- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 17, 2007

GENEVA

The United States and the European Union must accept more Iraqi refugees to avert a humanitarian crisis in Middle Eastern countries that are absorbing tens of thousands fleeing sectarian and insurgent violence each month, a prominent human rights group warned on Monday.

Amnesty International called on Western countries to organize a resettlement program for Iraqis that goes “far beyond token numbers and should constitute a significant part of the solution to the current crisis.”

Years of oppression under Saddam Hussein, followed by the violent aftermath of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion have driven some 2 million Iraqis from their homeland, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Another 1.9 million have been displaced inside Iraq.

Some 50,000 people flee Iraq each month, mostly to Syria and Jordan, the UNHCR said.

London-based Amnesty International urged those countries to make their needs clear at a two-day UNHCR conference on Iraqi refugees that ends today in Geneva.

More than 450 officials from 60 countries, plus Red Cross and other humanitarian workers, were expected to attend the conference, the first global attempt to address the Iraqi refugee crisis.

“The Middle East is on the verge of a new humanitarian crisis unless the European Union, U.S. and other states take urgent and concrete measures to help the more than 3 million people forcibly displaced by the conflict in Iraq,” Amnesty said.

The group called on Western countries to step up financial and technical aid to help Middle Eastern countries provide social services for the refugees.

The United States has said it will allow in about 7,000 Iraqi immigrants this year — up from 202 in 2006 — and will pay more to help Iraq’s neighbors cope with the surge of refugees. On Tuesday, a State Department official said that number could go up to 25, 000.

Syria has taken in some 1.2 million Iraqis, and Jordan is hosting between 500,000 and 750,000, according to the UNHCR. Egypt has 100,000; Lebanon is home to at least 20,000 Iraqi refugees.

While recognizing the difficulties faced by Jordan and Syria, Amnesty called on both countries to stop deporting Iraqis in the countries illegally, warning that many face threats to their lives upon returning home, especially if they are forced to travel by land.

Iraqis who have fled to Jordan faced restricted access to education and health, said Amnesty, which sent a fact-finding mission to the country in March. Iraqi children living in Jordan illegally are barred from attending public schools. They are allowed to attend private schools, but the vast majority of Iraqi families could not afford that option, Amnesty said. Illegal residents also cannot seek treatment in public hospitals, though Iraqis were given access to emergency care.

Jordan’s government has recently tightened entry and residency permits for Iraqis, effectively stripping many of their legal status.

In Syria, many Iraqis have been forced into exploitative jobs, the U.N. said. The majority have relied on extended family and savings, but many of the recent refugees have no such support.

“Syria and Jordan … have borne the brunt of the refugee exodus so far, but there must be a limit to which they can continue to do so in the face of the continuing surge by Iraqis desperate to escape the conflict,” said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International’s director for the Middle East and North Africa.

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