Yesterday, I attended a roundtable strategy session tackling the challenge of Iraq's war refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Refugee Council USA hosted the gathering, which included representatives from operational NGOs such as International Medical Corps and the International Rescue Committee, as well as research and advocacy organizations Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and EPIC.
Being involved in this meeting of minds was exciting. The room buzzed with creativity, and each organization had a unique perspective to offer. I was particularly interested to meet Kirk Johnson, an advocate of resettling Iraqi refugees who worked for the U.S. and international organizations.
The roundtable kicked off by examining the refugee crisis in its current and future stages. Victor Tanner of SAIS, along with Bill Frelick of Human Rights Watch, highlighted important differences between the refugee policies of Syria and Jordan. The Jordanian government’s treatment of refugees has been hardline. As Tanner pointed out, Jordan sees the Iraqi refugee population as a threat to national security and even national identity. In a land of 5.63 million people, Jordan has 1.7 million Palestinian refugees (many living as citizens), 500,000-800,000 Iraqi refugees from the 1990 Iraq war, plus 700,000 to a million Iraqi refugees who have fled sectarian violence resulting from the 2003 invasion.
Syria has been more welcoming to Iraqis for a number of reasons. Syrians have a keen sense of Arab nationalism and feel a sense of pride about letting Iraqis into their country. In addition, Syrians have a diplomatic card to play, especially in relation to the west. But Syria's infrastructure will struggle to cope with Iraqis as they continue to enter the country at such an alarming rate.
Later, the roundtable focused on the U.S. and UK, which bear considerable responsibility for the displacement of Iraqis. These countries need to dedicate significant funds to resettling tens of thousands of refugees each year, and supporting Iraq’s neighbors and the greater Middle East with this crisis.
We also recognized that creativity and new approaches are essential. For example, Norway, one of the most expensive countries in Europe, has proposed turning its openings for refugees into money for resettlement elsewhere, money that will go much further in a country such as Chile, which itself has proposed resettling 100 refugees over the following year.
EPIC’s own Erik Gustafson talked about some of successful programs helping refugees, a theme brought up by representatives of Relief International, International Medical Corps and the International Rescue Committee. These relief organizations have implemented initiatives including management of mobile health clinics and school construction and rehabilitation. Although the issue at times appears overwhelming, it is important to recall that there are successes in the region and that the Iraqi refugees can be helped.