CAIRO: As violence continues in Iraq, the oil-rich country’s neighbors are beginning deal with a widening refugee crisis. According to a November United Nations report, two million Iraqis were estimated to have already fled to Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Lebanon while 2,000 more leave Iraq everyday. Some 150,000 Iraqi refugees have found haven in Cairo with the majority of displaced persons living in October City. Iraqis who fled out of Baghdad were middle or upper middle class citizens. Those with the money have set up a new life in Cairo and other Arab cities, but not for long, they fear. In 2003, a total of 800 Iraqi Shia refugees resided in Egypt. Since then a drastic increase of Iraqi citizens has taken shape of Egypt’s predominately Sunni population. While Arab governments fear displaced Iraqis could overwhelm public services and bring Iraq’s sectarian conflicts to their soil, the Mubarak administration has become more stringent refusing to renew residency permits. After their arrival in Egypt, Iraqis get a one-month tourist visa and then apply for a three-month, renewable residency permit. But authorities have begun refusing to grant residency status, or are turning down those who seek to renew it. Even if some Iraqis escape advocacy groups charge that increasing numbers are being turned back at the borders. For Iraq’s neighbors, the influx of refugees is straining resources. Jordan has made it difficult for Iraqis to receive residency permits and the numbers of Iraqis being deported from Amman is rising. Syria is about to do the same. An Iraqi by the name of Kilth Fahid worked in an oil refinery before he was forced out of his hometown after the war started in 2003.
“Everything was unstable. Everything was dangerous. You could not go outside of your own house. Even inside your house, you could not sleep safely until morning.
Fahid feels much safer in Cairo where he struggles to support his wife and four daughters. “Life is so difficult for us right now. We haven’t any sort of life. He sees no possibility of returning to Baghdad. “I won’t go back to back Iraq. I can’t go back to Iraq. Going back to Iraq simply means death.
Many Iraqis say they have to pay bribes to get or renew their permits. There is a price for every stamp and every signature you get on your residency, said one Iraqi, who only agreed to be identified as Abu Wael for fear of reprisal. Government officials also spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press. The Interior Ministry, which handles visa and residency, issues, and a spokesman at the Foreign Ministry refused to comment. Concerned that Iraq s Shia-Sunni split could spread to Egypt, authorities last week rejected a request by Iraqis to open a Shia mosque in Sixth of October City, a Cairo suburb where many Iraqis live, refugees said.
They also spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation by Egyptian authorities. “Of course, Arab economies can only suffer from a refugee crisis, the burden they will have to deal with in accommodating extra citizens is far too heavy for countries like Egypt. International players need to step up to the bat, without their influence, the problem will worsen, said Gamal Gawad Soltan, AUC Professor of Political Science. The UNHCR launched a $60 million appeal to fund its work of Iraqi refugees.
With the current exodus standing as the largest long-term population in the Middle East since the displacement of Palestinians following the creation of Israel in 1948, monies will cover UNHCR’s protection and assistance programs for Iraqi refugees in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey. However the crisis is likely to worsen for the hundreds of thousands of refugees both inside and outside Iraq. “Because the burden on neighboring countries in the region is so enormous, it is crucial that the international community starts taking UNHCR’s initiative seriously, Soltan said.