Iraq’s Wider Refugee Problem

The Council on Foreign Relations (www.cfr.org) posted an article today (May 22, 2008) reminding us all that the Iraq War has created a far larger refugee problem than that associated with collaborators with the American occupation reported in Monday’s entry in this space (“America’s Iraqi Quisling Problem”). The article was written by Greg Bruno and is titled “A Long Road for Iraqi Refugees.” It is yet another depressing reminder of how badly the United States has served Iraq and its people in this war.

According to the article, there are currently over five million Iraqi refugees (about one-fifth of the total population) in either internal or external exile. Those in external exile are located in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, all countries with abundant problems of their own who do not need the added pressures of an indigent exile population. Iraqis who have collaborated with the United States and fled retribution by their fellow countrymen are part of this mass, but they are by no means all of it. Although the story concentrates on the paucity of international support for the refugees rather than their composition, most of them are Sunnis who fear retribution from the Shiite majority whose power is being implicitly supported by the American insistence on democratic governance (one man, one vote) in Iraq.

Given the deep rifts within Iraqi society, a large refugee outpouring was a predictable outcome of an effort to redo the Iraqi polity but, one more time, it appears to be a problem the Bush administration either did not anticipate or has chosen to ignore. Bruno, for instance, quotes Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Trudy Rubin on their response. “On the subject of Iraqi refugees,” she writes, “there is a deafening silence from the White House.”

In a sense, the American presence in Iraq has just traded one refugee problem for another. Under Sunni-dominated Baathist rule (Saddam Hussein), Shiites were regularly suppressed, and their leaders sought refuge wherever they could find it. Most went east to Iran to be with their co-religionists, just as Sunnis have fled to Sunni-dominated countries. There are, however, two differences worth noting. One is the sheer volume of refugees this time. I do not know the size of the Shiite refugee population under Hussein (does anyone out there?), but it was smaller. Second, the Sunni exodus also represents both a brain drain and loss of financial resources, since Sunnis occupied a disporportionate place in the upper reaches of Iraqi society and particularly were overrepresented in the professional classes. Their exodus is not entirely unlike the flight of the Palestinians after 1948 out of Palestine into bordering countries.

There is essentially no short-term positive prognosis for the refugee problem. Akin to the problem of those who assisted the American occupation, Uncle Sam does not appear forthcoming with either sizable financial or other assistance. If the refugees go home, they face the wrath of a Shiite government supported by the United States. If they try to stay where they are, the United States will be of limited assistance, particularly with the Syrians, with whom the United States refuses to talk at high levels of intergovernmental interchange. Presumably, the hope is that the problem will remain below the public radar until the administration leaves office (thereby kicking the can down the road to its successor). As well, the administration may be trying to help Senator McCain by not bringing attention to an embarassing aspect of a continuing presence in Iraq.

In the meantime, displaced Iraqis suffer, and no one seems to care much. But then, the war was supposed to have been over almost five years ago and, as I recall, the word “refugees” never appeared in the pre-war scenarios. 

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