When Prime Minister John Howard committed Australia to war in Iraq on 18 March 2003, we were told "it’s not likely to take a long period of time". We were also told that war was necessary to rid Iraq of its 'weapons of mass destruction'. No mention was made of the millions of ordinary Iraqis whose lives would be irrevocably altered by the actions of Australia and its coalition partners. Almost four years later, Australia’s military involvement in Iraq continues and no 'weapons of mass destruction' have been found. And still, the needs of the rapidly growing numbers of Iraqi refugees are being forgotten.
According to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, the Iraq war has precipitated the largest long-term population movement in the Middle East since the displacement of the Palestinians in 1948. Of a total Iraqi population of 26 million, around 1.7 million Iraqis have been forced to move within their own country, while a similar number have fled to nearby countries.
The refugee crisis is the untold human story of the war in Iraq.
The flow of people out of and within Iraq has been unpredictable, making contingency plans difficult to implement. Predictions of a mass refugee exodus immediately after the March 2003 invasion proved to be initially unfounded. In fact, 300,000 Iraqis returned to their homeland between 2003 and 2006.
However, that trend shifted dramatically after a Shiite shrine in Samarra was bombed in February of 2006, igniting widespread killings between religious factions. According to the UNHCR, the escalating sectarian violence is forcing 50,000 people per month to leave their homes, and they predict the number of internally displaced people — those forced to leave their homes but not the country — could reach 2.7 million by the end of this year.
In this climate of religious hostility, Iraqi Christian minorities are particularly vulnerable. According to UNHCR, 40 percent of Iraqi refugees are Christian, though they make up only 4 percent of the nation’s total population.
President George W Bush has decided to send an additional 21,500 troops, signalling that the US (and Australian) presence will not end soon. The question must then be asked, what is being done to house, feed and clothe the millions of refugees created as a direct result of our military intervention? The answer, thus far, has been precious little.
The burden of providing protection to the Iraqi refugees is being borne, overwhelmingly, by Middle Eastern nations. Syria alone is host to 1 million refugees, while Jordan is hosting 700,000. Jordan has however recently closed its borders to Iraqi men between the ages of 18 and 35. After a series of bombings in Amman in November 2005, authorities have tightened security.
More worrying is that there are strong indications both Jordan and Syria are frequently violating the most fundamental principle of refugee protection – nonrefoulement, which prohibits the return of refugees to persecution or serious harm. It is clear that protection of Iraqi refugees in their country of first asylum is growing more precarious by the day.
Of the 700,000 refugees currently subsisting in Jordan, some 21,000 Iraqis have registered with UNHCR, but only 800 have been given refugee status and can be considered for resettlement. This extremely low rate of refugee status recognition means that only a tiny proportion of Iraqi refugees can gain genuine protection in countries of first asylum like Jordan.
With the humanitarian crisis escalating, the response of countries better able to lend assistance – countries that bear a greater moral responsibility to lend assistance due to their involvement in the war – has been belated and inadequate. While Australia has resettled a modest number of refugees – 2,425 Iraqis settled in Australia during 2005-2006 – the response from the United States to the humanitarian needs created by their military actions has been almost non-existent. A mere 466 Iraqi refugees have been admitted to the United States since the war began almost four years ago. Clearly, political imperatives are overriding humanitarian needs, and it is innocent refugees who are suffering for it.
The needs of refugees are also being sacrificed due to misplaced funding priorities. As the only international refugee protection organisation, UNHCR has a mammoth task to ensure that refugees have access to basic needs. However, the organisation is chronically under-funded. An appeal is currently underway for US$60 million to enable the UNHCR to tackle the Iraqi refugee crisis this year. This is a relatively insignificant sum. By way of contrast, US$2 billion is spent every week by the United States on their military operations in Iraq.
Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom have demonstrated their ability and willingness to co-ordinate a military response – it is now time to co-operate for humanitarian, rather than military, ends and to address the crisis for which we bear the weight of responsibility.
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06 February 2007
And so another humanitarian crisis begins, and what does the world do? It's great that the UNHCR has facts and figures, but what are they actually going to do?
06 February 2007
Georgina Pike's assertion that the coalition bears the weight of reponsibility for the current refugee crisis in Iraq is ludicrous. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the coalition's invasion of Iraq, the blame for the ongoing slaughter and resulting flood of refugees is not the fault of the West. The blame lies squarely on the Sunni and Shia fanatics who kill each other in the name of their version of Islam. These two factions were at each other's throats long before the coalition's invasion, and in many other places apart form Iraq.
It is a centuries old hatred that existed long before Western Imperialism or neo-colonialism. Perhaps the coalition needs to do more to help the refugees, but we bear no culpability for this ongoing butchery.
08 February 2007
Is Patrick Jay being serious?
No less than former US Secretary of State Colin Powell himself warned President Bush in 2002, "If you break it (Iraq), you own it."
Anyone remotley informed about Iraq knew BEFORE the invasion that civil war was a possible, perhaps even probable outcome.
For Patrick Jay to now say the invading coalition doesn't even bear indirect responsibility is abusrd.
13 February 2007
Yes M McGuiness, I am being serious. Colin Powell's statement assumes that Iraq was not broken before the invasion. A state that is held together by a brutal and murderous regime is hardly "fixed" in my opinion. It was only Saddam's bloody iron-hand that prevented the current anarchy, largely due to his brutal suppression of the Shia and the Kurds.
However dubious the reasons for the invasion, Saddam's removal has given the Iraqis had a chance to show that they are capable of runny a civilised and democratic country. Is it "absurd" to say that that those who reject this opportunity and prefer to kill their fellow human beings en masse are soley responsible for their crimes?
Whether civil war was possible or probable is beside the point. Blaming the Coalition for the current wave of murder, even indirectly, shows just how low a standard of behaviour people expect from these mass-murderers.
BTW M McGuiness, I did not support the invasion.