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Human Beings or Human Fodder? - The humanitarian crisis in Iraq
Four years into a devastating war, Iraq is witnessing the worst human catastrophe that any country in the Middle East has known since the mass exodus of Palestinian refugees during al-nakba of 1948...

4 June   |   2007   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... Most pundits agree that there are around 2 million Iraqis who have fled their country, and roughly another 2 million have been displaced internally as a result of the insurgency and sectarian violence. Too poor to escape abroad, they have sought refuge with relatives in ‘safer’ regions of the country. In short, since 2003, 1 out of 7 Iraqis has fled his or her home.

According to Antonio Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, the majority of those who fled Iraq have gone to Syria and Jordan. Moreover, another 50,000 Iraqis are still fleeing their homes each month in an exodus linked to pervasive violence, poor basic services, loss of jobs and an unsure future.

Syria, with a population of 19 million, has about 1.2 million Iraqi refugees. Jordan, another country of six million people, is now sheltering 750,000 Iraqis. Their governments say they are unable to keep coping with such large inflows. Jordan has already moved to limit new arrivals by barring Iraqi men between the ages of 17 and 35. Others have been far less welcoming: Kuwait, for instance, has completely shut its doors, whilst Saudi Arabia is building a $7 billion border fence to keep Iraqis out.

Only recently, the International Organisation for Migration reported that about half of Iraq's 15 central and southern provinces, including Basra, were turning away newly displaced people unless they could prove their local roots. Earlier, he International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the world's largest disaster relief agency, had appealed for 18.2 million Swiss francs, mainly for health services for 100,000 displaced Iraqi families.

A conference held in Geneva last April decided that the European Commission will spend up to €18 million to help refugees fleeing chronic insecurity in Iraq. According to Franco Frattini, the EU Justice and Migration Commissioner, €11 million from this pot will go toward humanitarian aid in the region, while EU states would receive up to €7 million to help them take in refugees.

Such is the toll of this sad war. Car bombings and other violence now kill an average of 100 people a day, whilst two out of three Iraqis still have no regular access to clean water. Children are malnourished and too many are dying from preventable diseases and the near collapse of the health care system. The economy remains stagnant and utility performance is abysmal. Is it any wonder then that those 4 million Iraqis are part of a regional tsunami that is destabilising the political demographics of Iraq and its neighbouring countries?

Yet, simply pledging money to help with the situation is a wanting strategy. Even if one assumes that the pledges will reach their destinations, in itself a highly questionable assumption, what is required is to devise and implement a strategy on prevention, since it is much more sensible to prevent refugee flows than merely react to them later.

One part of this strategy would include the stabilisation of Iraq - something the government has heretofore not yet achieved despite logistical support from the USA and the surge that is meant to bolster the security drive in different governorates of Iraq. But another part would also require Western governments - especially the coalition forces involved in this war - to absorb some of those refugees. How could it be admissible, for example, that the USA has denied refuge to many Iraqis because, under the Patriot and Real ID Acts, they are tarred with having provided material support to terrorists in the form of ransoms paid to kidnappers to secure the release of family members?
The war in Iraq exhibits multi-dimensional but inter-linked facets where it is not always easy to proceed with an examination of issues separately from each other. One such pressing issue is the status of Kirkuk, a northern Iraqi city that is ethnically mixed and oil-rich, where security is deteriorating rapidly and an explosion of ethnic tensions threatens to fragment further the country. It is important for the Kurdish local government to forge a strategy for Kirkuk that incorporates progress on Iraq’s hydrocarbons law in order to cement the Kurdish region within Iraq.

Parallel with the contentious issue of Kirkuk is the substantial military build-up already under way on the Turkish side of the border. Here again, there is a tug-of-war between the Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens over oil. But there is also Ankara’s fear that a Kurdish quasi-independent statelet on its borders could embolden Turkey’s 15 million-strong Kurdish minority to demand autonomy or independence.

Those two facets of the war, in addition to a myriad others that are contributory to the Iraqi quotient of uncertainty, are largely being paid for by the population - whether Arabs, Kurds and other minorities - who are desperately - and understandably - trying to protect themselves from death, violence and destitution by fleeing the country. 

One constant argument put forward against an early withdrawal of American and allied troops from Iraq is that it is irresponsible to leave the country in such a mess - one, incidentally, that we in the West have played our part in its creation. Surely the same is true of the human mess? True, the humanitarian crisis afflicting Iraq cannot be undone effortlessly. But it is surely the moral responsibility of the international community to assist those refugees and displaced people and - equally crucially - help prevent further humanitarian crises in this riven country.

Or am I asking the wrong question? Are we so cynical, and have our aggregate values devalued so much, that human beings - whether Iraqis or otherwise - are no better than human fodder?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2007   |   4 June


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