Thursday, November 13, 2008

Iraqi Refugees: What Needs to Happen and What is Being Done

Julia is head of her family. A widow and mother, she fled Iraq shortly after her daughter was sexually assaulted in their home by an armed militia.

The family was once considered affluent, but without any employment and the exhaustion of their savings, this mother and daughter have no means of survival in Damascus, Syria, where they live today.

“Each person, like Julia, represents a compelling story,” said Bob Carey of International Rescue Committee and Refugee Council USA at Rutgers School of Law, where students, activists and academics gathered three weeks ago for Iraq at the Crossroads: Protecting Refugees, Rescuing our Allies, and Empowering Iraqi Law.

Julia and her daughter, like so many millions of Iraqis, find themselves with grave shortages and threats in Iraq’s neighbor countries of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan. “As urban refugees, many services can’t reach them,” continued Carey. “And there is a lack of images [of Iraqi refugees] as a catalyst to action.”

Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria are not signatories to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which would require them to allow refugees to work, travel and go to school. As non-signers, they may also forcibly expel refugees back into Iraq, even if refugees’ homes remain unsafe.

Joining Bob Carey at the Rutgers conference was Hillary Ingraham of the U.S. State Department.

“While many Iraqis were initially able to sustain themselves, this is no longer possible,” said Ingraham.

She added that while registration for aid is available and encouraged, many Iraqi refugees do not approach the UNHCR and aid agencies. There is a prevailing stigma of registration for fear that they will be forcibly returned to Iraq. Registration, however, allows the UN and agencies to monitor the conditions of life and whereabouts of refugees, assist with housing, work and education, and provide heating fuel, food, and clothing.

The panel finished with Emily Gish of Mercy Corps, whose organization provides much-needed, immediate relief to Iraqi refugees outside of Iraq, as well as Iraq's internally displaced persons (IDPs) and vulnerable populations still within Iraq's borders. Mercy Corps' response to Iraqi displacement is strengthened through partnerships with the U.S. State Department, World Food Programme, Middle East Council of Churches, and a host of other organizations and agencies, enabling Iraqis both inside and outside of the country to receive much needed aid.

“Access to the health services, health education for pregnant women, mobile clinic, immunizations, water services, school supplies, warm clothes, and non-perishable foods,” she said, are some of the many services and goods provided. Mercy Corps also seeks to address the unique needs of Iraqi refugees who are victims of psychological, gender-based violence.

As the panel came to a close, Carey said any solution to the humanitarian crisis must be led by a UN ministerial conference. He added that the United States should fund 50% of what is requested by the UN, and called for a multi-year, multi-lateral, civilian-led resolution as the best way forward in Iraq.

Caption: (top) Panel speakers from right: Sana Hardina of Refugee Council USA, Hillary Ingraham of the U.S. Dept. of State, Emily Gish of Mercy Corps, and Bob Carey of International Rescue Committee/Refugee Council USA. By EPIC.

Caption: (left) Emily Gish of Mercy Corps. By EPIC.

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