For all the heartening news coming out of Iraq recently, there is a humanitarian crisis that threatens to completely overwhelm the ability of the Iraqis and the world community to deal with it.
I am talking about those Iraqi citizens who have been forced from their homes – usually at gun point – and forced to flee for their lives. Most often, the refugees make their way to a relatives home in another part of the country. The problem is that many of the smaller cities and towns in western Iraq where most of the Sunni refugees have gravitated are being overwhelmed. Social services are breaking down and there is a real danger of a humanitarian catastrophe.
To date, there have been around 730,000 Iraqis internally displaced since our invasion and occupation:
About 730,000 Iraqis have fled their homes since the beginning of 2006 and are facing increasing hardship inside Iraq, the UN refugee agency said on Tuesday.
Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said that most of the displaced were now hemmed inside the conflict-riven country.
“Reaching help and safety in neighbouring countries is becoming increasingly difficult,” Redmond told journalists.
“Many of those who have fled to other parts of Iraq have run out of resources and host communities are also struggling to absorb increasing numbers of displaced,” he added.
The UNHCR estimates that up to 50,000 people are fleeing their homes every month.
An estimated 4.0 million people in Iraq are dependent on food assistance, while the rate of chronic malnutrition among children is 23 percent, Redmond said.
We broke it. It’s our responsibility to fix it.
When 23% of the children are showing signs of chronic malnutrition, it’s time to hit the panic button. At the very least, we should be bending every effort – cajoling, pleading, begging the international community to put aside their distaste for our invasion and occupation and recognize that only with a concerted effort on the part of all can innocent lives be saved.
Of late, Prime Minister Maliki has made getting some of these refugees back into their homes a priority – especially in the formerly mixed neighborhoods of Baghdad. When the Mahdi Army ruled the streets, they routinely moved into neighborhoods and ordered all the Sunnis to leave – usually within 24 hours.
But a new program initiated by Maliki could slowly start to reverse the flood and contribute to the healing and reconciliation process so vital to the re-establishment of Iraqi civil society:
At a time of epic displacement, Fuad Khamis has done something extraordinary: He has moved back home.
“When I arrived, I was overwhelmed and frightened at the same time,” says Khamis, a Sunni Arab taxi driver from Baghdad’s religiously mixed Sadiya neighborhood.
His house was damaged and there wasn’t a piece of furniture left. But the father of five says his Shiite neighbors have welcomed him back with hugs and kisses.
Encouraged by a major security clampdown that began Feb. 13, and reassurances from his neighbors, Khamis is one of the first to test Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s recent pledge to reverse the tide of sectarian “cleansing” sweeping Baghdad and move tens of thousands of people back home.
One of the major hurdles is a lack of resources to help the displaced move back in. And there are other problems with Maliki’s program:
Maliki has taken a tough line, labeling as terrorists everyone living in homes that were taken by force and informing parliament they would be arrested.
But the U.S. military, which is to contribute 17,500 troops to the Baghdad crackdown, says its forces won’t help the government evict squatters. U.S. officials believe it is a recipe for further abuses.
“It’s a no-win situation,” says Col. Douglass S. Heckman, senior U.S. advisor to the 9th Iraqi Army Division in east Baghdad.
Acknowledging the complications, Iraq’s Cabinet on Thursday gave occupants an extra two weeks to vacate the homes of the displaced or obtain written permission to remain.
Maliki’s government does not have the means to carry out a major resettlement program. Abdul Samad Sultan, minister of migration and displacement, expects many families will go home on their own once they see it is safe. They are being offered about $200 to help with the cost of the move. Apart from that, Sultan can only offer to issue badges allowing their return to contested areas and ask their erstwhile neighbors to write letters welcoming them back.
“I think that the Iraqi people have big hearts and can forgive the past,” Sultan says. “They have seen the results of violence.”
The more than 700,000 internally displaced people does not include the nearly 2 million refugees who have fled Iraq since the invasion. Coupled with another 2 million who left under Saddam, Iraq’s neighbors – especially Syria and Jordan – are having a difficult time caring for this human flood. Conditions in the Syrian refugee camps are said to be horrible and getting worse. The United Nations is giving what help it can but with these kind of numbers involved, only the western nations working together can alleviate that kind of suffering.
But with a huge problem being barely addressed in Darfur, the idea that the world will do anything to help with the refugee problems in Iraq is a chimera. Only steadfast and bold leadership from the United States can reverse the crisis. And sadly, as in other areas, the US is found wanting in that department.