By Marlene Kaufmann, General Counsel
and Lale M. Mamaux, Communications Director
In March, staff of the United States Helsinki Commission travelled to Amman, Jordan, an OSCE partner State, and met with government officials and leading NGOs regarding the Iraqi refugee crisis. Helsinki Commission Chairman, Congressman Alcee L. Hastings, has introduced comprehensive legislation to address this crisis, and the Commission held a hearing on April 10, regarding the impact of Iraqi refugees on OSCE States and Partners, including Jordan, Egypt and Turkey.
It was revealed during the visit in Jordan that the situation on the ground is becoming increasingly desperate. Government officials emphasized the economic and infrastructure strains caused by the refugees – soaring rents, inflation, and strains on educational and medical resources, as well as water. The NGO community sees an increase in desperation among the refugee population that they are attempting to serve. This increased desperation, combined with increasing resentment among host country populations, is becoming a recipe for disaster.
As a result of the widespread sectarian violence that erupted in Iraq in 2006, masses of Iraqis began fleeing to neighboring countries in the region for shelter. It is estimated that more than one million Iraqi refugees have fled to Jordan, Syria and other neighboring states, and approximately 2.2 million Iraqis have been displaced within Iraq itself.
Jordan, a small Arab nation with a population of six million, has accepted almost half a million Iraqi refugees. This amounts to an 8 percent increase in the population of Jordan in essentially a year and a half. This would be the equivalent of the United States enduring a stream of 24 million people across its borders in the same time frame. Poverty, unemployment, and inflation are on the rise in the country making it extremely difficult for the Jordanian government and society to cope with the influx of refugees. In 2007, Jordan effectively sealed its borders by imposing strict visa requirements on Iraqis seeking entry, documents that most fleeing Iraqis do not have or would be required to make a dangerous trip to Baghdad to try to obtain.
Jordan is not a party to the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees and does not have a domestic refugee law. The government does not, therefore, recognize Iraqis as residents of its country, but rather classifies them as “guests” or “visitors.”
The Jordanian government does not allow Iraqis to work, however some do find jobs in the “underground” economy, which at best pay barely enough to survive and for which the threat of exploitation is significant. In many situations, men, fearing arrest and deportation, remain in hiding and rely on whatever income their wives and children can generate. Iraqis are permitted to seek medical assistance at government clinics, where they are offered the same health care benefits as uninsured Jordanians.
In addition, as a result of pressure from the international community, Jordan opened its schools to Iraqi children. It is estimated that approximately 25,000 Iraqi students have enrolled for the 2007-2008 school year, a significantly smaller number than was expected. While the admission of Iraqi students is relatively low, it has nevertheless put a substantial strain on an already overburdened school system.
As a result, the day-to-day needs of Iraqis continue to increase as their resources are diminishing. Multiple families are sharing a single dwelling and those seeking medical attention frequently suffer from severe depression and stress related illnesses. Many of the NGOs offering services in Jordan are attempting to address this burgeoning medical crisis but lack the resources to provide comprehensive counseling – leaving increasingly large numbers of the vulnerable Iraqi refugee population simmering in a cauldron of stress and depression. This situation does not bode well for long-term societal stability.
Attempts to provide assistance to Iraqi refugees in Jordan are complicated by both the location and the mixed demographics of the population. Unlike the situation of the Palestinian refugees encamped in tent cities in the “no-man’s-land” on the Syrian border with Iraq, there are no Iraqi refugee camps in Jordan — where the numbers and needs of the refugees could be easily identified, and to which humanitarian and other assistance could be quickly and efficiently delivered. Rather, Iraqi refugees in Jordan are dispersed throughout Amman and the surrounding areas. A number of refugees — some of whom came to Jordan to escape the regime of Saddam Hussein, returned to Iraq after his fall, and now have taken up residence again in Jordan — are quite wealthy, and are obviously able to fend for themselves. The bulk of Iraqi refugees in Jordan, however, arrived with few resources or have now, as is the case with those who were “middle class” when they fled, completely depleted whatever income they may have had from savings, or selling their homes and possessions.
The Jordanian government made it quite clear that they want Iraqi refugees to be treated humanely, yet they do not want Iraqis to permanently settle in Jordan. This fact was reinforced at an international conference hosted by Jordan on March 18, during which Foreign Minister Salah Al-Bashir remarked, “But the main challenge now is to find the right environment for a political settlement in Iraq that would restore security and stability, helping Iraqi refugees return home, because there is no other alternative.”
While the Jordanian government sees no alternative for Iraqis other than return, the reality is quite different. Many NGOs in Jordan are looking at this from a long-term perspective with some estimates of Iraqis staying for at least ten years, or perhaps permanently. Many Iraqis who fled have had a close family member or friend killed, threatened, kidnapped, or tortured, making return extremely difficult if not impossible.
As resources are depleted and Iraqis become more and more desperate to survive, the economy will not be the main source of worry for host countries. Increasingly desperate refugees interacting on a daily basis with increasingly resentful host country populations could sow the seeds of instability on the streets of Amman and Damascus – the current situation may just be the calm before the storm.
In Congress, Commission Chairman Hastings, who is also Special Representative on Mediterranean Affairs for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, has introduced comprehensive legislation to address this humanitarian and potential security crisis. In January, Chairman Hastings and Congressman John Dingell wrote to President Bush requesting an additional $1.5 billion in funding in the FY 2009 budget, and also called on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to layout a long-term plan to address the plight of Iraqi refugees and internally displaced populations (IDPs). In April, Chairman Hastings joined with Congressman Bill Delahunt and nine of his Congressional colleagues in sending a bipartisan letter to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki urging the government of Iraq to use $1 billion (4 percent) of the expected $25 billion budget surplus to assist Iraqi refugees and IDPs.
Additionally, Commission Co-Chairman Senator Benjamin L. Cardin was successful in offering an amendment to the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education Appropriations bill last year. Co-Chairman Cardin’s amendment provides six months of eligibility for resettlement assistance to Iraq Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders when they arrive here in the United States, ensuring that Iraqis are able to make the transition to a productive life in the United States by providing preliminary housing, school enrollment and job assistance.
On April 10, the Helsinki Commission held a hearing on the Iraqi refugee crisis which focused on the impact of the massive displacement of Iraqi citizens on Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Turkey as well as other countries in the region; the security implications of this humanitarian crisis; and efforts by the United States and others to address the plight of Iraqi refugees, including humanitarian relief, resettlement of Iraqi refugees, host country commitments, and European cooperation as well as the development of a long-term plan to address this crisis.
Testifying before the Commission were Ambassador James Foley, Senior Coordinator for Iraqi Refugees, U.S. Department of State; Ms. Lori Scialabba, Senior Advisor to the Secretary of Homeland Security for Iraqi Refugees, Department of Homeland Security; Mr. Michel Gabaudan, Washington Director, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); Mr. Anders Lago, Mayor of Sodertalje, Sweden; and Mr. Noel Saleh, Member, Board of Directors, Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS).
During the hearing Ambassador Foley stated that the resettlement of Iraqi refugees to the United States “is turning around.” He added, “You are going to see in the coming months, especially in the late spring and summer, tremendous numbers of Iraqi refugees arriving in the United States.”
Mayor Lago of Sodertalje, Sweden whose town has a population of 83,000 and has taken in more than 5,000 Iraqi refugees noted “The millions of refugees in the world must be a concern for us all, not just for those areas bordering on the breeding grounds of war, or for a small number of countries and cities such as Sodertalje.” He further noted, “Despite the fact that we need immigrants, Sodertalje has become a town that must now say – STOP, STOP, STOP! Do not misunderstand me. We will always help others when we can. We must act when the lives of our brothers and sisters are in danger. It is imperative that we have a humane refugee policy worldwide. Our common agreement, that all people are equal, no matter what color religion or gender must become a reality.”
The hearing came on the heels of General David Petraeus’ and Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker’s testimony before Congress about the Iraq war.
Helsinki Commission staff also travelled to Ankara and Istanbul, Turkey and held meetings with leading NGOs as well as staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. While the main focus of the trip was the Iraqi refugee crisis, staff also discussed U.S.-Turkey bilateral relations, human trafficking, migration, security threats posed to Turkey by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – a known terrorist organization, as well as Turkey’s cooperation in Iraq.
It is estimated that Turkey is currently hosting 6,000-10,000 Iraqi refugees. Unlike Jordan and Syria, Turkey is a party to the 1951 UN refugee convention. Turkey, however, imposes a “geographical limitation” on its commitments under that agreement and only recognizes refugees arriving from Europe.
Iraqis entering Turkey from non-European countries are treated as asylum-seekers. UNHCR-Turkey has assumed responsibility for processing these individuals and it then submits its recommendations to the Turkish government. The Turkish government, however, ultimately determines the status of asylum-seekers making the registration process time-consuming and confusing. Those who have registered with UNHCR for asylum can wait up to nine months to be fully processed and are not entitled to any assistance during that period. In the interim, the refugees are reliant upon the charity of the communities in which they have settled or must fend for themselves on the streets.
Iraqi refugees entering Turkey are not permitted to reside in Ankara or Istanbul – where they may have relatives or access to an established Iraqi community – but are directed to a number of “satellite cities” in different locations throughout Turkey. In most instances, there is no Iraqi community or support system in these remote locations, making resettlement, access to services, and integration into the local community extremely difficult for the refugees.
The Turkish government has accepted in principle the establishment of seven ‘Reception Centers,’ to provide services to refugees from Iraq – planned in or near the satellite cities to which they are currently directed. These centers would be co-financed with the European Commission (EC). The EC would pay 75 percent of the project and the Turkish government would pay the remaining 25 percent. However, the day-to-day oversight and financial obligations would fall to the Turkish government. While the EC indicated that these centers would be used to house Iraqi refugees with a capacity of 750 per center, Turkish officials gave the impression that these centers would be for migrant workers and victims of human trafficking. In addition to the seven Reception Centers, the EC will finance two Removal Centers for those Iraqis eligible to be processed for resettlement.
The Helsinki Commission will monitor the development of these centers, their location, populations to be accepted, operation and services offered in view of concerns that they may become isolated “camps” where Iraqi refugees and other vulnerable populations are warehoused until they receive final status determinations or resettlement.
Helsinki Commission staff visited Sulukule in Istanbul, which has been home to a Roma community since 1054 and is one of the oldest Romani settlements in Europe. Sulukule is on the brink of total demolition, due in part to an urban transformation project developed by the Fatih and Greater Istanbul municipalities as part of Istanbul’s participation in the 2010 European Capital of Culture event. The outcome of this urban renewal plan will destroy an historical neighborhood and force 3,500 residents of Sulukule 25 miles (40 kilometers) outside of the city to the district of Tasoluk or, worse, onto the streets of Istanbul.
The Roma community in Sulukule is living on the fringes of society and continues to be treated unfairly. Instead of implementing an urban renewal project that would preserve this centuries-old neighborhood and allow the Roma there to remain together as a community, they will be dispersed and forced to migrate elsewhere.
The Romani residents of Sulukule have essentially been unable to work since 1992 when the municipality closed down the music and entertainment venues that had been the lifeblood of the community and a major tourist attraction. With this source of income gone, the Roma of Sulukule have found it increasingly difficult to earn a living.
The residents of Sulukule have been offered the opportunity to purchase the new homes that will be built as part of the project. However, the homes are quite expensive and, given the Romani community’s lack of employment and income, this is an empty gesture. The offer of housing in Tasoluk is also well beyond the means of the current residents of Sulukule, making it all the more likely that the majority of them will be forced to live on the streets.
On April 4, members of the Helsinki Commission sent a letter to Turkish Prime Minister Tayip Erdogan, expressing concern about the Sulukule transformation project. The Commissioners urged the Prime Minister to find a solution that would ensure that the residents of Sulukule are treated with dignity and respect, that their culture and contribution to the history of Istanbul are preserved, and that they are given the opportunity to work, provide shelter and education for their families and contribute fully to Turkish society. The letter was authored by Co-Chairmen of the Helsinki Commission Congressman Alcee L. Hastings and Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, along with Commissioners Congressmen Joseph R. Pitts and G.K. Butterfield.