Since the shock-and-awe invasion of Iraq began in March 2003, that country's explosive unraveling has never left the news or long been off the front page. Yet the fallout beyond its borders from the destruction, disintegration, and ethnic mayhem in Iraq has almost avoided notice. And yet with -- according to United Nations estimates -- approximately 50,000 Iraqis fleeing their country each month (and untold numbers of others being displaced internally), Iraq is producing one of the -- if not the -- most severe refugee crisis on the planet, a crisis without a name and without significant attention.
For the last two weeks, I've been in Syria, visiting refugee centers and camps, the offices and employees of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and poor neighborhoods in Damascus that are filling up with desperate, almost penniless Iraqi refugees, sometimes living 15 to a room. In statistical and human terms, these few days offered a small window into the magnitude of a catastrophe that is still unfolding and shows no sign of abating in any immediately imaginable future.
Let's start with the numbers, inadequate as they are. The latest UN figures concerning the refugee crisis in Iraq indicate that between 1-1.2 million Iraqis have fled across the border into Syria; about 750,000 have crossed into Jordan (increasing its modest population of 5.5 million by 14%); at least another 150,000 have made it to Lebanon; over 150,000 have emigrated to Egypt; and -- these figures are the trickiest of all -- over 1.9 million are now estimated to have been internally displaced by civil war and sectarian cleansing within Iraq.
These numbers are staggering in a population estimated in the pre-invasion years at only 26 million. At a bare minimum, in other words, at least one out of every seven Iraqis has had to flee his or her home due to the violence and chaos set off by the Bush administration's invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Yet, as even the UN officials on the scene admit, these are undoubtedly low-end estimates. "We rely heavily on the official numbers given to us by the Syrian government concerning the Iraqi refugees coming here," Sybella Wilkes, the regional public information officer for the UNHCR told me, while we talked recently at the main refugee processing center in Douma, a city on the outskirts of the Syrian capital. Even the high-end UNHCR estimate of 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria (a country of only 17 million people) was, she told me, probably too low.
According to Wilkes, the Syrian government, using tallies taken from its southern border posts, privately estimates the number to be closer to 1.4-1.5 million Iraqis in Syria. The UNHCR operation here, desperately under-funded and short of staff, does not have people on the border tallying numbers and has no way to check on the real magnitude of the disaster underway.
Yet, in their work, they can feel its oppressive weight daily. Erdogan Kalkan, a 35-year-old Turkish UNHCR employee of 15 years, told me that the overworked staff has already scheduled a total of 35,000 appointments with refugees seeking aid in Syria; only 25,000 of those have actually had their cases addressed -- and that barely scratches the surface of the problem. "We have been increasing our processing capacity from the beginning," he said, while puffing on a cigarette. We were speaking in a newly converted warehouse where Iraqi families now can meet with UNHCR workers in cramped white cubicles and be interviewed about why they left Iraq and what their most immediate needs are.
UNHCR's budget for Iraqis in Syria in 2006 was a bare $700,000, less than one dollar per refugee crossing the border. UNHCR needs far greater financial resources even to begin to help the mass of Iraqi refugees in the country, as well as food, medicine, and aid from other UN agencies. At the moment, it is essentially the only UN agency assisting Iraqis in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. UNICEF and other UN agencies have voiced interest, but as yet have provided little support in Syria, according to Kalkan.
Adham Mardini, the public information assistant for UNHCR in Damascus, told me their budget in Syria has risen precipitously to $16 million for 2007, although that, too, remains far below what would be necessary simply to fulfill the most basic needs of the most desperate of the refugees. It adds up to a little over $13 per Iraqi refugee per year -- if you don't include the refugees in Syria from Somalia, Palestine, Afghanistan, and other war-torn areas for whom UNHCR is also responsible (along with UNHCR overhead). Iraqi refugees receive food supplements from UNICEF, but only in the most severe cases of need, and cash is simply unavailable for distribution.
Back in late 2006, UNHCR in Damascus started out as the most modest of operations -- with two processing clerks, each seeing between five and seven cases daily. Now, there are 25 clerks processing more than 200 cases daily, not to mention guards, drivers, new computers, a Red Crescent aid station at the center, a new bathroom, and plans for adding a child center, psychological counseling services, and a community center before the Secretary General of the UN visits later this month.
Yet all of this is still nowhere near enough to keep up with the implacable flood of Iraqis entering Syria every month. Iraqis, who now comprise a little over 8% of the population of this small country, tell stories about why they left their land and what they are dealing with today, which these numbers, staggering as they are, do not.
More Than Numbers
"I left everything behind," Salim Hamad, a former railroad worker from Baghdad, told me. "My house was empty when I left, and I have no idea what became of it." We met in a small tea shop in the sprawling Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus. It is perhaps not inappropriate that Yarmouk is primarily a Palestinian refugee camp, since the Iraqi diaspora represents the largest exodus of refugees in the Middle East since the state of Israel was created in 1948. The camp is an uninspiring mass of high, grey apartment buildings through which snake crowded roads. According to locals, tens of thousands of Iraqis have already joined their ranks, with the numbers increasing daily, and Salim Hamad is not atypical of the new arrivals.
Five months ago, Salim had to sell his car, his furniture, and most of his other belongings simply to raise enough money to bring his wife and three children to Syria. They had grown tired and fearful, he told me, of seeing corpses in their streets every day.
Because Jordan's pro-U.S. King Abdullah had long since clamped down on Iraqi entry to his country, for Salim and countless others, Syria has been the only available destination. Yarmouk, with electricity and running water, is, in fact, one of the better areas for refugees. The two other main refugee camps into which Iraqis are now flooding, Jaramana and Sayada Zainab, present far grimmer living conditions, including more than 10 people sleeping in rooms without beds, lacking potable drinking water and in some cases heat, and with intermittent electricity.
Other Iraqis are living in poorer city neighborhoods, eating up their savings, sometimes relying on the goodwill of Syrian friends or relatives. Given visa restrictions, which prohibit Iraqis from working here (except, of course, in the black market economy), when often meager savings run out, the crisis is sure to worsen exponentially.
UNHCR recently offered the following staggering projection: According to its best estimates about 12% of Iraq's population, now assumed to be about 24 million people, will be displaced by the end of 2007. We're talking about nearly 3 million ever more destitute Salim Hamads by the New Year. (Add to that Iraq's growing population of internal refugees and its spiraling civilian death tolls and you have the kind of decimation of a nation rarely seen -- with, undoubtedly, more to come.)
A report released March 22 by the NGO Refugees International calls the flight of Iraqis from war-torn Iraq "the world's fastest growing displacement crisis."
"The situation now is pushing Syria and Jordan to the maximum," the UNCHR's Wilkes told me. "Syria's 'open door' policy is extraordinary, but economically and socially we wonder how long it can be maintained. We're very aware of the impact on these governments this crisis is having. We're hoping the international community will help share the burden."
The primary trigger for this crisis was the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, and yet President Bush and his top officials have taken no significant steps whatsoever to share in the resulting refugee burden. To date, the administration has issued only 466 visas to Iraqis. Under recent pressure from the UN, it has said that it would offer an additional 7,000 visas -- but without either announcing the criteria for accepting such refugees or even when the visas might be issued. Upon hearing this paltry number, an Iraqi refugee said to me in disbelief: "Seven thousand out of over four million Iraqis who have either fled their country or are internally displaced?… I don't know if he could insult us more if he tried."
"I ask all nations, particularly the United States, to do all that they can to help us," was the way Qasim Jubouri, a banker who fled Baghdad with his family in order to keep them alive, put the matter to me. "Since the U.S. government caused all of this, shouldn't they also be responsible for helping us now?"
Like Salim, he too left for Syria with nothing more than some clothing and his meager savings. Now, the money he brought is running out and he has no idea how he will feed his family when it's gone.
Thirty-two year-old Ali Ahmed has a similar tale to tell. "I was a financial manager of seven companies in Baghdad, but I had to leave my house, my car, and just about everything." After militiamen fired on his car in the once upscale Mansoor district of Baghdad, Ali fled to Jordan. He returned to Iraq to try again, but once more faced death in an attack in which six employees from his management firm were killed.
And even that wasn't the end of it. "We had 11 engineers from one company detained by the Mehdi Army [the militia of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr]. We never heard from them again. I knew then that I had to drop everything and run for my life."
Ali does not see himself returning soon. "I don't expect to go back for at least 15-20 years. I have left everything behind, and now I have nothing but a small food store I run here. But it is not enough. Not the UN, nor any government, least of all the Iraqi government, is doing enough to help us." (The Syrian government, thus far, maintains a policy of looking the other way when it comes to modest or menial jobs Iraqis find which don't put Syrians out of work.)
Another Iraqi refugee told me of being detained by Mehdi Army militia members and having a rod forced down his throat as part of his "interrogation." He was lucky to come out of the experience alive. Many, on either side of the worsening sectarian struggle, do not. The slaughter of Sunnis by the Medhi Army and the slaughter of Shiites by Sunni extremist groups have become commonplace.
Despite the fact that Sadr recently ordered his militia to focus all its attacks on occupation forces, scores of dead bodies turning up on Baghdad's streets each day prove otherwise.
Iraqis who worked with, or have been in any way associated with, the American military or occupation authorities are faring at least as badly, if not worse. Everyone collaborating in any way with U.S. forces in Iraq is now targeted -- along with their families.
"I used to work with the Americans near Kut," Sa'ad Hussein, a 34-year-old electrical engineer told me, "I worked for Kellogg, Brown, and Root [then a subsidiary of oil-services giant Halliburton] to construct an Iraqi base there until I got my death threat on a piece of paper slipped under my door on my return to Baghdad. I had no choice but to flee."
"Things are getting so much worse in Iraq," was the way Salim Hamad, who fled five months ago, summed up life in his former homeland as our interview was ending. "There is a big difference between those who left four years ago and those who left four days ago. Everything in Iraq is based on sectarianism now and there is no protection -- neither from the Americans, nor the Iraqi government."
Fleeing "Freedom and Democracy"
Sa'ad Hussein, who arrived in Damascus only three months ago, described the Baghdad he left as a "city of ghosts" where the black banners of death announcements hang on most streets. There is, he claimed (and this was verified by others we spoke to among the more recent refugees), normally only one hour of electricity a day and no jobs to be found.
"I was an ex-captain in the Iraqi Army, and I think that's why I was threatened, in addition to working with the occupation authorities," he explained. When asked how many of his former Sunni army colleagues had also received death threats, he replied, "All of them." It was not safe, he told me, for him to go back to the now largely Shi'ite Iraqi Army because, "I may be killed. This is the new freedom and democracy we have."
On all measurable levels, life in Baghdad, now well into the fifth year of U.S. occupation, has become hellish for Iraqis who have attempted to remain, which, of course, only adds to the burgeoning numbers who daily become part of the exodus to neighboring lands. It is generally agreed that the delivery of security, electricity, potable water, health care, and jobs -- that is, the essentials of modern urban life -- are all significantly worse than during the last years of the reign of Saddam Hussein.
"The Americans are detaining so many people," Ali Hassan, a 41-year-old from the Hay Jihad area of Baghdad said as we spoke in front of the central UNHCR office in downtown Damascus. "And my brother was killed by Shi'ite militiamen after he refused to give them the keys to empty Sunni houses we were looking after."
As scores of other refugees crowded around photographer Jeff Pflueger and me, wanting to tell their stories, Hassan, a Shi'ite who also fled Baghdad just three months ago, added, "Now I can't go back. I am a refugee and I still don't feel secure because I still fear the Mehdi Army."
"So many Iraqis never leave their homes now because they are too afraid to go out due to the militias," Abdul Abdulla, a 68-year-old who fled Baghdad with his family insisted, having literally grabbed the microphone I was using to tape my interview with Hassan.
From the volatile Yarmouk area of Baghdad, Abdulla, a Sunni, said Shia militia members waited on the outskirts of his neighborhood in order to detain anyone trying to leave. "We stayed in our homes, but even then some people were being detained from their own houses. These death squads started coming after [former U.S. ambassador John] Negroponte arrived. And the Iraqi Government is definitely involved because they depend on [the militias]."
While talking with Abdulla, I noticed a woman in a black abaya or gown covering her entire body, one of her arms in a cast, standing nearby.
When I approached Eman Abdul Rahid, a 46-year-old mother from Baghdad, she willingly told me her sad story, all too typical of civilian life in the Iraqi capital today. "I was injured," she said, "because I was near a car bomb, which killed my daughter… There is killing, and threats of more killing, and explosions daily in Baghdad."
"America is the reason why Iraq was invaded, so we would like the American administration to give aid to us refugees," she added, "I would like people to read this and tell Bush to help us."
Six Months and Counting
Sundays and Mondays at the UNHCR refugee processing center in Douma are mob scenes. Refugees, some of whom have been waiting several months for their first interview at the center, an event crucial to finding aid, arrive in taxis, minibuses, on foot, or on buses specially hired by UNHCR. They line up outside a freshly painted white and blue gate, manned by security guards, and slowly trickle into the converted warehouse to wait eagerly for their names and numbers to be called.
On one of my Monday visits, as my friend Jeff and I approached the warehouse-turned-processing center there were more than 1,000 Iraqis crowded around the entrance hoping to get in. Taxis honked their way through the gathering crowds of refugees, each of whom held a number representing his or her place in line, along with passports and other required papers.
As we were being escorted inside the center by UNHCR public information assistant Adham Mardini, he told us that the previous day between 6,000 and 7,000 Iraqi refugees had descended on the place. On that day alone, 2,179 future appointments had been scheduled, each representing an average of 3.6 people, since many of them are set by the heads of families.
"Sundays and Mondays are always crazy here because these are the days we set their appointments," he commented. "And these people now have to wait up to six months just for their interview."
Some Iraqis showing up are, however, in need of emergency care. Refugees often arrive without medicines, and with serious heart problems, kidney failure, sizeable burns across their bodies, or ill-healed wounds -- and that's not even to speak of the psychological problems they face from violence seen or experienced or from lives completely uprooted. All of this, the minimalist UNHCR center must try to face. A surprising number of arrivals are simply put in ambulances to be taken either to local hospitals or treated by the Syrian Red Crescent.
Under a makeshift roof outside the warehouse but inside the outer gate, families lucky enough to have their numbers come up on this day are filling out forms. Men stand writing on sheets of paper pressed against walls; women hold crying babies amid the cacophony and chaos. Periodically, a UNHCR volunteer appears at the door of the building with a bullhorn to announce the names of those who should prepare to be interviewed. Most of them have been waiting at least four months for this day.
Iraqis continue to crowd through the door from the road as I talk with Mardini. "As you can see, the Baghdad security plan is working very well," he says with a wry smile. From hundreds of miles away, it's his organization which is providing what "security" is available and it can't hope to keep up with the steadily increasing numbers of desperate Iraqis.
To make matters worse, UNHCR officials have been noticing an increase in Kurdish refugees from the previously more peaceable northern regions of Iraq. "Over 50% of all newcomers in the last two weeks are Kurds," Kalkan, the UNHCR veteran of 15 years whom I'd spoken with before, says as he joins Mardini and me at the door. The two of them express a modest mix of frustration and discouragement, given the circumstances. After all, just as UNHCR in Damascus begins to ramp up to accommodate the massive numbers of refugees they have to deal with, the flow increases confoundingly.
Perhaps an hour later, when we make our way back to the street, the hoard of refugees has miraculously dwindled to only a few dozen forlorn Iraqis outside the now-closed door. We can't understand what made them all disappear so quickly.
"I came here three times to get this appointment because it was so crowded," an Iraqi doctor tells me, as he holds number 525, showing his place in line. "I arrived today at five AM with my family of eleven for this appointment and now they have postponed it!"
He had been one away in line when the door was closed for the day. Due to the burgeoning number of refugees, half the UNHCR interviewers had to be shifted to the task of scheduling future appointments for newcomers. Thus, half of the interviews for this day had been cancelled.
"Now I have to wait another two months," the doctor told me, as I stared into his tired eyes. He's still holding his number in his hand as a small crowd begins to build around us and others start to pour out similar stories of frustration and despair. As voices rise in frustration, Jeff flashes me a look of concern and we decide to thank them for their time and move on. Other than writing their collective tale of woe and taking their photos to show the world the faces of this growing crisis, there is little else we can do.
Abu Talat, a 58-year-old father of four, was my primary interpreter during my eight months in Iraq. Six months ago he finally gave up hope of remaining in his home in Baghdad, took his family, and like hundreds of thousands of other Iraqis fled to Syria. One of the luckier refugees, he had enough savings to rent a humble two-room apartment in Damascus.
He has always been, and remains, a proud man. Having served in the Iraqi Army until 1990, he holds military traits like dignity, honesty, and honor in the highest regard. While I've always offered to help him in any way I could as his life disintegrated, only once did he ever accept a meager sum of money from me.
Upon my arrival in Syria, he invited me to his home to share dinner with his family. After the meal, while we were drinking strong tea, he asked his daughter to show me the certificate from the UNHCR which proves that they are officially refugees. He handed me the paper and watched me as I read it.
The document lists him as the head of the family. A black-and-white photo of him is at the top of the page, and the names and ages of his family members at the bottom. Just above them is the following text:
"This is to certify that the above named person has been recognized as a refugee by the United Nations by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees pursuant to its extended mandate. As a refugee, (he/she) is a person of concern to the office of the United High Commissioner for Refugees, and should, in particular, be protected from forcible return to a country where (he/she) would face threats to his or her life or freedom. Any assistance accorded to above/named individual would be most appreciated."
I glanced at him, not knowing what to say, then handed the paper back. He looked it over himself, as if in disbelief, then let his gaze focus on nothing in particular, while his chest heaved as he visibly struggled to master the urge to weep. Finally, he said to no one in particular, "I am now a refugee."