- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 17, 2007

AMMAN, Jordan

These are not safe nor lucrative times for Iraqi taxi drivers plying the route between Baghdad and Amman.

“It’s a dangerous job,” said a driver who declined to give his name out of fear for his safety. “You don’t know who’s going to stop you: Americans, bandits or insurgents. Conditions are very, very bad in Iraq now. Lawlessness and insecurity are forcing people to flee.”

The conflict in Iraq has uprooted nearly 4 million people — half internally and the rest in neighboring countries such as Jordan and Syria. Until last year, this meant brisk business for drivers plying the 14-hour trip between Baghdad and Amman.

Last year, Jordan closed its borders to Iraqi men ages 18 to 35, and only a trickle of refugees now enter that country.

“There is 90 percent less business now,” said one of the dozen drivers waiting for passengers in a downtown Amman parking lot. “Even children, old people and the sick are not being allowed into the country.”

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees — which began a two-day conference on the Iraqi refugee crisis in Geneva yesterday — appealed to Amman to keep its borders open. But Astrid van Genderen Stort of the UNHCR said: “You can’t blame Jordan for wanting to control its frontiers. In Europe, they would have been closed after 10,000 people entered.”

Few countries accept as many refugees as Jordan, where half the population is of Palestinian origin. Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, more than 750,000 Iraqis have joined the refugees, representing nearly a sixth of Jordan’s population.

In contrast, about 22,000 Iraqis sought asylum last year in the United States and Europe, 9,000 of them in Sweden. The influx of Iraqis is clear in central Amman, where money-exchange offices, teahouses and restaurants cater to the new arrivals.

“Iraqis have bought up Amman,” said Ibrahim Ozgul, a jewelry designer. “When I came back last year I felt I was in a suburb of Baghdad.” Wealthy Iraqis have put their money into real estate, construction and tourism, sending property prices soaring in the leafier neighborhoods of Amman.

Many Jordanians welcome the rush of new money. “We have always had strong relations with Iraqis, and they are welcome here,” said Maha Ali, a senior official at the Ministry of Industry and Trade. “More Iraqis means more consumers, more building projects and bigger markets.”

Not everyone paints such a rosy picture. The 750,000 Iraqis — most Jordanians put the figure closer to 1 million — are straining schools and hospitals and bringing more jerry-built slums to this city of refugees.

“This is not just a question of refugees coming to our country,” said Khaled Awasa, a reporter at the Jordan Times. “It represents a security problem because these people bring their national problems with them.”

The 2005 bombings of three hotels in Amman that killed 60 persons and injured scores were carried out by Iraqis linked to al Qaeda. Sources close to King Abdullah also say he is concerned about the arrival of Shi’ite Iraqis upsetting the balance in this predominantly Sunni Muslim country.

Iraq’s refugee crisis is difficult to ignore in Jordan, which lost its main trading partner and source of oil. But the rest of the world has been slow to recognize the scale of the problem, according to the UNHCR.

“Unlike the Kosovo war, there are no tent camps in Jordan or Syria,” said Mrs. van Genderen Stort, who thinks the crisis is getting worse, not better. “In 2003 we thought a lot of people would leave the country, but they didn’t because there was still hope and belief in a new era. Now there isn’t — at least in security terms.”

The figures speak for themselves. Between 2003 and 2005, about 300,000 Iraqis returned home as violence declined. But with the sectarian bloodletting after the bombing of an important Shi’ite mosque on Feb. 22, 2006, more than 700,000 Iraqis fled their homes to other parts of Iraq. By early this year, internal displacement was estimated to be continuing at a rate of up to 50,000 a month.

To draw attention to the plight of Iraq’s uprooted people, the UNHCR organized a ministerial conference in Geneva that ends today, to which more than 190 governments have been invited. The U.N. agency also appealed for $60 million in January. So far, $38 million has been raised to help Iraqi refugees in the Middle East.

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