There is a refugee crisis in the Middle East that is unprecedented and far supersedes the Palestinian Diaspora of 1948.
Millions of Iraqis – some educated and as well off as one would expect of a peoples fleeing genocide, others impoverished and forced to live off the kindness of strangers – have streamed across their borders into Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and by extension the UAE and Qatar.
They have for months and years – since March 2003 – relied on the hospitality of the Jordanian, Syrian and Egyptian governments as they sought refuge from a calamity that no one seems to be able to shoulder.
Everyone who can is getting out of Iraq. It does not matter what their creed or sect is – Shia, Sunni, Yazidi, Turkmen, Mandean (Sabeaen), Christian – because violence knows no boundaries, no ethnicity.
In the Arab capitals some Iraqis enroll their children in schools hoping to continue the once esteemed notion of education which saw the rise of the Iraqi middle class in the 1970s and 80s.
The school system in these Arab capitals, already strained by overcrowded classrooms and the rules of economics, are finding it increasingly difficult to accommodate these young Iraqi children.
In some schools in Amman, some grades are entirely populated by Iraqis.
Meanwhile, those who used to earn pensions in Iraq under the Saddam Hussein government now find themselves without sustenance in Baghdad, Hilla, Ramadi, Najaf, Mosul, Basra and elsewhere.
Some one million Iraqi men who served in the military during the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran war have had their military pensions stripped. Perhaps, as punishment by the Iranian-led Iraqi government for engaging in a war against Persia in the first place.
Millions of Iraqis who had government jobs have been forced out as the Iranian agents in the Iraqi government staffed the country’s ministries with ‘advisors’ and ‘specialists’ from Tehran, Qum, and Abadan, to name a few.
With no means to support their families and already debilitated by the most severe punitive sanctions regimen ever devised in history, the Iraqi workforce and middle class sought salvation elsewhere.
These are just a slice of the economic woes. A deluge of US reports have cited gross mismanagement in Iraqi reconstruction with often puzzled expressions as to where some $18 billion have disappeared.
To the investigators in Washington I say search in Tehran.
But economic tribulations aside, the violence in Iraq is astounding. Horrific is too simplistic a word to use. In fact, there are no words to describe the situation. Hundreds of Iraqis are being killed off every week.
Reporting by such journalists as Hersh, Cockburn, Fisk, Rosen and others are piercing through the managed cover of deceit emanating from Washington and painting a picture of a new Iraq drawn in blood and built on the skeletons of the innocent.
We removed one dictator to replace him with dozens?
We removed a police state to replace it with militia-run cantons?
Of course, Iraqis are going to flee en masse.
According to UN figures, there are nearly two million Iraqis in the said Arab countries. I do not believe it. I would put the numbers closer to four million. But, to be fair, the UN says it cannot accurately determine these figures; has to rely on estimates, hearsay and such.
Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian officials, to name a few, are utterly overwhelmed. Where do you put tens of thousands of school-age Iraqis?
Cairo is already overcrowded and now has anywhere between 80 and 150,000 Iraqi refugees.
Many of these people are literate, educated, with advanced degrees in astronomy, bio-engineering, health sciences, architecture – where are they to work?
There is unemployment in said Arab countries and therefore one cannot expect that they will be able to hire the Iraqi intelligentsia.
“We’ve got a vulnerable population which is being made even more vulnerable by the failing social sectors and social structures, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) senior Iraq operations manager Andrew Harper said last week upon returning from a trip to Jordan.
“This is a [humanitarian] operation that is going to have to go on for years.
The UNHCR estimates that there are 1.8 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) out of a total population of 26 million in Iraq, with this number potentially swelling to 2.3 to 2.7 million by the end of the year.
Is there a solution? Yes. We continuously hear in the press now that US President George W. Bush is trying to salvage his presidency, his legacy, his popularity as some polls put that figure at just 28 percent.
I have an idea. Let us start by ‘owning’ up to the responsibility of sending thousands of young American men and women to fight an illegitimate war in an alien land and kill off 700,000 other young men and women in the interim.
Former US Secretary of State of State Colin Powell reportedly warned Bush “if you fix it, you own it .
That is basic grade school logic. Run amok in a china shop and your parents will foot the bill for everything you break.
Last month, the UNHCR tried to foot the bill with a measly $60 million appeal for the agency to continue its work in Iraq.
“It’s no use trying to fool ourselves that we are going to be able to address the total humanitarian needs with $60 million, Harper told the media. “The money does not buy you much when you’re trying to provide long-term protection and assistance to so many.
And part of owning up to the responsibility means paying for your mistakes. A mistake was made in Iraq. 700,000 mistakes lying in graves throughout the country. Another four million mistakes just waiting to happen in the Arab capitals.
Why should Egypt suffer for a war it warned against? How many times did President Hosni Mubarak warn the Bush administration? How many times did Arab thinkers and intellectuals warn of the impending disaster in our midst?
Why should Jordan have to pay to accommodate millions of Iraqis?
We are Arabs and we care for one another in dire times – we open our hearts and pockets as much as we can.
But this was a crisis hatched in Washington and it is Washington that should pay the greenbacks.
As far as I figure it, the US owes Egypt, Jordan, Syria and much of the Arab world.
Firas Al-Atraqchi is the Editor of The Daily Star Egypt.