A Tale of 10 Post-its
The depressing fate of Iraqi refugees.
The one hopeful sign I find in my notes is that most of the refugees I interviewed had relatives abroad. Next to their names, I would take down the phone number of a family member in the United States, Canada, Australia, or Europe. But how to get there? None of these places (with the shining exception of Sweden) is opening its doors very wide, some not at all.
So far, the international community's response to the massive exodus from Iraq has been unsatisfactory. In the four years since the invasion of Iraq, only 3,183 Iraqis have been resettled worldwide. The United States, which resettled just 202 Iraqis in 2006 (and just 70 in the eight months through May 2007), has set a bad example, though Washington has said it intends to accept up to 7,000 Iraqis this year.
Many Iraqis doubt that the refugee resettlement program will ever help them, and they try to make their way illegally to a country that might offer asylum.
But applying for asylum can be costly. Several refugees told me they are trying to gather the $25,000 per person they would have to pay to be smuggled from the Middle East into a European country. (The United States, Canada, and Australia are too distant to make the illegal trip affordable.)
Still, this is often viewed as the best bet. While resettlement figures for Iraqis worldwide dropped from the meager 672 in 2005 to the pitiful 404 in 2006, asylum applications by Iraqis in industrialized countries almost doubled, from 12,500 in 2005 to 22,200 in 2006, according to UNHCR statistics.
Sweden, with 8,950 cases, had almost half of the applications (and took a generous 91 percent of them). The Netherlands ranked second in the number of applications (2,765) but offered protection to only 25 percent. Denmark offered protection to only 3 percent of applicants, while Germany, which had 2,000 applications for asylum, gave positive resolution to only 11 percent of the cases.
A rejected asylum application doesn't necessarily mean deportation; Iraqis are often left in a legal and social limbo. But some countries go further and revoke refugee status or even proceed to forcibly deport Iraqis, albeit to the northern, Kurdish part of the country. The UNHCR advisory on conditions in Iraq recommends that Iraqi asylum seekers should not be forcibly returned to southern or central Iraq and that no one should be returned to a situation of internal displacement (i.e., into the Kurdish north).
As long as Iraq continues to be unstable and unsafe, there will be more people with a "well-founded fear of persecution" fleeing. Whether it is by resettling refugees, by granting asylum, or by assisting displaced Iraqis in their temporary homes across the Middle East, the "outside world" must do more. The latest data released by UNHCR on June 19, the eve of World Refugee Day, shows that for the first time in five years, the number of refugees is up worldwide. This reversal is overwhelmingly due to the flight of almost 2 million Iraqis.
Anna Husarska is senior policy adviser at the International Rescue Committee.
Photograph of Iraqi men waiting in line by Salah Malkawi/ Getty Images.