CAIRO: Iraqi refugees in Cairo continue to wait outside the United Nations High Commission for Refugees’ (UNHCR) office in Mohandiseen to register their refugee status.
Among them is Salwan Jumeil Awda. He moved to Cairo four months ago after a series of attacks on his communications company in Baghdad.
In May 2006 we were attacked by the Interior Ministry. I could tell from their uniforms and cars. They thought there was a lot of money in my company.
Later he says 35 of his employees were kidnapped.
I was so scared I shut down my company and decided to leave Baghdad. I moved to another house for a while, and then came to Egypt. Even though he hasn t found work yet, he considers himself lucky that he managed to escape.
My friends call me and tell me they want to leave Iraq, but as you know, it’s a problem now because it s not easy for Iraqis to move around anymore. Every border is difficult one to cross. According to Nasreen Rubaian, Protection Service officer at the UNHCR, many of the refugees don t have a lot enough money to live on. That s what worries us because where originally we saw people coming in with their Mercedes cars and bringing money along, now we re seeing average people, poor people leaving Iraq and coming into Egypt. They don t have enough resources to subsist. Thus far, Rubaian says, there are no camps set up for the refugees, but that could change.
How much longer countries like Egypt, Syria and Jordan can continue to absorb such large numbers of people is questionable and we know now that there are a lot of vulnerable people.
She explains how the increase in female headed households, for example, where husbands have been killed in the violence, is forcing the UNCHR to shift its focus from repatriation and reintegration inside Iraq, to concentrating on these susceptible groups who are fleeing in large numbers.
The UN estimates that half a million Iraqis have settled in Syria; 700,000 in Jordan; 150,000 in Cairo. Rubaian says the numbers will only go up since about a thousand refugees a day flee into each country.
The strain on the infrastructure is enormous, the strain on the economy is enormous, and also in terms of demography, you re talking about newcomers who are one fifth of the population, said Essam Sheha, executive director of Amera (Africa and Middle East Refugees Assistance). However, they are our neighbours and Egypt needs to find ways to help. Egypt has dealt with large numbers of refugees before, notably the Palestinians and the Sudanese, and now the large Iraqi population is the potentially destabilizing faction, according to Steven Simon, a Middle Eastern Studies fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
What these hosting countries need now more than anything is the help of other countries in dealing with this flood of Iraqi refugees.
That means adherence to UNHCR s $60 million appeal.
This money will benefit Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria and Jordan. We re still waiting for confirmation from the United States, but we re staying optimistic, Rubaian said. All these issues are likely to come up this week when US President George W. Bush meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and with Jordan s King Abdullah. Concern from tensions throughout the Middle East is building. With the strong potential of three civil wars likely to occur between the Palestinians, Lebanon or with Iraq, Egypt remains a safe haven for Salwan Jumeil Awda and what is left of his family.
Tragedy struck in August when his 17-year-old son returned to Baghdad to get school records he needed to attend university.
Some people started firing in the street. And my son was killed. He was hit in the head with one bullet. I have brothers and sisters there and they say the situation is terrible there right now. No one even knows who the killer is, or why he did this. No one knows. Of the 150,000 refugees in Egypt, UNHCR has only registered 4,967 Iraqis yet.
Rubaian told a pool of Arab journalists at a conference given at the American University in Cairo that the number is still rising.
Titled Iraqi Refugees with Special Reference to Egypt , the conference was attended by Nir Rosen, a freelance writer, photographer and filmmaker known for his work in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia. I ve been to Syria and Jordan to cover the treatment of these refugees. It s overwhelming, he said.
Concerning the effect of such a refugee crisis on Arab regimes, Rosen told The Daily Star Egypt that it can only lead to a government collapse. This isn t something Arab regimes can endure. According to a UNHCR press release Being recognized as a refugee means that UNHCR and the Government of Egypt recognized that you fled your country of origin because of an individual fear. It enables you to stay safely in Egypt without the risk of being forcibly returned to your country. Awda plans on staying in Egypt for a few years, granted that the government allows him, until he decides if it is safe to return home.