- The Washington Times - Monday, May 7, 2007

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres has described the uprooting of 4 million Iraqis as “the most significant displacement in the Middle East” since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

“The scale of the problem speaks for itself,” Mr. Guterres said last month, noting that one in eight Iraqis has fled his or her home because of violence.

Many in the Middle East see other troubling parallels to the Palestinian exodus of 1948 and later expansions of the Jewish state: Both are the result of foreign occupation, and both have altered the demographics of the region in a very short time.

Syria and Jordan are coping with an influx of some 2 million refugees that could alter their own urban and economic centers, and affect their cultures.

“They are called guests and visitors, never refugees,” said Sybella Wilkes, UNHCR spokeswoman in Damascus. The word refugees, she said, “too closely refers to the Palestinians. There is a fear in Syria and Jordan that, like them, the Iraqis will want to stay.”

Iraq’s neighbors are bearing almost all the burden of hosting the newly homeless, while much of the cost is being taken on — as with the Palestinians — by the U.S., European and Japanese governments.

Just as wealthy Arab states are reluctant to “legitimize” the Palestinian displacement, many seem to be similarly wary of supporting the Iraqis. Lebanon and Egypt have all but closed their borders; the Gulf states, which import the majority of their skilled and unskilled labor, have accepted very few Iraqis.

U.N. relief agencies, working with Syria and Jordan, are hiring Iraqi workers and professionals to build and expand schools, clinics and children’s centers — following a model similar to the much larger program run by the U.N. Palestinian aid agency.

“The primary difference is that the Iraqis could go back, but to unsafe homes,” Miss Wilkes said. “The Palestinians cannot.”

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