Amnesty International recently released a report on Iraq refugees entitled, “Rhetoric and Reality: Iraqi Refugee Crisis.” The report is an overview of the refugee crisis and a devastating critique of its management. Below is a short summary of some of the salient points from the 70-page report that can be accessed here.
Before October 2007, Iraqi passage into Syria was not limited but since then, Syria implemented a visa system where only certain groups of Iraqis are eligible. Of those eligible for a visa include academics, Iraqis attending Syrian schools, Iraqis in need of medical attention in Syrian hospitals, and those who have commercial interests in Syria. The report indicates that during the implementation of the new visa scheme, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sought the closure of the border altogether given the embarrassment to his government of refugees’ flight from Iraq.
It remains that Iraqis in Syria are barred by law from obtaining employment. The report highlights the prevalence of child labor as young children do menial jobs, such as selling chewing gum, instead of attending school.
The report also elucidates the health situation:
As a result of an agreement between UNHCR and the Syrian Ministry of Health, Iraqis registered with UNHCR who are seriously ill can receive treatment, including surgical operations, if they contribute financially, at clinics run by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. However, this option not open to many as most Iraqis are not registered with the UNHCR and the financial contribution can be prohibitive. While UNHCR does provide some assistance to unregistered Iraqis who are ill, its ability to do so remains limited because of the low level of on-going funding.
Jordan, too, has imposed new visa restrictions as of May. While less restrictive than the Syrian system, Jordan requires visas for Iraqis seeking to enter the country. For those already in Jordan, many lack necessary residency permits. The Jordanian government imposes heavy fines, $761 USD per day for those who overstay the visa. As in Syria, Iraqis in Jordan are barred from working are forced to deplete their life savings.
The report comments on the health of Iraqi refugee in Jordan:
Formally, Iraqi refugee have access to basic emergency health care. However, the limitation on further medical treatment, including limited access to specialist services, means there is a significant shortfall between what is needed and what is provided.
An Iraqi family in Amman, Jordan. Courtesy of UNHCR.
In February 2008, the Lebanese government announced a program of regularization for Iraqi refugees, all of whom where deemed illegal before that point. Consequently, many were imprisoned and released to coerce them back to Iraq. Thankfully, the government has implemented a program to give Iraqi refugees work/residency permits in February. However, a fine of $630 USD is required as well as a sponsor who must deposit $1,000 USD. The report indicates that the UNHCR has taken up paying the $630 fine.
Egypt implemented a tight visa scheme in 2006. Treatment in Egypt has been rough as Iraqi refugees are not allowed to work, not granted social services, and not allowed to attend public schools; as opposed to Jordan and Syria which allow Iraqi youth into public schools.
As mentioned earlier, the Iraqi government seeks the return of Iraqis despite the dangers. The report indicates:
Two highly publicized officially organized return convoys from Syria took place in November 2007, one from Aleppo and the other from Damascus. Of the 30 families who returned and were interviewed by one of UNHCR’s partners in Iraq, only a third could go back to their original homes, while two thirds became internally displaced. Some of the returnees found their property looted, occupied or destroyed. In addition, the return incentive of around US $1,000 promised by the Iraqi government has yet to be received by the returnees according to reports.
Material Support Laws
A significant impediment to resettlement in the US, as the report acknowledges, are the material support for terrorist organization laws. These regulations, enhanced by the Patriot Act, refuse entry to anyone who has materially supported a terrorist organization. In the case of Iraqi refugees, those who have paid ransom to their loved ones’ kidnappers are oft found in contravention of these material support bars. Read Kirk Johnson’s op-ed about material support laws here and about the denial of permanent residency to a loyal Iraqi interpreter here. While there are waivers now for such cases, they are evaluated on a case by case basis while the overly broad law remains intact.