Iraqi Refugee and IDP Assessment
American Friends Service Committee
Iraq has suffered through three wars in the last 20 years. The attack by the
United States in 2003 and the removal of the Iraqi government has led to five
years of intense chaos and violence, ethnic and communal cleansing, and
terrible suffering. An estimated two million refugees are in neighboring countries,
primarily Syria and Jordan, and more than an additional two million are internally
displaced within Iraq. The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) was
involved in Iraq during the sanction period between the 1991 Persian Gulf War
and the present war and only pulled out in 2005 when conditions became too
dangerous for expatriates to live in Iraq. AFSC has invested deeply in advocacy
in the United States against the war and in education about the costs of the war.
Because of the massive refugee and internally displaced persons (IDP) problem
and the desire to have the advocacy and educational program grounded in work
with Iraqis in the Middle East, AFSC appointed this assessment mission to study
the situation and to make recommendations about how AFSC could serve the
refugees and IDPs.
The terms of reference given to the assessment team included:
1. Identify potential partners to implement a humanitarian assistance
program and assess their capacity.
2. Identify a priority list of programs that AFSC can and should support.
3. Analyze the political realities among and surrounding the refugees.
4. Collect first hand testimony and pictures to serve for education and
The six person team assembled in Amman, Jordan, and began working on
November 8, 2007. A total of eight days were spent in Jordan and four days in
Syria including travel days from Amman to Damascus and return. In Jordan, the
team interviewed several UN agencies, international NGOs, Jordanian national
NGOs, and Iraqi refugees—both elites and common persons.
In Syria interviews were conducted with UN agencies, local charities, and Iraqi
refugees. International NGOs have not yet been able to register and work in
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Syria, although the government has selected eight to work in cooperation with
the Syrian Red Crescent Society.
In Jordan we interviewed several Iraqi NGOs as well as UN agencies and INGOs
that work with IDPs within Iraq. A list of the agencies and persons interviewed is
in Appendix I.
In addition to collecting information on the needs of refugees in Jordan and Syria
and the services being provided them, the team sought to understand the
political and economic contexts, particularly the policies and regulations of the
governments of Jordan and Syria that affect the refugees. We also sought to
understand the political and conflict situation in Iraq, and met with several sets of
Iraqis leaders about a current AFSC peace-building effort.
Number of Iraqis in Jordan & Syria
The problem of refugees in Jordan and Syria is a massive one that is causing a
significant burden on the economies and societies of both countries. There is
considerable uncertainty as to the actual numbers of refugees in both countries,
but whatever the precise number it is large as a percentage of the population of
each country. While some estimates of the number of refugees in Jordan range
as high as 750,000, several knowledgeable people said that the number may be
more like 350-400,000. A study commissioned by the Jordanian government and
conducted by the Norwegian Research Institute Fafo was released after the team
departed from Amman. This study concluded that Iraqi refugees in Jordan
number between 450,000 and 500,000. The number is critical to the Jordanian
government because the level of international assistance is calculated according
to the estimated refugee population.
In Syria, the number of refugees is thought to fall between one and one and a
half million although one source estimated two million. Several people said that
refugees have been returning to Iraq from Syria and that some neighborhoods
that had housed refugees are now empty. The real reasons for returning are
unclear. Some believe that the improvement of the security situation in Iraq led
to repatriations. Others blame the strict policies of host governments preventing
refugees from working for their livelihood and the depletion of savings for forcing
refugees to return to Iraq in order to feed their families.
Legal status of Iraqi refugees in host countries (Jordan & Syria)
Neither Jordan nor Syria is a signatory of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees
which guarantees refugees certain minimal rights. Neither government refers to
the Iraqis in their country as "refugees," but rather as "guests. " Syria has been
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more flexible in accommodating Iraqis than Jordan, which probably accounts in
part for the larger number of refugees in Syria.
Both countries—but especially Jordan—are concerned that the Iraqi refugees not
become a permanent, long term presence like the Palestinian refugees who for
years have outnumbered Jordanian citizens. From the beginning, Jordan has
required Iraqis to secure visas that need to be renewed from outside Jordan, and
many refugees have overstayed their visas and are illegally in Jordan. This
causes fear of being deported, and many are afraid to venture out of the house in
which they live. Syria did not require Iraqis to have visas for entry until recently.
The change in the policy of Syria likely reflects a view that the large number of
refugees is a real burden—prices of basic needs have increased 40-60 percent--
and Syria is not prepared to host 1. 5 million refugees for 10-20 years.
The resettlement status of Iraqis in Jordan & Syria
The number of Iraqis who have been resettled as refugees is quite small. There
are no exact figures of how many refugees were resettled in third countries after
fleeing to Jordan or Syria. However, an estimated number of less than 7,000
recognized Iraqi refugees have been resettled from Jordan in the four years
since the collapse of Saddam's regime. The number is much less in the case of
resettlements of refugees from Syria since resettlement countries have limited
access to interview refugees in Syria. However, International Organization for
Migration (IOM), which processes refugees for the United States and some other
countries, has greatly expanded its staff to enable quicker processing. Also, an
agreement between the governments of Syria and the United States to allow
American officials to process refugees within Syria was recently reached.
The psycho-social status of Iraqis in host countries
Many of the refugee families that we interviewed, especially those in Syria, report
terrible experiences of violence, with family members kidnapped and or killed.
Most refugees left Iraq because of the violence, after family members or friends
had been killed, or after receiving direct threats. The amount of trauma they have
experienced is vast, and there is a great need for trauma healing work.
We observed a blend of fear, anger, and hopelessness as well as resilience that
enables survival. Most do not expect the situation in Iraq to stabilize for five to
ten years, and most with whom we talked want to resettle in third countries. This
is an unrealistic dream, given the low numbers of refugees from the Middle East
most countries are willing to accept.
Health situation in the host countries (Jordan & Syria)
Iraqi refugees in Jordan and Syria receive free child vaccinations, and they have
access to health facilities in both countries but in Jordan have to pay a higher
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price than Jordanian citizens. Iraqis living in Syria seem to be in a better
situation in regard to low cost of health treatments since they are treated as
Syrian citizens. However, many medications are not available in Syrian
pharmaceutical stores due to economic sanctions imposed by a few western
states. On the other hand, medications and health treatments are available and
accessible in Jordan but are quite costly for Iraqis since they have to pay a
higher price than Jordanians for health services and have limited financial
resources due to work restrictions on them. Treatment of chronic diseases like
diabetes and cancer is very costly and difficult for Iraqi refugees, but some have
left Iraq because of needing treatment they could not find in Iraq.
The status of education for Iraqis in host countries (Jordan & Syria)
Syria has allowed Iraqi children to attend government schools from the
beginning, while in Jordan they were not allowed to until a ruling just this past
August allowing them to begin attending government schools this current school
year. Many Iraqi school children are not attending schools due to lack of financial
support by their families. Therefore, they end up skipping schools in order to
keep food on the table. In Syria, children who fail to attend school for two years
consecutively lose their chance to continue free education in public schools.
Financial status of the Iraqi refuges in the host countries
Neither Jordan nor Syria issues work permits to refugees. Almost all
employment is thus illegal and the problem of earning a livelihood was raised by
nearly all refugees that were interviewed. Many, particularly those in Jordan, are
well-educated and hold university degrees. The primary request of virtually all
we met was for recognition as refugees and for the right to work.
The need for assistance will increase the longer the refugees are in Jordan and
Syria. Some respondents reported that a good number of the first influx of
refugees who went to Jordan were wealthy and invested in property and had
large savings on which to live. However, currently many of the Iraqi refugees
residing in Jordan are poor, but relatively better off than the Iraqis in Syria. The
poorer ones went to Syria where the cost of living is lower, and the government
was more welcoming of them. People are exhausting their savings and do not
have legal means of earning their livelihood. A larger, more effective and
comprehensive program of assistance will be needed as long as the refugees are
denied work permits enabling them to earn their livelihood. A repeated problem
that was identified was the payment of rent, and the first request was to be given
work permits so that they could earn an income. Another ongoing problem
identified is the expense of caring for people with chronic diseases like cancer
INGOs & UN agencies' involvements in host countries
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By all accounts, the international response to the refugee situation was slow in
developing. It was only after a conference in Geneva last April involving UN
agencies, INGOs and governments that the effort to serve Iraqi refugees was
greatly accelerated. Several agencies, both UN and INGOs, reported significant
increases in personnel and in budgets since the April meeting.
In both countries, UNHCR is slowly registering refugees, either issuing them a
document recognizing them as refugees and asking that they be protected or
registering them as asylum seekers. In Jordan, 50,000 of the estimated 500,000
have been registered, and in Syria 130,000 of 1. 5 million. Although neither
government formally recognizes Iraqis as refugees nor are the two governments
signatory to the 1951 conventions on refugees, there is a mutual understanding
and de-facto recognition between the host governments and UNHCR. Both
registering the refugees and providing them services is challenging because
these are urban refugees living in rented apartments and houses or with friends
and relatives and not in camps in which they are isolated. Locating them is not
easy, and not all are prepared to come to UNHCR to register, especially if they
have overstayed their visa.
Both UN agencies and large INGOs such as CARE International, Save the
Children, Caritas, etc. are trying to provide services such as food and non-food
items, assistance with education, and medical assistance. The assistance seems
sporadic and certainly does not reach nearly everyone who is in need.
Numerous NGO commentators stressed that it is important that programming
have some clear benefits for local Jordanian and Syrian citizens as well as for
Iraqi refugees. The host countries face severe limitations that include lack of
natural resources, water scarcity, inadequate infrastructure, and unemployment
problems of their own. Syria also faces restricted trade. The large refugee
population strains government services which in both countries have difficulty
meeting the needs of their own citizens. Ensuring that programs for refugees
have some subsidiary benefit to local citizens is not only a matter of lightening
the burden on the governments in question, it is a matter of reducing the
resentments that some citizens feel towards refugees who compete for housing
Humanitarian response is in disarray due to the instability of the Iraqi political
situation. People in general identify themselves within their community;
therefore, there is a great need for community empowerment, education, and
development. There are more than ten thousand NGOs in Iraq, but not all of
them are functional or legitimate. There are around 200 NGOs created and
supported by international NGO and UN agencies.
UNHCR is one of the of the UN agencies that was established in 1950. Its role is
to protect, find durable solutions, and provide living in dignity to refugees all over
the world. UNHCR provides several services to refugees, as follows:
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• Intercede with local government on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers
to protect them from deportation, but it cannot guarantee to stop
deportation if the authorities decide on expulsion.
• Provide consultation to refugees in their residing country.
• Search for durable solutions for refugees through the possibilities of local
integration, repatriation to home country, or resettlement to third country.
It is worth mentioning that registration by refugees with the UNHCR does not
mean an automatic submission to resettlement countries. Registration means
that UNHCR recognizes a person as an asylum seeker or refugee depending on
the case. Resettlement is considered as one of the solutions and is limited to a
small number of cases according to circumstances.
Some UN agencies stressed the need for more logistical support to help WHO
carry out its task all over Iraq rather than having inexperienced NGOs importing
and distributing medications randomly with limited knowledge of the health
situation in Iraq.
Staff of INGOs and UN agencies seemed to agree that a substantial number of
Iraqi refugees are moving from Jordan to Syria for cheaper living expenses and
more relaxed policy toward refugees. They believe that there is a great need to
work in a conflict prevention program between Iraqis and Jordanian children in
Jordan to avoid tension in the foreseeable future.
Some NGOs work with traumatized individuals and their family, offer counseling
and psychotherapy, and provide shelter for needy women. They also have a
major vocational and rehabilitation training program for Iraqi refugees as well as
Difficulties facing Iraqi IDPs
The situation of IDPs inside of Iraq is even worse. In addition to not being able
to work, having to pay rent for living in a different part of the country, and facing
limited services from government departments and NGOs, IDPs are also subject
to targeted and random bombings and threats. However, while these conditions
make it difficult for agencies to work within Iraq, access and security are
constraints, not absolute barriers to NGOs working in Iraq. Economic
development is important for peace-building because militias pay unemployed
youth to join. Work in Iraq could begin with a focus on basic needs and later add
conflict transformation and peace-building.
Iraqis' opinion toward sectarian violence
Nearly all Iraqis whom we met insisted that before the US invasion there was no
conflict between the different sects and ethnic groups. They pointed out
widespread intermarriage among Sunnis and Shia and noted that violence
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between these groups started after the invasion due to decisions and actions of
outsiders. Many believe the conflict is political, not sectarian, and that its source
is hunger for positions, power and resources. Their longing to have a workable
political framework is intense, and the need for emphasis on tolerance and
inclusion in order to build peace is widely recognized. That said, numerous
people commented about how little experience Iraqis have in the practicalities of
finding consensus. In the old regime, order came from above and people
learned to survive simply by saying yes. Several Iraqis commented that there is
a lot of talk among Iraqis about peace, but everyone expects it on their own
Specific recommendations in order of priority:
1. Many of the Iraqi refugees and IDPs have experienced extreme trauma as
a result of the years of war involving a foreign occupying power as well as
violence between sects and ethnic cleansing. Many witnessed the killing
of their loved ones, kidnapping of friends and relatives, and rape of family
members. There is a large need for trauma healing and only limited
resources in Jordan and Syria. We recommend that AFSC develop
partnerships with several effective local NGOs to support their work in
2. The prisons in Iraq are considered breeding grounds for extremists where
detainees suffer a great deal of trauma. We recommend AFSC explore
supporting advocacy, peace-building and trauma healing with detainees
and ex-detainees, for reintegrating them into society is essential to the
stabilizing of Iraqi. It should be recognized, however, that the security
situation in Iraq, especially in Baghdad, and restrictions on the movement
of ex-prisoners and detainees could make it difficult for them to attend
workshops and visit rehabilitation centers inside Iraq.
3. Because of the extreme violence in the Iraq conflict, there are many
people needing orthopedic rehabilitation through prostheses and physical
therapy. Several NGOs are doing excellent work manufacturing and fitting
prostheses in its own workshop and clinic. Assisting them would help heal
the wounds of war and build on a strong AFSC heritage of work in this
4. The AFSC Middle East regional office has been exploring with different
Iraqi leaders a process of reconciliation and peacebuilding involving a
series of workshop and a major conference. This effort should be
continued. If Iraq begins to stabilize, ways should be sought to support
peacebuilding in Iraqi society.
5. Making a daily living was the primary concern that we heard from Iraqi
refugees. The team recommends making available some funds for small
loans to entrepreneurs, particularly women, in the informal economic
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sector in Jordan. The team met with an Iraqi-Jordanian woman who is
conducting vocational training courses and could be very helpful to AFSC.
6. Differences between religious communities and religious sects contribute
to the tension and conflict in Iraq. The team recommends that AFSC
support interfaith dialogue programs and try to identify both Islamic and
Christian organizations as partners.
Recommendations for longer term and larger work after achieving
registration in Syria.
1. The large number of Iraqi refugees of school age in Syria is putting a
strain on the educational system. Syria has allowed even the earliest Iraqi
refugee children to attend public schools. While schools are operating with
two sessions per day, classrooms are overcrowded and teachers are
stressed. There is a need to add classrooms to public schools. The team
recommends that when possible, AFSC assist in providing more
classrooms and schools. This will benefit both Iraqi and Syrian school
children and parallels the excellent work in education that AFSC is doing
2. There is a need for environmental health, particularly garbage collection
and sanitation, in communities heavily occupied by Iraqi refugees in Syria.
AFSC could work directly with WHO Syria to provide garbage collection
A Final Comment
The team was impressed in conversations with Iraqis with the importance they
placed on opposition of Americans to the war. When we talked about strategies
for peacebuilding in Iraq, we saw that we were given high credibility because of
the several year campaign of AFSC against the war. In short, we experienced in
this visit the essential unity of peace work and advocacy work and we think the
AFSC constituency would benefit from hearing of this experience. Additionally,
we are aware that International Program and domestic US staff are in
conversation about ways to more closely integrate planning and communication
between them. We think that Iraq presents an unusual opportunity for integrating
international and domestic programs and strategies and hope that special
attention will be paid to this.