The Hellish Situation of Iraqi Refugees

Amman, Jordan - I wanted to scream out loud -- in fact, I think I did -- when I read that John Bolton said that the United States had no responsibility for the more than two million Iraqi refugees who have fled the incredible violence in their country. The below is quoted from a New York Times Magazine article ("The Flight from Iraq" by Nir Rosen, May 13, 2007):

The refugees, he [Bolton] said, have 'absolutely nothing to do with our overthrow of Saddam. Our obligation,' he told me this month at his office in the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, 'was to give them new institutions and provide security. We have fulfilled that obligation. I don't think we have an obligation to compensate for the hardships of war.' Bolton likewise did not share the concerns of Bacon and others that the refugees would become impoverished and serve as a recruiting pool for militant organizations in the future. 'I don't buy the argument that Islamic extremism comes from poverty,' he said. 'Bin Laden is rich.' Nor did he think American aid could alleviate potential anger: 'Helping the refugees flies in the face of received logic. You don't want to encourage the refugees to stay. You want them to go home. The governments don't want them to stay.'

This is, quite simply, outrageous. The hellish situation refugees from Iraq find themselves in is unquestionably our responsibility and it is well beyond time we start doing something to help them.

I'm here in Amman, where about 750,000 Iraqis refugees have fled the mind-numbing violence in Iraq, to get the stories from the refugees themselves about their daily lives.

What has perhaps struck me most is that unlike other refugee situations where I've been, the refugees remind me of my friends and community. That is, many come from middle class backgrounds not that different from mine, and probably yours, where they had a home, a car, an active social life with friends and family, were well-educated, had a decent job, traveled abroad for vacation and had hopeful future plans for themselves and their children. Never in their comfortable lives did they imagine that they would one day be refugees, in hiding and illegal in a country that doesn't recognize that they exist, unable to work or receive basic services like health care, and that their children would not be able to go to school.

The families we have met, from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds in Iraq, are living in absolute fear, many hiding in the slums of Amman, trying desperately not to draw attention to themselves. The Jordanian government does not consider them as refugees, but "guests" until their paperwork expires (most temporary permits have long expired) and then illegals after that, deportable at any time.

To be fair, the Jordanian government has been very tolerant of the refugees, allowing hundreds of thousands to enter when the government has a tough time dealing with its own poor population. In addition, Jordan is already home to a huge number of Palestinian refugees -- incredibly, about 60 percent of those living in Jordan are Palestinian. It's understandable that they just can't handle this huge influx from Iraq.

While Jordan tolerates these refugees, and has thus far deported relatively few -- although this might be changing -- it cannot provide even the most basic services that these refugees need. And because the Iraqis are not considered refugees by the government, international aid organizations are having a difficult time finding ways to help them.

The families have little, if any, income. Men are too afraid to work -- many we met were scared to leave their homes for fear of deportation. Instead, they sit at home all day, feeling increasingly frustrated and angry at being unable to help their families. Women are less likely to be deported so some work here and there, but have no protections from employers who choose to exploit or abuse them.

Iraqi refugee children cannot attend Jordanian public schools because they are already overcrowded. Iraqi children are permitted to go to private school, but very few refugees can afford to pay the school fees. The parents we met were sick that their children were not able to go to school; the children themselves told me that all they wanted to do was to learn again.

Health care is a huge issue, too. There are a few places where Iraqi refugees can go for basic services; the aid organization Caritas is doing good work providing the basics, but anything beyond the routine is available only in private hospitals, which are far too expensive for refugees.

I've got many stories to tell -- which I will share in my posts over the next few days. All of which could happen to anyone in war or violent conflict. But let's not forget -- these lives have been devastated not because of a series of unavoidable events, but due to a war of choice -- our government's choice, and whose catastrophic consequences are spread far beyond the borders of the sad land of Iraq.