More than five years after the United States invaded Iraq, an estimated 4.7 million Iraqis remain displaced either internally or in neighboring countries (about 1 million of them were displaced before the 2003 U.S. invasion). They face increasingly dire circumstances due to higher food prices, dwindling savings, and few work opportunities.
In August, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that between 1 million and 1.5 million Iraqi refugees were residing in Syria, 450,000 to 500,000 in Jordan, and 50,000 in Lebanon. In addition, it reported in September that 1.6 million Iraqis had been internally displaced since February 2006, when the bombing of a mosque in Samarra killed tens of thousands and ignited sectarian violence.
UNHCR also reported that Iraq continued to be the leading source of asylum applicants worldwide in the first half of 2008, a rank Iraq has held since 2006.
Although the 19,500 asylum claims represent a 10 percent decrease over the first half of 2007 (when 21,400 petitions were filed), Iraqis filed twice as many claims as people from the Russian Federation, the second-largest source country for asylum seekers. One in five applications (3,900) was submitted in Sweden, which still attracts the most Iraqi asylum seekers. The next-largest recipients were Germany (3,400), Turkey (2,700), and the Netherlands (2,400).
In the long term, observers agree that the only practical solution for most Iraqi refugees is to go home rather than be resettled to a third country or settle permanently where they are now.
It seems clear, however, that repatriation will not happen quickly. At the end of 2008, most Iraqis appear unwilling to return home, although a few thousand reportedly did so in late 2007.
The Iraqi government sponsored the return of 250 refugees in August 2008. But in early October, the Iraqi Embassy in Damascus, Syria, had few takers for its offer of plane tickets and $1,800 in cash to return home, according to media reports.
In fact, most nongovernmental and refugee organizations believe Iraqis in the region should stay put because Iraq is still too violent, despite some security gains. In addition, the pace of postwar reconstruction has been slow: many Iraqi cities lack utilities, schools, health care, other basic services, and job opportunities. Because of massive internal displacement, some families may find that others have occupied their homes.
New registrations with UNHCR have slowed since the peak in September 2007, but it is not clear what this means — fewer refugees in need or fewer who consider it worth the trouble to register.
The United States expanded its capacity to process refugees in the region, including in Iraq, which enabled it to resettle 13,823 Iraqis by September 30, 15 percent more than its goal of 12,000.
The United States also created a special immigrant visa category for Iraqis who worked for the U.S. government or U.S. contractors; 5,000 such visas are available annually for the next five years, and visa-holders will be able to bring their families with them.
Nongovernmental and refugee organizations welcomed this news and the U.S. goal of resettling at least 17,000 Iraqi refugees in 2009.
But they insist that the United States, Iraq, and the international community must better support Syria, Jordan (which made an appeal in late November), and other countries that have felt the strain of a large — and not entirely welcome — refugee population.