanitarian emergency because it would mean acknowledging their failure in wasting billions on reconstruction projects.

Advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch say another way the international community could help would be by taking in much larger numbers of refugees themselves, through resettlement programmes. However, this is controversial.

Ali al Bayati, counsellor at the Iraqi Embassy in London, says the international community needs to help make the country safe for Iraqis - many of them likely to try to move to safety after the school year ends in June - before the academic year starts up again in September.

But aid workers say many Iraqis who are fleeing their home don't plan to return.

The UN refugee agency is planning to submit 20,000 Iraqis for resettlement by the end of 2007, recommending Australia, Canada, Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden and United States in particular.

At the moment, UNHCR officials stress that they're not talking about a mass resettlement programme, and that there's opposition to that from Iraq's neighbours. Jordan and Syria are worried it would create a pull factor for refugees, and I've heard several people bandy about their concern about the "Palestinisation" of Iraqi refugees.

While the violence keeps on escalating and more and more towns and countries shut their gates, Refugee Studies Centre Director Roger Zetter says there's no chance of large numbers of Iraqis going home in the short or medium term. "It pains me to say this, but this is a protracted refugee crisis."

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