News  The forgotten crisis

Iraqi activist Asma Al-Haidari discusses the plight of Iraqi refugees

Iraq’s refugee crisis extends across the world, as millions of Iraqi refugees have been displaced since the American-led invasion in 2003. The majority of Iraqi refugees are living in dire conditions and without permanent status in countries bordering Iraq, with the largest populations residing in Jordan and Syria. As media headlines remain focused on the ongoing violence inside Iraq, the refugee crisis expanding across the Middle East is often forgotten. It is estimated that there are around one-million Iraqi refugees currently residing in Jordan, where many face serious poverty and economic marginalization.

Asma Al-Haidari is an independent Iraqi activist based in Amman, Jordan, who speaks to the situation facing Iraqi refugees today in the Middle East. Stefan Christoff is a Montreal-based journalist and activist, who spoke for the Daily Publications Society’s Journalism Week at McGill on Thursday.

Stefan Christoff: Today, Iraqi refugees present a major crisis for the Middle East. Given the number of Iraqi refugees living in Jordan, could you outline for us the current reality facing Iraqis in Jordan?
Asma Al-Haidari: There are over one-million Iraqi refugees in Jordan and around five-million throughout the Arab world. Today, the largest number of Iraqi refugees is currently in Syria, while the second largest Iraqi refugee population is in Jordan. Iraqi refugees have put serious pressure on the social infrastructure in both Jordan and Syria.

There are less Iraqi refugees in Jordan than in recent years as there have been some placements for Iraqi refugees elsewhere in the world, a small number going to the U.S. and to Europe. However, there is still a very large number in Jordan, while some have now returned to Iraq. The majority of Iraqi refugees in Jordan are in a very bad state; they can hardly pay for their food or their health needs. Today, Iraqi refugees are going to school in Jordan, but that only began last year after a major effort organized by non-governmental organizations, specifically Save the Children International. Still, there are many Iraqi children who don’t go to school because they haven’t been able to register or they need to work to support their families.

A very serious but often hidden problem in Jordan is that young Iraqis are being forced into sex work, due to poverty and coercion. This is a very real problem as many young Iraqi women are being abused and, despite this being a taboo subject in Arab society, people need to talk about this and take action.

SC: Can you talk about the poverty that Iraqi refugees face today in Jordan, the economic situation that Iraqis are facing in Jordan?
AH: Certainly Iraqi refugees living in Jordan receive no government pensions from their own government in Baghdad. Also Iraqi refugees get no major economic assistance from the local governments, in Jordan, or even the UN, and they don’t have food rights or vouchers. It is often charities who assist a number of families, but not all families. Many Iraqi families who live in serious poverty today in Jordan have never lived in such poverty in their lives. Iraqi refugees in Jordan have often been forced to sell their homes in Iraq in order to survive in Jordan and to pay for their children’s education. Iraqis are not officially able to work in both Jordan and Syria.

If Iraqis are working in Jordan, they are working under the table and this puts them in immediate danger of being deported. Clearly the Jordanian government knows that thousands of Iraqis are working, and often authorities turn a blind eye; however, there is always the possibility that authorities can clamp down.

SC: Most of the news on the Iraq war is centred on reports from the ground in Iraq, headlines detailing armed combat, direct confrontations, realities of war. However, this other effect of the war, the refugee crisis, which has expanded across the Middle East, certainly isn’t getting as much media attention. Could you talk about the crisis facing Iraqi refugees throughout the Middle East, a crisis which has been compared to the Palestinian experiences of exodus and exile in both 1948 and 1967?
AH: I think that the situation is similar in some ways but also different. Remember that the numbers of Iraqi refugees today is much larger than the Palestinian refugee crisis in either 1948 or in 1967, as there are millions of Iraqi refugees displaced across the Arab world. When Iraq was invaded by the Americans and the British, many Iraqis had good lives and jobs despite the crippling sanctions. Economic security has been erased for all Iraqis due to the invasion. Our society was ripped apart.

Also many Iraqi women were forced to flee sexual violence in Iraq. Many Iraqi women were raped by U.S. or Iraqi security forces and fled for their lives. Actually, it is Iraqi women and children who have suffered the most during the past six years since the U.S. invasion.

SC: I was wondering about your perception of the political situation in Iraq today. There has been a great deal of fanfare and attention drawn to the projected withdrawal of U.S. troops announced by Barack Obama. What are your thoughts?
AH: Total U.S. withdrawal will not happen. Obama’s plan is simply to try to present a tidier picture for the world. U.S. forces came thousands of kilometres across the seas to settle in Iraq and have spent billions of dollars. Americans came not only for the oil but also to try to control the entire region politically.

I also think that the American political establishment aimed to destroy the Iraqi spirit, to crush the Arab nationalist spirit present in Iraqi and in Arab culture generally. U.S. troops are in Iraq to stay; if you read the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) agreement this is clear. U.S. troops will remain in Iraq under the SOFA agreement, staying in the massive U.S. military bases from which they can emerge when necessary. U.S. forces won’t leave the country until they are forced to withdraw.

This means that the Iraqi resistance must make it very expensive and very dear for the U.S. administration to stay. In the end, the U.S. will be forced to withdraw as they were forced from Vietnam.

Iraq has been invaded many times throughout history and each time, occupying forces have been forced to retreat. However, it is this invasion that has been the worst. Attempts have been made to make Iraqis forget their culture, their history, and their independent spirit but military occupation will not destroy our memory.

Christoff’s interview was first posted on the web site of Tadamon!, a Montreal-based collective that works in solidarity with Middle Eastern struggles for self-determination, equality, and justice.