|An Iraqi boy waits for his mother to collect food aid from a church in Damascus, Syria, March 2007. According to Oxfam, 8 million Iraqis are in urgent need of emergency aid.|
Since the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003, millions of Iraqis have fled their homes. Today an estimated 750,000 to 2 million Iraqi refugees live in unstable situations in urban centers in the Middle East.1 For a more detailed discussion of different estimates of Iraqi refugee numbers, please read the footnote at the end of this overview. Palestinian refugees who were living in Iraq have been refused entry by all of Iraq’s neighbors, and 3,000 are now stranded in camps along the Iraqi-Syrian border. Another 2.7 million Iraqis are internally displaced persons (IDPs) within their country; 1.7 million of these IDPs have fled their homes since 2003.
Forced migration from Iraq continues to occur, although at far lower levels than in 2006 and 2007. UNHCR in Syria reports that it has registered around 12,500 refugees who left Iraq in 2008. The brutal persecution of Christians in Mosul in fall 2008 and tensions over Kirkuk and other disputed areas underscore the reality of ongoing gross human rights violations in Iraq and the potential for new refugee and IDP flows.
Preliminary surveys suggest about one-third of the displaced population fled generalized violence, while two-thirds fled targeted religious, political, or ethnic persecution, and in some cases were forcibly expelled from their property. In neighboring countries, Iraqi refugees have encountered both hospitality and hostility. For the most part, they enjoy freedom of movement and access to subsidized public health care and education, particularly in Syria. However most refugees cannot obtain work authorization and many refugees lack legal residence rights. In the past two years, as Iraqi refugees have exhausted their savings, the cost of living in host countries has rapidly risen. Human Rights First has observed the beginnings of frustration and fatigue among host communities in Syria as well as serious anti-Iraqi and anti-Shi’a discrimination in Jordan. With time, these tensions could aggravate instability in the region.
Based on field interviews conducted in Jordan in September 2007 and Syria in October 2008, Human Rights First believes that a high percentage of Iraqis who register with UNHCR do not see return to Iraq as a realistic option for the foreseeable future, and hope that registering with UNHCR will provide a path to resettlement in a third country. In the past two years, the United States has resettled about 15,000. In addition, 64,500 Iraqis made applications for asylum in industrialized countries in 2007 and the first half of 2008, primarily in Sweden, Germany, and Greece.
The situation for IDPs in Iraq is desperate. Problems include access to food rations, clean water, education, health care, income, and safe housing. Provincial leaders in safer regions of Iraq have prevented IDPs from entering their governorates and recently expressed desires to forcibly expel IDPs. Most IDPs rent shelter or live with extended family. A small percentage live in camps, and significant numbers of extremely vulnerable IDPs in Baghdad and other areas are squatting on public lands. The Iraqi government is pressing for imminent eviction of these IDPs, but lacks a clear plan for their alternative shelter.
 There is disagreement among humanitarian NGOs, UN agencies, and the governments of Jordan and Syria over the likely numbers of Iraqi refugees living in these two countries. The Jordanian government has said that half a million Iraqi refugees live in Jordan, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Syria says that 1.2 million have sought refuge there. However, Syria and Jordan have allowed few statistically significant population surveys, and they have limited UNHCR’s outreach to unregistered Iraqis. To date, UNHCR has registered 54,000 Iraqi refugees in Jordan and 220,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria. It is challenging to evaluate the different estimates of refugee numbers; Human Rights First currently finds lower estimates that place the total number of Iraqi refugees at around 1 million to be more credible.
UNHCR fears that pressing host governments about their estimates could jeopardize its ability to protect refugees in Syria and Jordan. Conversely, other international NGOs suggest that lower numbers may in the long term be used to pressure host governments to extend work rights to Iraqi refugees. The issue of refugee numbers will have to be dealt with carefully by the new administration.