Iraqis abandon their homes in Middle East's new refugee exodus

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Iraq is experiencing the biggest exodus in the Middle East since Palestinians were forced to flee in 1948 upon the creation of Israel.

"We were forced to leave our house six months ago and since then we have moved more than eight times," said Abu Mustafa, a 56-year-old man from Baghdad. "Sectarian violence has now even reached the displacement camps but we are tired of running away. Sometimes I have asked myself if it is not better to die than to live like a Bedouin all my life."

Iraqis are on the run inside and outside the country. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees said 50,000 Iraqis a month are abandoning their homes. Stephanie Jaquemet, regional representative of the UNHCR, said that two million Iraqis have fled abroad and another 1.5-2 million are displaced within the country - many of them from before the fall of Saddam Hussein.

They flee because they fear for their lives. Some 3,000 Iraqis are being killed every month according to the UN. Most come from Baghdad and the centre of the country, but all of Iraq outside the three Kurdish provinces in the north is extremely violent. A detailed survey by the International Organisation for Migration on displacement within Iraq said that most people move after direct threats to their lives: "These threats take the form of abductions; assassinations of individuals or their families."

There are fewer mixed areas left in Iraq. In Baghdad, militias now feel free to use mortars to bombard each other knowing that they will not hit members of their own community. Shia and Sunni both regard themselves as victims responding to provocation.

The most common destinations are Jordan and Syria which have taken 1.6 million people. At first it was the better-off who fled, including half of Iraq's 34,000 doctors. Now it is the poor who are arriving in Amman and Damascus with little means of surviving.

Only Syria has formally recognised a need for temporary protection for Iraqis. Others, including the US and UK, are loath to admit that one of the world's great man-made disasters is taking place. The UNHCR thinks every Iraqi should qualify as a refugee because of the extraordinary level of violence in the country. "This is the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world," Kenneth Bacon, president of Refugees International told the US Senate Judiciary Committee.

Some do not run fast enough. Ali, a Shia businessman who also had a job with the government, was slow to abandon his fine house in a Sunni part of west Baghdad. One day he was picked up by a gang, whipped and only released when he had handed over all his money. "The kidnappers told me to leave the country," he said."

But not all succeed in getting out of the country. The land routes to Jordan and Syria run through Sunni territory. Shia trying to reach safety have been taken from their vehicles to be shot by the side of the road. But Shia can move to safety in south Iraq and therefore make up the bulk of the internally displaced.

For Sunni there is no real place of safety in Iraq. In Baghdad they are being squeezed into smaller and smaller areas. Cities like Ramadi and Fallujah are partly ruined and very dangerous. Mohammed Sahib Ali, 48, a government employee, was forced out of the al-Hurriyah area by Shia militiamen. A Sunni, he took refuge in a school in Salah ad-Din province. "We are dying here," said Ali. "Not enough food, not enough medicines. I can't go to work and my three sons can't attend their classes. We don't know what to do."

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