This article originally appeared in TomDispatch.com.
The war in Iraq has caused one of the most severe refugee crises in history, and no one seems to be paying attention.
Since the shock-and-awe invasion of Iraq began in March 2003, that country’s explosive unraveling has never left the news or long been off the front page. Yet the fallout beyond its borders from the destruction, disintegration, and ethnic mayhem in Iraq has almost avoided notice. And yet with — according to United Nations estimates — approximately 50,000 Iraqis fleeing their country each month (and untold numbers of others being displaced internally), Iraq is producing one of the — if not the — most severe refugee crisis on the planet, a crisis without a name and without significant attention.
For the last two weeks, I’ve been in Syria, visiting refugee centers and camps, the offices and employees of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and poor neighborhoods in Damascus that are filling up with desperate, almost penniless Iraqi refugees, sometimes living 15 to a room. In statistical and human terms, these few days offered a small window into the magnitude of a catastrophe that is still unfolding and shows no sign of abating in any immediately imaginable future.
Let’s start with the numbers, inadequate as they are. The latest UN figures concerning the refugee crisis in Iraq indicate that between 1-1.2 million Iraqis have fled across the border into Syria; about 750,000 have crossed into Jordan (increasing its modest population of 5.5 million by 14%); at least another 150,000 have made it to Lebanon; over 150,000 have emigrated to Egypt; and — these figures are the trickiest of all — over 1.9 million are now estimated to have been internally displaced by civil war and sectarian cleansing within Iraq.
These numbers are staggering in a population estimated in the pre-invasion years at only 26 million. At a bare minimum, in other words, at least one out of every seven Iraqis has had to flee his or her home due to the violence and chaos set off by the Bush administration’s invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Yet, as even the UN officials on the scene admit, these are undoubtedly low-end estimates. “We rely heavily on the official numbers given to us by the Syrian government concerning the Iraqi refugees coming here,” Sybella Wilkes, the regional public information officer for the UNHCR told me, while we talked recently at the main refugee processing center in Douma, a city on the outskirts of the Syrian capital. Even the high-end UNHCR estimate of 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria (a country of only 17 million people) was, she told me, probably too low.
According to Wilkes, the Syrian government, using tallies taken from its southern border posts, privately estimates the number to be closer to 1.4-1.5 million Iraqis in Syria. The UNHCR operation here, desperately under-funded and short of staff, does not have people on the border tallying numbers and has no way to check on the real magnitude of the disaster underway.