Iraqi refugee crisis grows as West turns its back

With millions displaced, foreign countries take increasingly hardline stance

The plight of Iraqi refugees is now worse than ever, with millions struggling to survive in desperate conditions and with little hope of finding sanctuary.

While the crisis continues, the world community, especially Western countries, have not only failed to help but are also erecting fresh obstacles to prevent the dispossessed men, women and children from settling on their shores, says a new report by Amnesty International.

Many governments have attempted to justify their hardline stance by citing supposed improvements in the security situation in Iraq. But after a marked decline, the level of violence is rising again. The numbers killed each month fell from 1,800 in August 2007 to 541 in January 2008. However, in March and April alone, more than 2,000 people, mostly civilians, died during clashes between US and Iraqi government forces and the Shia militia Mehdi Army.

The Iraqi diaspora is now one of the largest in modern times, with more than two million people fleeing abroad. But the ferocious strife and the breakdown in law and order have led to another wave of about 2.7 million fleeing their homes but unable to escape the country. Many of these have moved to Baghdad, putting further strain on a shattered infrastructure and adding to the city's sectarian tensions. The situation in terms of numbers and conditions for the displaced people has deteriorated dramatically in the past two years, Amnesty claims.

"The crisis for Iraq's refugees and internally displaced is one of tragic proportions," said the report. "Despite this, the world's governments have done little or nothing to help, failing in both their moral duty and legal obligation to share responsibility for displaced people wherever they are. Apathy towards the crisis has been the overwhelming response."

Iraq's neighbouring states hosted the vast majority of the refugees following the invasion by US and British forces in 2003 with a handful – less than 1 per cent – making it to Europe and North America. But these continents, facing their own economic hardships, have imposed harsher barriers, while the affluent West has begun to deport asylum-seekers to Iraq because it is purported now to be reaching stability.

There have been one or two highly publicised returns of refugees from Syria last autumn, which do not reflect the situation on the ground. The reality is that there are huge numbers trying to leave Iraq using both legal and illegal means

The Iraqi government, attempting to show that it was getting on top of the security situation, and to stop the flow of educated people out of the country, has been lobbying states in the region to put up restrictions. For instance, Syria, which had taken in the largest proportion of refugees, stopped the hitherto free entry across the border towards the end of last year at the request of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki. Jordan, which has also received a large number of those fleeing, imposed new visa requirements last month.

Britain, whose forces in Basra do not venture out from their base at the airport, has been a leading proponent of sending people back because it was "safe". On 27 March, 60 people were flown back to Iraq following another 120 deported over the past three years. Sweden, which has until now followed a liberal policy on Iraqi refugees, referred 1,776 cases to the police for forcible return, and, in a test case, a decision by the migration board not to grant asylum to an applicant who has arrived from Baghdad on the basis that there is no "armed conflict" in Iraq has been confirmed.

Most of the refugees in countries bordering Iraq do not have the right to work. Many live on meagre handouts and dwindling savings. Those who end up working in the black economy are often cheated, and there has been a rise in cases of child labour and women being forced into prostitution.

The Independent on Sunday spoke to Rashid, 14, who supports his disabled father, mother and four brothers and sisters by doing manual work in Damascus. "I take any job I can. We need the money," he said. "I sometimes start at six in the morning and do not get back home until eight or nine at night. I have worked as a labourer, selling chai, cleaning shoes. We come from Ramadi, and I used to go to school there. I would like to continue with my education, but I do not think that will be possible. I would also like to go back to Iraq, but we have nothing left there."

The forced migration within Iraq is largely unreported, with families being uprooted from homes they had occupied for generations. The Independent on Sunday spoke to two families, one Shia, the other Sunni, about how they had to flee. In both cases, the horrors they endured have turned tolerance and friendship across the religious divide into sectarian hatred.

Um Samir al-Rawi, who is Sunni, lives with her two daughters, Saba, 33, and Hiba, 28, in a dark and dingy house in Khadra, a Sunni area where they had taken refuge after being driven out of their home in the previously mixed Jihad district. Mrs al-Rawi's husband died in 2004, and their son, Samir, is in exile in Syria after being hunted by the Mehdi Army which had accused him of being an insurgent.

The al-Amiry family, who are Shias, fled their home in Ghazaliyah after it came under attack from Sunni gunmen. "They began killing Shias, saying we were unclean and they will dispose of us," said Mr al-Amiry. "The government did nothing to protect us. Then one morning my daughter found an envelope on the doorstep with an AK47 bullet and a note telling us that we had 48 hours to get out."

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