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Iraq: Refugees fall victim to weak world economy    
NewsNotes, July-August 2009

Iraqi refugees continue to struggle financially, both in their first country of refuge and even in the U.S., due to the failing world economy. Work visas are difficult and expensive to obtain in Syria and Jordan, where most have fled, and financial aid is minimal. The refugees soon deplete their savings, and many find themselves faced with eviction. Donor countries have been slow to respond to this human crisis. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says funding of its work among Iraqi refugees and displaced stands at 52 percent.

Syria and Jordan have admitted most of the estimated two million Iraqi refugees. However, the newcomers are treated as guests rather than as refugees and normally are not allowed to work. Aid is aimed at enrolling Iraqi children in Syrian schools, and preventing child labor and homelessness, for example. But the assistance is limited. UNHCR says it gives heads of households $100 each month in Syria, with an additional $10 for each dependent.

Refugee families find themselves strapped for cash, which has a direct impact on education. Among refugee children in Syria, 33,250 registered for the 2008-9 academic year, down 30 percent from a year earlier. While many might have returned to Iraq or been resettled, UNHCR says surveys indicate “the majority have dropped out due to economic hardship and the necessity for children to supplement the family income by working.”

The Iraqi government has come under criticism for not doing more for its own citizens who have fled to surrounding countries to escape the violence at home. However, falling oil prices have created a dilemma. When prices for oil, roughly 90 percent of the government revenue, dropped from more than $150 a barrel last summer to less than $40 a few months later, the 2009 federal budget shrunk from $82 billion to less than $60 billion. With few options to boost revenues, Parliament member Ismail Shukir Haruty declared, “It’s a disaster. What are we going to do in 2009, 2010, 2011?

The number of Iraqis who have returned home is not very encouraging. UNHCR says some 44,400 returned in the first four months of 2009, including 12,600 refugees and 31,800 internally displaced persons (IDPs). However, the number was considerably lower than the rate a year earlier.

UNHCR says economic hardship was the principal reason most of the returnees went back, followed by an improved security situation at the time. A lack of educational opportunities in the country of asylum and decreasing hopes for resettlement also encouraged some to return.

However, refugees and IDPs often return to ransacked or occupied homes, a lack of basic services and few employment opportunities. Insecurity and violence can also prevent resettlement. According to UNHCR, families returning to the Al Katoon area of Ba’quba quickly left again after being threatened by local insurgents. Too often, refugees who return to Iraq after running out of resources later become displaced persons in their own country.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) says about 250,000 people have returned, mostly to Baghdad, and most of these had been IDPs. In addition, an IOM survey shows most of the estimated 2.6 million IDPs would eventually like to return home, but don’t feel ready yet. Another 39 percent would like to either integrate in their current communities or resettle elsewhere. If these population movements are not reversed, IOM foresees serious consequences for Iraq’s political future, as entire neighborhoods and cities will remain homogenous.

Economic challenges continue to pursue refugees even after resettlement. The International Rescue Committee says only 10 percent of the refugees recently resettled in the U.S. found work within 120 days, compared with 74 percent in late 2007. It estimates one in eight among newly resettled refugees is at immediate risk of homelessness. One exasperated refugee asked, “Did you bring us here just to humiliate us?”

Meanwhile, the Iraqi culture – which suffered an incalculable loss with the destruction in 2003 of museums and libraries – continues to bleed. UNHCR found 35 percent of adult refugees in Jordan held a university or post-graduate degree, and 60 percent had at least a high school diploma. The UN agency has also registered more than 22,000 Chaldeans, a Christian ethnic group that traces its origin to ancient Mesopotamia. Will refugees like these, who have been integral to Iraq’s culture, ever return to help restore the cradle of civilization?

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