Iraqi Refugees Stuck in Transit

Article excerpt

AMMAN, JORDAN * For almost five years now, Ekram Muqdad Aboes has lived in Jordan, scratching out a living as best he can. A photographef, cameraman, graphic designer and actor, the 25-year-old Iraqi refugee left his home in the city of Nainawa in northern Iraq when his 15-year-old brother and 13-year-old sister were murdered after they telephoned the U.S. Army to report seeing a bomb.

His parents are internal refugees inside Iraq, and Aboes said he doesn't have their telephone number and hasn't spoken to them for a year. In Jordan, as in most host countries, refugees have few opportunities for legal employment. Aboes has a part-time job at a TV station. It helps, but not enough; he's taken out loans from neighbors and friends.

Grateful for the safe haven Jordan has offered him, Aboes says he dreams of moving to America. Returning to Iraq is out of the question: "The threat is greater than nostalgia," he said. He applied for a visa to go to the United States when he came to Jordan. Five years later he's still waiting for a response.

An estimated 400,000 to 500,000 Iraqi refugees live in Jordan. More than twice that live in Syria. Many of the refugees share Aboes' dream of America, even those who blame the United States for creating the conditions in Iraq that forced them to leave. Like Aboes, many are living on little more than hope. Guests of their host countries and unable to work except unofficially, which means bad jobs at bad wages, they survive on savings if they have any, take whatever work they can get and wait for resettlement to a third country that will have them.

The number of countries accepting refugees for resettlements is dwindling, however, as are funds supporting Iraqi refugee operations.

"We do not expect that the same funding levels will be upheld this year, 2012 and beyond," said Marina Aksakalova, a spokeswoman in Damascus for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. With funding levels going down and no new donors stepping in, the agency is by necessity adjusting its programs and prioritizing needs, she said.

The world's attention has shifted to other areas, yet most of the Iraqi refugees have not. They remain stuck in transit, guests in a country not their own, without jobs, rights or a future, even as more refugees continue to arrive.

"There are still refugees coming from Iraq. Every day. And especially Christians and minorities," said Vivian Manneh, emergency regional manager for Catholic Relief Services, which works with Caritas Jordan and local churches to provide assistance to refugees in Jordan and Syria.

Few refugees are returning home to Iraq. Violence, lack of basic services, and high unemployment keep Iraqis from repatriating. A UNHCR survey found that 95 percent of Iraqi refugees do not wish to return. A study by the International Catholic Migration Commission of refugee expectations found that none interviewed thought Iraq would stabilize in their lifetime.

"Security incidents are down, but there are still more security incidents in Iraq than there are in Afghanistan and Somalia combined," said Jana Mason, a spokeswoman with the Washington office of the U.N. refugee agency. "That's one factor in people's decision to return home. It's also a question of what they are going home to. There's a severe shortage of housing. Many don't have housing to go back to or jobs."

But resettlement opportunities for the refugees--a "durable solution" in refugee speak--are limited. The United States accepts around 16,000 Iraqi refugees a year, about 80 percent or more of all the Iraqi refugees resettled. Many European countries are ceasing to accept Iraqi refugees for resettlement or are decreasing how many they take.

"The Europeans are saying we have our share and we can't take any more. Part of it is the economic situation. Part of it is that they believe this problem was not created by them," Manneh said. …