The Iraqi refugee crisis is reaching breaking point, Amnesty International said in its report ‘Millions in Flight’, published yesterday.
Help from the international community has been ‘seriously inadequate,’ it concluded, focusing particularly on countries like the UK which participated in the invasion of Iraq and hence ‘carry particular responsibilities to Iraqis’.
At least four million Iraqis are now displaced and their numbers are continuing to rise at an estimated rate of 2,000 people per day, making this the world’s fastest growing displacement crisis.
The Amnesty report ‘Millions in Flight: the Iraqi refugee crisis’, follows a research mission to Syria and Jordan, the two countries which host the bulk of Iraq’s refugees.
Syria now hosts 1.4 million Iraqi refugees and Jordan 500-750,000 – making up 10 per cent of Jordan’s population – while 2.2 million people are displaced but still remain within Iraq.
The report commends the Syrian and Jordanian governments for largely keeping their borders open to date.
However, other states are accused of doing too little to help these governments meet the needs of almost two million Iraqi refugees whom they now host.
As a result, the two countries are taking steps to tighten border controls and so cut off the main escape routes for people fleeing from sectarian and other violence in Iraq.
‘Negative measures’ are employed by some countries – with the UK forcibly returning more Iraqi refugees than any other country in Europe.
Amnesty International opposes forcible returns to any part of Iraq, including the North, noting the persistence of violence and instability and the potential for civil war to spread to the Northern Governorates.
It criticises the UK policy of cutting off support to refused asylum seekers who cannot return home, a policy that has left some Iraqi asylum seekers destitute.
Director Kate Allen of Amnesty International UK said: ‘The international community has largely ignored the plight of millions of Iraqis displaced inside and outside Iraq.
‘With Syria and Jordan now preparing to tighten border controls, desperate people fleeing violence and death threats may have no escape route available.
‘It’s staggering that the UK is sending people back to Iraq when it should be helping Syria and Jordan to cope with this refugee crisis.
‘As one of the countries involved in the invasion of Iraq, it has a moral obligation to help those displaced by the bloodshed that has followed,’ Allen said.
Allen added: ‘The international community – including the UK – must do more to assist Jordan and Syria by providing increased financial, technical and in-kind bilateral assistance and by accepting greater numbers of especially vulnerable refugees for resettlement.
‘The modest steps taken by the international community simply do not measure up to the magnitude of the crisis.’
‘Although many pledges for assistance have been made, some have not yet been honoured and the level of support delivered has been seriously insufficient given the actual needs on the ground.’
Amnesty International is also calling for on-going assistance to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as well as national and international humanitarian organisations to enable them to continue to provide and expand their current work to protect and assist Iraqis in need.
The report criticises the slow pace of resettlement for the most vulnerable of the Iraqi refugees in Jordan and Syria, including victims of torture and other grave abuses.
It notes that between 2003, when the US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, and 2006, the number of Iraqi refugees who were resettled in third countries fell by more than a half, despite rising political violence.
According to UNHCR, 1,425 Iraqi refugees were resettled in third countries in 2003 but only 404 in 2006.
Meanwhile, Iraq’s Red Crescent reported on Friday that a jump has occurred in the number of Iraqis displaced in their own country because of rampant insecurity, and the building of sectarian walls enclosing entire communities by US forces in Baghdad.
The figure reached nearly two million in August.
More than 280,000 families, or 1.9 million people, were displaced at the end of August. Figures had been on the rise ever since January.
Baghdad accounted for the lion’s share with 970,000 more people classified as displaced. About 823,000 people came from the mainly Shi’ite east bank of the Tigris river which runs across the city.
Many displaced families had changed their residence several times moving for protection and access to services such as water, electricity and schools. ‘Some Sunni and Shi’ite families seek refuge in mixed areas,’ it said.
As well as a diaspora of people, US imperialism’s brutal assault on Iraq has caused a cholera outbreak.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Friday cholera has reached the capital, Baghdad, where laboratory tests confirmed that a 25-year-old woman was suffering from the disease.
WHO spokewoman Fadela Chaib told journalists that two more suspected cases in Baghdad were also being tested.
About 29,000 cases of acute watery diarrhoea have been recorded in Iraq over the past month, including 1,500 confirmed cases of cholera, mainly in the northeastern provinces of Suleimaniyah, Erbil and Kirkuk.
Chaib said the spread of the bacterial disease into Baghdad was largely expected because of the intense movement of people and goods between the northern areas and the capital.
‘For the time being we have only one case, but it’s likely that others will be suspected and identified,’ Chaib said.
‘The most important thing for Baghdad, even if it’s difficult, is to strengthen the surveillance system in order to be able to identify all the suspected cases,’ she added.
The WHO said it was ready to send more antibiotics and medical supplies if Iraqi health authorities requested.
Although cholera can easily be controlled through proper hygiene and treatment, delays in ensuring access to safe water and food could lead to further spread.
Ten people have died in Iraq since the outbreak was detected on August 23, Chaib said.