Iraqi refugees

Throughout the past 30 years, there have been a growing number of refugees fleeing Iraq and settling throughout the world, peaking recently with the latest Iraq War. The Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988, the 1990 Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait, the first Gulf War and subsequent conflicts all generated hundreds of thousands if not millions of refugees. Iran also provided asylum for 1,400,000 Iraqi refugees who had been uprooted as a result of the Persian Gulf War (1990–91). The United Nations estimates that nearly 2.2 million Iraqis have fled the country since 2003,[1] with nearly 100,000 fleeing to Syria and Jordan each month between 2003 and 2006.[2][3]

Iraq War

Refugees from Iraq have increased in number since the US-led invasion into Iraq in March 2003. An estimated 1.6-2.0 million people have fled the country. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated in a report released in November 2006 that more than 1.6 million Iraqis had left Iraq since March 2003, nearly 7 percent of the total population. The BBC on 22 January 2007 placed the refugee figure at 2 million. By 16 February 2007, António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said that the external refugee number reached 2 million and that within Iraq there are an estimated 1.7 million internally displaced people. The refugee traffic out of the country has increased since the intensification of civil war.[4][5]

As of June 21, 2007, the UNHCR estimated that over 4.2 million Iraqis have been displaced, with 2 million within the Iraq and 2.2 million in neighboring countries.[6]

Most ventured to Jordan and Syria, creating demographic shifts that have worried both governments. A fear persisted in both countries, and others hosting sizable Iraqi refugee populations, that sectarian tensions would spill over amongst the exiles. These refugees were estimated to have been leaving Iraq at a rate of 3000-per-day by December 2006.

As many as 110,000 Iraqis could be targeted as collaborators because of their work for coalition forces.[7] A May 25, 2007 article notes that in the past seven months only 69 people from Iraq have been granted refugee status in the United States.[8] Roughly 40% of Iraq's middle class is believed to have fled, the U.N. said. Most are fleeing systematic persecution and have no desire to return.[9] Refugees are mired in poverty as they are generally barred from working in their host countries.[10][11] In Syria alone an estimated 50,000 Iraqi girls and women, many of them widows, are forced into prostitution just to survive.[12][13]

Host countries


Main article: Iraqis in Jordan

Jordan had taken in roughly 750,000 Iraqi refugees since the war began by December 2006. Jordan had been criticized by human rights organizations for not classifying the newcomers by the title "refugee" and instead labeled them "visitors," disinclining the Jordanian government from extending to the Iraqis the same benefits enjoyed by 1.5 million Palestinian refugees residing in Jordan.

Jordanians expressed resentment to the newcomers, built up since the influx of refugees during and following the Persian Gulf War in 1990-1991. Then, affluent Iraqis arrived and invested in the Jordanian economy, sending prices soaring too high for many working class or lower class Jordanians. Following the 2003 war and subsequent reconstruction, the arrival of mostly poor Iraqis compounded problems, increasing demand and applying more pressure on the Jordanian economy.

The government had also been accused of cracking down on Shiite activities in the country while allowing Sunni Iraqis to carry on their lives without harassment from the government. The authorities denied any discrimination, claiming it treated any illicit activity by Sunnis or Shiites from Iraq equally.


Main article: Iraqis in Syria

Syria had taken in roughly a million refugees by December 2006, with it possible as many as half of them were Iraqi Christians. Most of them had settled in and around the city and suburbs of Damascus. The reason for its large refugee population can be attributed to more than just geography. Syria maintained an open-door policy to Iraqis fleeing the war-ravaged country.

Syrian authorities worried that the new influx of refugees would limit the country's resources. Sources like oil, heat, water and electricity were said to be becoming more scarce as demand had gone up.[14]

Restrictions on refugees

On October 1, 2007 news agencies reported that Syria re-imposed restrictions on Iraqi refugees, as stated by a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Under Syria's new rules, only Iraqi merchants, businessmen and university professors with visas acquired from Syrian embassies may enter Syria.[15][16][17]

Refugees flee Syrian civil war, and targeted excecutions

In 2012–13, as a Syrian civil war intensified, many Iraqi refugees fled the rising violence. Fewer than 200,000 Iraqis remained in Syria in 2012, according to the office of the Iraqi ambassador in Damascus. Many of the Iraqis were helped to return to Iraq by the provision of free flights and bus tickets, paid for by the Iraqi government. Tens of thousands of Iraqi families traveled back to their original country, although Iraq is itself unstable, and sectarian bomb attacks occur there almost daily.[18]

The majority of Iraqis fleeing back from Syria in 2012 were Shiites, according to, a spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration. The UN refugee agency said Iraqis in the mainly Shiite Damascus suburb of Sayeda Zeinab were fleeing not only increasing violence but “targeted threats” against them. In July 2012, the most intense fighting of the 17-month-old Syrian conflict began. Rebels took over whole neighborhoods of the Syrian capital, and government forces responded ferociously. Amid the fighting, it appears rebel fighters specifically targeted Iraqis. According to the UN, an Iraqi family of seven was killed at gunpoint in their Damascus apartment. 23 Iraqi refugees were reported killed in July, some by beheaded, according to the Washington-based Shiite Rights Watch. The attacks reflect the sectarian nature of Syria’s war, In which opposition mostly from the country’s Sunni majority has risen up against the regime of Syrian President Assad, which is controlled by members of the Shiite/Alawite sect. Motives for attacks against Iraqi refugees are unclear, but may be due to antagonism towards Shiites generally, because of their sectarian association with the regime, or because Iraq's Shiite-led government is perceived as siding with Assad. Though Baghdad has publicly vowed not to become involved with Syria’s war, skeptics believe it is at least helping Iran ship weapons and reinforcements to Assad’s regime. In March, the U.S. urged Baghdad to cut off its airspace to flights headed to Syria from Iran, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pledged to curb arms smuggling across his borders into Syria.[19]


Egypt, which does not border Iraq, became a major destination for Iraqi refugees in 2006. As of December, the refugee population was approaching 150,000, 50 percent more than early October. Only 800 refugees were in Egypt in 2003.[20] In 2007, Egypt imposed restrictions on the entry of new refugees into the country.



Perhaps as many as half a million Assyrians and Chaldeans are thought to have fled the sectarian fighting in Iraq, with Christians bearing the brunt of animosity toward a perceived "crusade" by the United States in Iraq. Most chose to go to Syria due to the cultural similarities between the two countries, Syria's open-door policy to Iraqis, and the large population of Assyrians and other Christians in the country which perhaps totals as high as 2 million. The large influx of Iraqis may tip the demographic scale in a country with a diverse population.[21][22] Although Christians represent less than 5% of the total Iraqi population, they make up 40% of the refugees now living in nearby countries, according to U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.[23] Between October 2003 and March 2005 alone, 36% of 700,000 Iraqis who fled to Syria were Assyrians and other Christians, judging from a sample of those registering for asylum on political or religious grounds.[24][25][26][27][28]


Mandaeans are an ancient ethnoreligious group in southern Iraq. They are the last practicing gnostic sect in the Middle East. There are thought to have been about 40,000 Mandaeans in Iraq prior to the US-led invasion. As a non-Muslim group, they have been abused by sectarian militias. The vast majority of Baghdadi Mandaeans left Baghdad many have fled to Syria, Jordan and elsewhere[29] while Mandaean communities of southern Iraq are still more or less secure with the exception of Basra where the Mandaean Manda (Temple) was attacked by an unknown militia. Mandaean diaspora organizations are reportedly focusing all their resources on evacuating all the remaining Mandaeans in Iraq.


A small Palestinian population of about 38,000 also faced pressure, with many living in the Baghdadi neighborhood of al-Baladiya.

Denied access by Syria, more than 350 Palestinians remained in "inhumane conditions" on the Syrian border until finally being allowed into the country. They face more uncertain conditions because most Palestinians do not hold Iraqi citizenship and consequently do not hold passports. The UNHCR appealed to Israel to allow this particular group of refugees admission into the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank. The agency said that from resettlement countries, only Canada and Syria had taken Palestinians from Iraq in the past.


The Yazidi community was affected by several acts of violence in 2007. On April 23, 2007 masked gunmen abducted and shot 23 Yazidis near Mosul. On August 14, 2007 Yazidis were targeted in a series of bombings that became the deadliest suicide attack since the Iraq War began.

Refugee settlement beyond the Middle East

In early February 2007 the United States and the United Nations developed a plan to settle several thousand refugees in the United States. In an initial step, refugees would apply for applicant status. The UN aims to register 135,000 to 200,000 to determine which people had fled persecution and would thus qualify for refugee status. [30]

The US aims to settle at least 5,000 of this group in the US by the end of 2007. Since the 2003 invasion, the US has settled 466 Iraqi refugees. The first group of anticipated refugees are presently in Turkey, and had fled during the rule of Saddam Hussein. Subsequently, refugees would be accepted from Syria, and then from Jordan. Kristele Younes of Refugees International supported these moves towards resettlement, but she said that "the numbers remain low compared to what the needs are.” [31]

A July 22, 2007 article notes that in the past nine months only 133 of the planned 7000 Iraqi refugees were allowed into the United States.[7]

Of the refugees' status, US Senator Edward M. Kennedy (Massachusetts) said, “We can’t solve the problem alone, but we obviously bear a heavy responsibility for the crisis.” [31]

According to Washington-based Refugees International the U.S. has admitted fewer than 800 Iraqi refugees since the invasion, Sweden had accepted 18,000 and Australia had resettled almost 6,000.[32] More than 2 million refugees have arrived in the U.S. since 1980, including about 1 million from Vietnam, while Australia and Canada accepted more than 250,000 Vietnamese refugees.[33][34] In 2006, 1.27 million immigrants were granted legal residence in the United States.[35]

Sweden, known for liberal asylum policies, has seen a surge of refugees from war-torn Iraq in the last year. Sweden currently accepts more than half of all asylum applications from Iraqis in Europe. In 2006, more than 9,000 Iraqis fled their country and came to Sweden seeking shelter, a four times increase over 2005. Sweden's immigration authority expects up to 40,000 Iraqis seeking asylum in 2007. An estimated 79,200 Iraqis call Sweden their home. Many Iraqis fled to Sweden during the 90's as well. Current refugees like Sweden because many of their relatives are there and because of the generous refugee policies. [36]

According to the List Project, led by Kirk W. Johnson, "Poland, which had approximately 2,500 troops at its peak, was scheduled to withdraw its forces from Iraq by October 2008. Building on the successful precedent set by Denmark and the eventual British airlift, the Polish government offered all of their Iraqi employees either full resettlement or a one-time payment of $40,000 if they remained in Iraq."[37]

The need for aid and essential services

The United Nations in February 2007 appealed for $60 million to assist displaced Iraqis. [38]

At the end of July 2007 the NGO Coordinating Committee in Iraq (NCCI) and Oxfam International issued a report, Rising to the humanitarian challenge in Iraq, that said that one-third of the populace was in need of aid. (The NCCI is an alliance of approximately 80 international NGOs and 200 Iraqi NGOs, formed in Baghdad in 2003.) The report, based on survey research of the nation's civilian population, reports that 70 percent of the population lacks proper access to water supplies. Only 20 percent of the population has proper sanitation. Almost 30 percent of children experience malnutrition. About 92 percent of children experience problems learning. These figures represent sharp increases since 2003. [39]

International conferences on Iraqi refugee crisis

  • On April 17, 2007 an international conference on the Iraqi refugee crisis began in Geneva, Switzerland. Attendees included Human Rights Watch representatives, U.S. Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees representatives and members of 60 other Non-Governmental Organizations. [40]
  • The World Health Organization began a two-day conference in Damascus, Syria, on July 29, 2007. The conference would address the health requirements of the more than two million refugees from Iraq. Aside from the UHO, participants in the conference included the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Red Crescent, and various UN agencies. [41]

See also


External links

  • Iraqi Refugees: Seeking Stability in Syria and Jordan
  • Iraq: The World's Fastest Growing Refugee Crisis
  • Uneasy Havens Await Those who Flee Iraq
  • U.N.: Iraqi civilian death toll reaches new monthly high
  • Palestinians in Iraq Pay the Cost of Being 'Saddam's People'
  • UN: Palestinians in Iraq threatened
  • Forced Migration Review special July 2007 issue on Iraq available in Arabic and English
  • 106 page Human Rights Watch November 2006 report on the refugee crisis
  • November 30, 2006 Human Rights Watch statement on the West's silence on the refugee crisis
  • January 19, 2007 Human Rights Tribune on the refugee crisis
  • January 22, 2007 BBC report on the refugee crisis
  • Iraqi children soldier on
  • Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre's March 30 2007 report on displaced people in Iraq
  • Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre page of 22 maps of internal and external displacement of people in Iraq
  • May 13, 2007 New York Times Magazine article on "The Flight from Iraq"
  • Refugees International July 27, 2007 report and pdf report on the refugee crisis and the UN response
  • July 30, 2007 NNCI and Oxfam International report on resource deficiencies in the civilian population
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