Guest Post by Jon Weinberg: Nakba Déjà Vu – The Iraqi Refugee Situation


Jolie in Syria.jpg
Jon Weinberg is a research intern at the New America Foundation/Middle East Task Force.
A couple of weeks ago, Angelina Jolie, who makes periodic trips as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), visited Iraqi refugees in southern Damascus along with her partner, Brad Pitt. The purpose of Jolie’s visit was to raise awareness for the plight of those Iraqis displaced since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
In her own words: “Most Iraqi refugees cannot return to Iraq in view of the severe trauma they experienced there, the uncertainty linked to the coming [January 16, 2010] Iraqi elections, the security issues and the lack of basic services…”
Not surprisingly, Jolie and Pitt’s visit seems to have been largely understood (and sometimes dismissed) as the world’s sexiest couple’s latest humanitarian holiday. Nonetheless, the issue of Iraqi refugees has not gotten the attention it deserves.
According to Refugees International, since March of 2003 more than 1.5 million Iraqis have fled to neighboring countries and 2.7 million Iraqis have become internally displaced. Iraq’s population is around 30 million, about one-tenth that of the US. So, to put those numbers of refugees and displaced persons into perspective, imagine that 27 million Americans were internally displaced and an additional 15 million fled to Canada and Mexico.
Consequently, the Iraqi, Syrian, Lebanese, and Jordanian governments are all faced with a long-term crisis that could easily develop into interminable catastrophe: a large population of permanent refugees.
If this scenario sounds familiar, it is. These same countries (including Iraq) have been dealing with permanent populations of Palestinian refugees since Israel expelled approximately 750,000 Palestinians following the country’s creation in 1948 – a series of events which the Arab world commonly calls al Nakba, “the catastrophe.”
Syria, for instance, has absorbed well over a million Iraqi refugees – about three times the number of Palestinian refugees already living in the country. Roughly speaking, this means that perhaps one of every twenty people living in Syria is an Iraqi refugee. A recent Daily Star article highlights the challenges this situation has forced on the Syrian government:

This huge flood of new arrivals into Syria has put extraordinary pressure on the country’s limited resources. The prices of real estate, food, electricity, kerosene and other commodities have skyrocketed, while the country’s school rooms, clinics and hospitals are strained as a result of overcrowding.
These new pressures are compounded by Syria’s own problems. Unemployment in Syria stands at 9 percent, and despite some development in recent years, poverty remains widespread. The country’s worst drought in decades has forced tens of thousands of Syrian families to leave their farms and head to cities to search for work.

In short, the situation has continued to deteriorate. The plight of Iraqi refugees was a hot news item during the peak of Iraqi internal violence in 2006 and 2007. As the troop surge began to quell violence, however, general interest in the status of refugees cooled off.
Recently, as the American public has grown used to the eventuality of a US withdrawal from Iraq, more questions have begun to arise about resettling Iraqis in the United States. In their recent AP article, Sharon Cohen and Lisa Orkin Emmanuel note that only “about 38,000 Iraqis have come to the United States in the last three fiscal years, compared with just hundreds in the three prior years,” not all of them refugees.
While this figure may seem surprisingly low when compared to the United States’ responsibility for displacing Iraqis in the first place, the small number is not out of line with historical norms. For instance, only 650 Vietnamese citizens arrived in the US between 1950 and 1974 (mostly the wives and children of American servicemen), but hundreds of thousands came after the fall of Saigon in 1975.
What’s more, those who have made it to the United States this year are finding it increasingly difficult to find employment. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) has reported that while it was comparatively simple to find jobs for the mere hundreds of Iraqi refugees who came in 2007, very few of the thousands who have come in 2008 and 2009 are considered self-sufficient.
In the UK, the problem is even worse. Al Jazeera reported yesterday that 40 Iraqi asylum seekers will be sent back to Baghdad this week. This is hardly remarkable considering that “according to Britain’s interior ministry, 632 people were deported to northern Iraq between 2005 and 2008.”
All told, when Syria is arguably doing a better job of handling a humanitarian crisis than the US and the UK, it is fitting to start asking a lot of questions.
— Jon Weinberg


11 comments on “Guest Post by Jon Weinberg: Nakba Déjà Vu – The Iraqi Refugee Situation

  1. Andrew Gordon says:

    Jon Weinberg has once again impressed me with his pithy analysis
    and avant garde information gathering. WigWag tries to help but
    ultimately comes off judgmental and uninformed.


  2. JohnH says:

    Yes, Wigwag, when my tax dollars are being spent to create to create a humanitarian crisis–like the Iraqi refugee crisis–my concerns spike. In fact, they pretty much top my list. The Iraqi genocide is more far important to me than Darfur, which I had no role in creating and little prospect of alleviating. With rare exceptions, sins of commission tend to be worse than sins of omission.
    Likewise, I oppose spending my tax dollars to help Israel repeatedly trash its neighborhood and kill thousands of ordinary people in Lebanon and Gaza. If Israel wants to behave brutally on its own nickel, then that’s another story. But leave my tax dollars out.


  3. WigWag says:

    Sorry JamesL, I am perfectly willing to admit that the American invasion of Iraq was an enormous mistake that created a humanitarian nightmare. I’m also willing to admit that the United States military committed atrocities in Fallujah and elsewhere and that many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis paid a terrible price for all of this.
    None of that changes the fact that for whatever reason, you are unwilling to acknowledge that because of the U.S. invasion tens of thousands of Shia refugees exiled by Saddam returned home and many thousands of Kurds who were internal exiles were also able to return home.
    Nor does it explain your unwillingness to acknowledge that the majority of refugees today are Sunni Muslims expelled by militias affiliated with Iran.
    Why is it so difficult for you, JamesL,to blame the Shia militias affiliated with Iran for their profound contribtion to the terrible Iraqi refugee problem?
    Could it be that you don’t care about the humanitarian sitution at all? Could it be that if the United States or Israel aren’t implicated, your interest level in humanitarian disasters falls to zero?


  4. JamesL says:

    Wig you’re full of it. Iran never came up at Fallujah time. Maybe you forgot Fallujah. Perhaps you forgot that Najaf was before that and the US dilemma there was that the Shias and Sunnis had begun to work together against the US. Bush couldn’t stand for that and had to put an end to the pesky “insurgency” idea and keep the “dead-ender” concept alive so his war could go on in American minds. But the insurgency was real, just like the 250,000 or so Fallujah residents the US military told to get out or get shot. Nary a report then of what the instant Fallujah refugee camp looked like, or reports of US food deliveries, or water trucks, or medical staff and supplies. No recaps on how the UN report was coming true. You’re an apologist, stuck on mouthing the latest propaganda hype, not what happened and why. I suggest you take a trip to Fallujah with your camera and if you get back, show us your slide show of the reconstruction.


  5. WigWag says:

    It’s quite telling, isn’t it, that so many commentators are willing to blame the United States for facilitating the refugee problem but can’t bring themselves to utter even one word of criticism against the the parties that are actually carrying out the intimidation and expulsions that cause the refugee problem?
    The vast majority of refugees who have had to leave Iraq are Sunni Arabs expelled by Shia militia aligned, supported and funded by Iran.
    Why the hesitancy to criticize the Iranians and their Shia vassals while jumping on the opportunity to criticize the United States?
    Could it be that some people here find the behavior of the Iranians less reprehensible than the behavior of the United States?
    Talk about dual loyalties.


  6. JamesL says:

    Before Bush the lesser attacked Iraq, the UN issued a strong warning about the number of Iraqis that would be displaced by a US attack, as well as a prediction of the number of Iraqis that might die as a result of a US invasion. The UN report was laughed at, derided, ridiculed by every American who had succumbed to pro-war fever and the nightly media reviews of all the neat hardware that was going to blast apart Saddam and all his bad guy legions. You should look that report up now that time has passed. It was amazingly accurate, but low. The displaced Iraqi figures Steve notes are the ones that have been used now for more than two years. That is, they may have been accurate at some past date, but not now. The US is responsible for taking no care whatever–no care whatever–for Iraqi refugees it created in its many little and big battles, the ones advertised as the final one to break the back of the Baathists-dead-enders-insurgents-rebels–Al Qaeda, whatever hame could be used to sell the war anew to Americans. As far as I can recall, the brave US media never set foot in a single impromptu Iraqi refugee camp, impromptu because nothing was planned. And lest “refugees” be a term removed from reality, they are men, women, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, philosophers, widows, musicians, orphans, electricians, good friends, good neighbors, professors, lovers, professionals of all kinds, dedicated teachers and doctors and other self-giving benefactors. And now ‘Mericans are too wimpy, too dishonest, too effing broke from gambling away other other people’s money and buying all the consumerist junk their plastic cards could hold to do anything about all that humanitarian misery they created out of a bunch of lies by a dishonest president and dishonest minions and dishonest puppeteer632d55. Disgust is too light a word to describe what the US has done to Iraq. And America continues to be too dumb to get out. Like the Repubs said after George the lesser won (how in God’s heaven?) in 2004: “You lost the war US. You screwed it up. You failed. Get over it. Get out.”


  7. David says:

    Thank you, Angelina and Brad.
    Ironic that the United States, which is responsible for this refugee crisis, is going apes**t over Mexican “illegals.” We might well be contenders for most irony-saddled player on the world stage at this point.


  8. JohnH says:

    As is often the case, Wigwag chooses to quibble with details of Weinberg’s piece in an attempt to undermine its important message–the Iraqi refugee crisis is extremely serious. Moreover, it is the second major refugee crisis afflicting the region, the first being the Nakba of 1948.
    Wigwag can blame the Shi’a for Iraq’s refugee problem, but it was the American government that initiated and presided over the mess, so the United States bear responsibility, though perhaps not sole responsibility. And Wigwag can place some blame on Saddam, though his contribution pales in comparison to the magnitude of the refugee crises created during the American Occupation.
    Finally, Wigwag is right to say that the Nakba was probably a mix of expulsion and fleeing from fear, though that is a tangential point, the key observation being that the Palestinian refugee problem has never been addressed, much less resolved. As Weinberg points out, this is in part because the countries the refugees fled to are not rich and have limited capacity to absorb such large influxes.
    Instead of picking at details, Wigwag should focus on the big issue. Hopefully she would agree that the countries–the United States and Israel–that caused the Nakba bear a major responsibility to put the humanitarian ideals they espouse into action and help clean up the messes they left.


  9. Paul Norheim says:

    Weinberg attempted to focus on the refugee situation right now, not to
    analyze negative or positive consequences of the invasion as such. He
    deserves credit for this.


  10. ... says:

    wigwag, says …. some commentators “are unable to bring themselves to admit that some positive consequences have come out of the invasion.”, and “the inability to see nuance is not a sign of sophistication, it’s a sign of intellectual immaturity.”
    their are many commentators who can appreciate the nuances of any number of things, or events.. however it doesn’t imply they have to be communicated, or used as cover for the larger mistake that some commentators are unwilling to admit… it shows a sign of emotional immaturity to not acknowledge ones mistakes especially when they are plain for all to see.. the fact remains the idea of making war on iraq was a very grave mistake with some commentators liking nothing better then to repeat this with an act 2 in iran… i am thinking of you in particular who show no sign of learning anything for the mistake of invading iraq…


  11. WigWag says:

    Jon Weinberg fails to note several things in his essay.
    1) The vast majority of displaced Iraqis are Sunni Muslims who were displaced by Shia-led militias all allied in one way or another with Iran. While the United States certainly did a poor job of preventing sectarian conflict from expanding to the point where an enormous refugee problem became inevitable; it is the Shia and their Iranian masters who ultimately expelled most of the refugees.
    2) Even before the American invasion of Iraq there was a major refugee problem instigated by Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi strongman expelled thousands if not tens of thousands of Kurds from the North and replaced them with Sunni that he shipped in from the central part of the nation. Hussein also turned many Shia into refugees. The bottom line is that the American invasion dramatically escalated the creation of refugees but there was a serious refugee problem before the Americans even arrived. Because of the American invasion, thousands if not tens of thousands of Shia refugees who had fled to Iran have returned home and many thousands of internally displaced Kurdish refugees have returned home.
    3) Jon Weinberg said, “These same countries (including Iraq) have been dealing with permanent populations of Palestinian refugees since Israel expelled approximately 750,000 Palestinians following the country’s creation in 1948 – a series of events which the Arab world commonly calls al Nakba, the catastrophe.”
    Weinberg needs to study a little history. Most (but not all) Israeli historians claim that the Palestinian refugees were scared into leaving and became refugees only after the Arab nations attacked Israel when Ben Gurion declared the creation of the State. Most Palestinians believe that the refugees were all expelled. Political partisans on both sides of the conflict insist that their narrative is the correct one and they come up with all kinds of historical data to support their view. Of course, they are not motivated by historical accuracy; they are motivated by a desire to support their political claims. The etiology of the Palestinian refugee problem is almost certainly not black and white and the extreme narratives of both sides are almost certainly wrong. The whole question is a matter of historical debate and the truth probably lies somewhere in between the extreme narratives of both sides.
    Whether this was just a rookie mistake on Jon Weinberg’s part or a sign of naivety is unclear.
    It is also unclear why commentators who revel in citing the terrible consequences of the American invasion of Iraq (I opposed it myself) are unable to bring themselves to admit that some positive consequences have come out of the invasion.
    The inability to see nuance is not a sign of sophistication, it’s a sign of intellectual immaturity.


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