AMMAN, Jordan—After crossing from Iraq to Jordan through the windy and inhospitable frontier post of Al-Karama, a soft-spoken man who asked me to call him Timor Din finally felt safe. A year ago, death threats (he was doubly targeted as an engineer and as a Christian) drove him to leave his house in Baghdad. From the border he drove 220 miles across the desert, and when he reached Amman, Jordan’s capital, he blended in. Once a teacher at Baghdad University, he now does religious paintings to make ends meet and is hoping to start a new life somewhere else.
TV images train us to recognize refugees: tent cities, plastic sheeting, food and water distribution, doctors in emergency field clinics, and so forth. With Iraqis in Jordan—an “urban caseload,” in the humanitarian jargon—there is no such footage. How would I know that this charming man whom I met in an artist’s atelier on King Talal Street is a recent refugee from the civil war in Iraq? The newcomers look just like the host population, although Arabic speakers are tipped off by their accents.
Perhaps this is why the growing exodus of Iraqis was ignored for almost a year. After the 2003 intervention, Iraqis returned en masse. There are no precise data available, but according to UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, it was the February 2006 bomb attack on a Shiite shrine in Samarra that kicked off the big outflux.
Exact numbers aren’t easy to come by. UNHCR estimates that there are 700,000 Iraqi refugees in Jordan (and the same number in Syria), but the Jordanian government has not carried out any solid statistical studies. Jordan’s population is 5.5 million—in the United States, an equivalent influx in proportion to the population would be 38 million refugees.
Qualifying recent media reports about fleeing Iraqi refugees, Robert Breen, the head of UNHCR in Amman, says that there is nothing sudden in the flight—it is a “compounded emergency,” that is, an emergency that has grown steadily over the last year. But it is an emergency all the same. Money is needed to assist such a large number of refugees. Last month, UNHCR appealed for $60 million for the coming year (twice the amount for 2006) to help hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable Iraqis displaced internally and externally. (The appeal covers Iraq itself and five other countries in the region—Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Turkey—that have received the largest number of Iraqis.) António Guterres, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, is on a Middle East tour in search of a new strategy on Iraqi refugees.
In theory, there are three options for those fleeing Iraq: repatriation, local integration in the region, and resettlement to third countries.
“At the moment, given the level of violence in Iraq, every single Iraqi should be considered a refugee [because they are] victims of violence,” says Stéphane Jaquemet, UNHCR’s regional representative in the Middle East. So, currently, repatriation is out of the question. Neither Syria nor Jordan is offering local integration to the refugees, and the difficult economic, political, and social situation in those countries doesn’t favor local absorption. This makes the option of resettlement the most compelling. But it is not happening yet. In the first nine months of 2006, a total of 404 Iraqis were resettled worldwide, 151 of them in the United States. (In other words, in six months, the American government offers a chance to start a new life to as many Iraqis as are killed each day in the civil war that has followed the U.S.-led intervention in their country.)
The international community must alleviate the burden on the countries in the region, while offering resettlement opportunities to many more of the most vulnerable Iraqis. And the United States, which led the intervention in Iraq, must now lead in attending to the victims of the conflict. This would be a belated return to the best American tradition of offering a safe haven to those who have a well-founded fear of persecution in their own land.