August 13, 2008 / 9:11 AM / in 11 years

COLUMN-A dangerous crisis of invisible refugees: Bernd Debusmann

(Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

By Bernd Debusmann

WASHINGTON, Aug 13 (Reuters) - The United States is on track to meet its 2008 goal of taking in 12,000 Iraqi refugees by the end of next month. That’s the good news about the worst refugee crisis in the Middle East in 60 years.

The bad news is that 12,000 people represent a tiny fraction of the vast exodus of Iraqis driven from their homes by the violence and ethnic cleansing unleashed by the 2003 U.S. invasion. Estimates of their number vary. The widely used figure of 5 million is about one in five. To get that into context: relative to the size of the population, it would equal the forced displacement of almost 60 million Americans.

Why does a crisis of that magnitude barely register in public discourse in the U.S. and make few headlines? For one, the refugees are virtually invisible. There are no Darfur or Rwanda-style refugee camps that produce television images of shock value. More important, the refugees have not fit into the political agenda of the governments in Washington and Baghdad. The narrative is that Iraq is returning to normal.

At the height of the bloodshed, in 2006, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said 50,000 people a month were fleeing from their homes, either to safety across the borders or inside Iraq. While violence has sharply subsided since, political and sectarian divisions remain and there has been no mass return. Only a trickle have been granted permission to settle in the U.S. - a paltry 134 a month in 2007.

The door cracked open slightly this year and by the end of July, the U.S. had admitted 8,815 Iraqi refugees, according to State Department figures, and officials are confident of reaching the target of 12,000 for fiscal year 2008, which began last October and ends in September. How many will be admitted next year is uncertain.

The U.S. is not the only country that has been slow to respond to what is both a humanitarian disaster and a huge obstacle to rebuilding Iraq - much of the educated middle class is now in exile. As a gloomy report by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, put it: "Rich in oil, Iraq today is bankrupt in human resources."

How rich? According to a report this month by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), Iraq is likely to rack up a budget surplus of around $80 billion by the end of the year, thanks to a steep increase in the price of oil. That surplus compares with the less than $4 billion Iraq has spent on major reconstruction projects since 2005.



INEFFICIENCY AND INDIFFERENCE

How poor in human resources? The GAO report listed as the main reason for Iraq’s inability to use its oil riches for reconstruction the "relative shortage of trained budgetary, procurement and other staff with the necessary technical skills." Many of those with the necessary skills are in exile.

"There is no prospect of them going back soon," says Paul Eedle, a London-based Middle East expert and film maker who just completed a documentary on Iraqi refugees in Syria, the country which took in the largest number. "They don’t believe the government’s assurances that they would be safe."

The Iraqi government, labelled "inefficient and indifferent" by the International Crisis Group, is encouraging the exiles to return. This week, more than 200 were flown from Egypt to Baghdad aboard Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s plane. His minister for Displacement and Migration, Abdel Samad Rahman, hailed the repatriation as "the start of a return to wellbeing in Iraq. We will try to return them to their homes."

Note the word "try." It highlights a serious problem: many of those homes were destroyed or damaged. Others are occupied by "internally displaced persons," the official term for refugees in their own countries. Still other homes are in areas held by the "wrong" sectarian community.

"While encouraging returns, the (Iraqi) government has done little to prepare for potential disputes as refugees or IDPs seek to reclaim their property," the Crisis Group report said. "It has also lagged in efforts to provide aid and alternative shelter."

If that is the case, why should the U.S. make extra efforts to solve problems the Iraqi government is failing to solve?

Out of self-interest. An unstable Iraq is certainly not in the American interest. There will be no stability without reconstruction; there will be no proper reconstruction with the current shortage of skills. A classic conundrum. (You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com) (Editing by Sean Maguire)

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