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Haunted guests
Iraqis seek refuge
with their neighbours


In the largest population movement in the Middle East since 1948, a huge influx of Iraqis is putting pressure on services in Jordan and Syria. How are their Red Crescent Societies responding to the needs?


Abdul Sattar, Dunia, Nawal and Abdul Karim have two things in common: death threats forced all four of them to flee their native Iraq; and they rely on Red Crescent Societies in neighbouring countries. The two men and two women come from different ethnic and social backgrounds. Each has his or her story and reason for escaping from Iraq. Although they come from different sources, the threats are the same: leave or die a violent death.

Security in Iraq has deteriorated to such an unprecedented level, due to the international armed conflict that began in 2003 and internal fighting, that many Iraqis find it nearly impossible to live in their own country. The result is that an estimated 4.2 million Iraqis have left their homes, the largest population movement in the Middle East since more than 800,000 Palestinians fled to neighbouring countries in 1948, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Fearing for his life, Abdul Sattar, 30, left Baghdad a year ago and settled in Damascus. When he ran out of funds in June 2007, he decided to go back to Baghdad to sell his car, his only remaining possession of value.

“This was my only alternative,” he explains, speaking with difficulty.

His troubles began almost as soon as he arrived home. He was stopped at a checkpoint on his way to sell his car. The car was taken. He and nine other people were stuffed into a minivan and taken to a house.

“I saw instruments of torture hanging from the ceiling,” recalls Abdul Sattar. The people were beaten and tortured. Two men were shot on the spot. The rest were taken to a place called Al-Sadiyyah, a location known to have become a killing field at the edge of Sadr City, in Baghdad.

Their heads covered with their shirts, the hostages were ordered to kneel. It was dawn when they were shot at close range. Abdul Sattar was shot three times. One of the bullets lodged in his jaw. He can barely open his mouth now. “I still cannot believe I was so lucky. The pain was unbearable but I was able to sneak back home.” All the others died instantly.

His family took him to a nearby hospital where he had several operations. Afraid of being kidnapped again and killed, he left for Damascus the day he was released from hospital.

Dunia, who is also a Shiite, escaped from Baghdad because her husband, a blacksmith who had been assisting Iraqi forces to armour their vehicles, was first warned then kidnapped by the resistance.

Abdul Karim and Nawal are former Ba’ath party members; both are Shia. They would have been killed if they had stayed in their neighbourhoods. Nawal lost both her legs during US bombing in 1991.

Swelling population

According to several international reports, an estimated 50,000 Iraqis leave their country each month. Most of them go to Syria or Jordan before attempting to travel to third countries.

“Somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 new Iraqis enter Syria every month,” says Abdul Rahman Al-Attar, president of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. “Many do not have the means to support themselves.”

More than 2 million “externally displaced” Iraqis have crossed the borders into neighbouring Syria and Jordan since conflict began in Iraq in 2003. The large increase in the populations of the two countries (over 8 per cent for Syria and15 per cent for Jordan) has strained the health, education, water and other systems. Prices of consumer items, real estate and rents have seen sharp increases. More than 750,000 Iraqis have taken refuge in Jordan and nearly 1.5 million in Syria.

Danger at home

To help displaced Iraqis, the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement and international humanitarian agencies are providing health care, psychosocial support and educational assistance. Jordan and Syria do not consider Iraqis to be refugees but guests or expatriates.

In August, the Jordan National Red Crescent Society inaugurated the first of five health clinics for Iraqis. In cooperation with the International Federation, which launched an appeal for US$15 million to assist Iraqis in Syria and Jordan, the National Societies are to provide health care to 40,000 families in Jordan and 30,000 families in Syria. The Syrian Arab Red Crescent has established 12 health clinics around Syria in cooperation with UNHCR and other organizations. The clinics offer specialized medical services such as gynaecology, dental, internal medicine, neurology, paediatrics and immunization.

Recent visits to three Damascus clinics showed large crowds of patients. Each clinic receives 150 to 200 patients every day. “I treat nearly 200 patients with bone problems a week,” explains Akram Al-Hasani, a surgeon at Sayyida Zainab clinic. “Many have gunshot wounds or old injuries.”

The clinics accept both Iraqis and Syrians for treatment. “Nearly 70 per cent of the population of this neighbourhood are Iraqis, the rest are Syrian,” explains Amer Al-Ali, manager of Jaramana health clinic. “Both are welcome to our clinic. We do not discriminate here.”

Two important meetings were held in July 2007 in Amman and Damascus to study the best ways of helping host countries deal with the crisis. The Amman meeting was co-chaired by the Jordanian and Iraqi foreign ministries, and attended by representatives of the International Federation, ICRC and National Societies. It called upon the international community to provide substantial assistance to the two governments to enable them to meet the challenges of an increasingly volatile situation.

In Damascus, government agencies, the Movement, United Nations and humanitarian agencies discussed improving health care for Iraqis in Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

Abdul Sattar, Nawal, Abdul Karim, Dunia and thousands more Iraqis feel blessed that they are cared for in exile. Abdul Sattar says he will not go back home any time soon.

“They called my cousin by phone from Iraq,” he says. “I am frightened. They know that I live in Damascus.”

His three scars seem to have healed, but the psychological scars of his ordeal, and that of thousands of others, will take much longer to be cured.









Mass movement

UNHCR estimates that more than 4.2 million Iraqis have left their homes. Of these, some 2.2 million are displaced internally, while more than 2 million have fled to neighbouring states, particularly Syria and Jordan. Many were displaced before 2003; numbers have increased since. In 2006, Iraqis had become the leading nationality seeking asylum in Europe.













Saleh Dabbakeh
Saleh Dabbakeh was International Federation
information delegate for the Middle East and
North Africa.



Internal exile in Iraq

Fleeing sectarian violence in Iraq, hundreds of families continue to leave their homes every day. Some live in shelters; others stay with families or friends. The less fortunate people move to abandoned buildings or tents. Most head towards the north, though internal movements are highly restricted. More than 2 million Iraqis are internally displaced.

Displaced families leave behind most of their belongings, except money. However, many have depleted their financial resources. Their presence imposes financial burdens on host communities. Finding a job is a challenge due to the lack of opportunities in many areas where internally displaced people stay. Their presence increases pressure on water, health services, education and food. Thus, displacement affects everyone. Many displaced families have also lost contact with loved ones and are desperately hoping for news.

The Iraqi Red Crescent Society remains the major humanitarian player assisting IDPs. Since 2005, the ICRC has carried out relief activities for the most vulnerable people, which includes displaced people and resident populations. In addition to supporting health structures, the ICRC rehabilitates water facilities, supports Iraqi Red Crescent Society programmes that supply essential items to displaced people and traces missing people.
Hisham Hassan, ICRC spokesperson for Iraq


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