Iraq has prompted the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world, and it’s threatening to destabilize the entire region.


In Damascus one recent evening, Ahlam Al Jaburi entered the foyer of her apartment in tears. She had risen at 5:30 am that day to be first in line at the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in what she hoped would be her second interview since she first requested asylum in December. Even by the grisly standards of postinvasion Iraq, Jaburi has a strong case. In July 2005, while working with US military officers investigating the claims of war victims in the Baghdad suburb of Khadimiya, the 41-year-old computer specialist was kidnapped by three men while hailing a cab to get to work. “They called me a spy for the Americans and wanted information on their base,” Jaburi says between long silences, interrupted only by the mechanical hum of a glowing fluorescent tube. “They threatened to kill me, but I had nothing to tell them.” Her only concession to her tormentors was a plea that they not toss her body into the Tigris River.

Jaburi, a Sunni Muslim, was kept blindfolded and regularly beaten for eight days before her elder brother negotiated her release through a third party. The family paid a ransom of $50,000, which it drew from the sanduk ashira, a “tribal box” managed by local sheiks. As she was released, Jaburi, whose given name means “dream” in Arabic, was ordered to leave Iraq with her family.

Despite her service with US authorities in Baghdad, Jaburi was turned away from the US Embassy in Damascus when she requested asylum in America. After ten hours of waiting for her interview, enduring sporadic fits of pushing and shoving from other asylum seekers, she was forced to return home after the office closed for the day.

The latest malignant outgrowth of Bush’s war in Iraq is, according to Refugees International president Ken Bacon, “the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world.” Like debris from a maritime disaster, the remains of Iraq’s shattered lives are washing up at border crossings, accumulating at immigration centers and settling into tenement housing. The exodus, particularly in its first stages, has included members of Iraq’s once-legendary class of skilled white-collar elites–doctors, engineers, scientists and educators. Without Iraq’s professionals, it will take a generation to rebuild the country into a self-reliant state with a functioning economy.

“All of the doctors I know have decided to not go back,” says a Sunni Iraqi pathologist and hospital administrator in Amman who, fearing for his family’s security back home, would not give his name. “It will take a decade just to train new physicians. The insurgency has turned the country into an empty vessel, drained of talent.”

What began as a thin stream of Iraqi merchants and investors seeking a safe place to do business has become a flood of some 2 million refugees–though it could be twice that amount–concentrated largely in Jordan and Syria. Many are destitute, and they place enormous strain on a region that is already highly combustible, both politically and economically. Once welcomed as fellow Arabs in distress, they are increasingly blamed for a scorching rise in inflation, crime and prostitution. Heads of state and politicians warn that they will import Iraq-style sectarian strife–political fearmongering, many believe, that could become self-fulfilling at a time when the Bush Administration appears to be lining up its Sunni allies for a confrontation with Iran.

“We have thousands and thousands of Iraqis spilling in from Iraq, and the government is worried that they may bring their conflict to Jordan,” says Taher Masri, a respected former prime minister. “In Parliament a few weeks ago, members were condemning Iran for trying to convert Jordanians to Shiism. My driver just asked me if Shiites were a greater danger than Israelis.”

Dispossession accounts for much of the Middle East’s colonial inheritance, from the Ottoman Turks’ genocidal eviction of Armenians to the Palestinian exodus that followed the creation of Israel with British complicity. If history is any guide–and it usually is in the Middle East–where refugees go, trouble follows. The Iraqi exodus could do more to reshape the geography and geopolitics of the region than anything gamed out in neoconservative think tanks, which tend to see the matter as an abstraction. For Jordan and Syria, themselves the bastard progeny of imperial coupling, the problem is very real–and deadly serious.

“Jordan is scared to death of the spillover from Iraq,” says Rhanda Habibe, Amman bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the doyenne of the Jordanian press corps. “The Arab world is dividing into two groups, with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the US and Jordan on one side and Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah on the other. If there is civil war in Iraq or a civil war in the West Bank, it could all spin out of control and suck us into it.”

Though there are an estimated 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, compared with some 750,000 in Jordan, the strain is felt deepest in the Hashemite Kingdom. Tiny and resource poor, Jordan is a culture dish for the Middle East’s myriad schisms, scored as it is by rich and poor, Muslim and Christian, secular and fundamentalist. Jordan lumbers under the weight of a large ethnic Palestinian population–40 to 60 percent of the total–much of which is still living in camps. The Palestinians in Jordan have coexisted uneasily with indigenous “East Bankers” since the two sides went to war in 1970. The regime is burdened by its alliance with the deeply unpopular US government and its peace accord with Israel. It is also a mendicant state, unable to survive without generous aid from the United States and its Arab neighbors. In February, for example, Jordan avoided a budget crisis only after Saudi Arabia, under stiff pressure from Washington, pledged $500 million in aid.

Aside from strong-arming the Saudis, however, the White House has taken a back seat in the refugee crisis. Ellen Sauerbrey, the Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration, has pushed Amman and Damascus to accommodate Iraqi exiles while doing little to open America’s own borders to them. Testifying before Congress four months ago, Sauerbrey–who has no experience with refugees and who was appointed by Bush during a Congressional recess last year to avoid a floor fight over her strong opposition to abortion rights–confined US resettlement efforts to a single paragraph of her opening remarks. It took a measure led by Senator Edward Kennedy to shame the government into granting asylum to 7,000 Iraqi war refugees (among them, Ahlam Al Jaburi, whose persistence finally paid off this past April when she was awarded a promise of asylum).

With the US playing only a passive role in the crisis, Arab leaders are dealing with the problem as they see fit. Both Amman and Baghdad–the former worried about its capacity to absorb so many Iraqis, the latter covetous of its professional elites–are determined to reverse the migration. For a while, according to recent arrivals, Shiite men were being turned away at the Iraqi-Jordanian border, some with stamps in their passports that prohibited them from returning for five years. Now, they say, any adult male between the age of 18 and 36 stands a good chance of being refused entry. Amman recently announced it would admit only Iraqis bearing a special passport, soon to be issued by the Baghdad government on highly restricted terms.

Rafed, a refugee and aid worker, says UN officials are being pressured by Amman and Baghdad to stop registering Iraqi exiles, which gives them some measure of protection against forcible return. “There is an agreement to send us back, especially the intellectuals and professionals,” says Rafed, who would not give his full name because he works closely with the UN. “This crisis is an embarrassment to both regimes.”

Rafed is a linguist with a degree from the University of Baghdad. Before fleeing Iraq he translated for US forces and worked with internally displaced persons throughout the country. (The IDPs, totaling close to 2 million, are a widely overlooked byproduct of the war. More than one in ten Iraqis is now unmoored.) By May 2006 Rafed was getting death threats for “working with the unbelievers.” He varied his route to work each day and carried a handgun for protection, but having lost four of his cousins to the insurgency, one by decapitation, he decided to flee.

A Shiite, Rafed acknowledges some discrimination under Saddam Hussein, but he is nostalgic for the stability of the late dictator’s rule. Before the US invasion, Rafed was engaged to a Sunni girl, but the relationship crumbled under pressure from both families. Stress has made him a diabetic, he says.

Like many of his fellow exiles, Rafed blames foreign elements for the conflict: Salafists (Sunni extremists) from Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, agents from Iran and, of course, the United States. It was the Americans under viceroy Paul Bremer, the refugees say, who established a confessional style of government, with political parties defined by sect and ethnicity. “The Salafists started executing Shiites,” says Rafed, “and then the Mahdi Army began to retaliate. Then, after the 2005 elections, the Sunnis felt threatened and abandoned politics and entered the insurgency. It was 90 percent political.”

Some also blame Jordan’s king, Abdullah II. In December 2004 the king warned of a “Shiite crescent” raking across the Arab world from its Persian pivot. Coming from a monarchy with a reputation as America’s handmaiden–Abdullah’s father, King Hussein, was on the CIA’s payroll–Abdullah’s remark was widely received as a proxy war whoop aimed at Iran and was quickly repeated by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Not long afterward, reports circulated that Iranian agents were proselytizing in Jordan’s impoverished south, provoking a démarche from Amman. Earlier this year, a Jordanian cleric during Friday prayers condemned Shiites as apostates, and parents reported that teachers were lecturing students about the evils of Shiism. In an apparent move to cool things down, Abdullah invited a Shiite imam to preach at the King Hussein Mosque, a first for Jordan.

Having dutifully channeled for Washington, America’s man in Amman was clearly in over his head. “When you have teachers condemning Shiites in class, that’s bad,” says Joost Hiltermann, Middle East project director for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. “When immigration officials are asking if visitors are Shiite or Sunni at the airport, that’s bad. And when clerics are calling for violence against Shiites, that’s bad too, particularly when you consider that clerics are controlled by the government.”

In contrast with Jordan, Syria continues to welcome Iraq’s dispossessed. In part, that’s because Damascus has the resources to accommodate them. Unlike Jordan, the country is endowed with water and oil and a population more than three times that of its smaller neighbor to the south. Damascus also still prides itself on being the fountainhead of Arab nationalism and as a haven for refugees and dissident groups.

Such conceit is not cost-free. Syria too is stalked by ethnic and sectarian tensions, with a restive Kurdish minority and a majority Sunni population ruled by the Assad family dictatorship. President Bashar al-Assad is clearly betting that his authority is sound enough for him to play the role of beneficent sheik. For now, at least, it appears to be a safe wager. The Americans are pinned down in Iraq, and Syria is riding the crest of an economic boom with the unwitting help of Washington. In December 2003 the United States imposed economic sanctions on Damascus for assisting militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, but as US Treasury officials cracked down on Syrian accounts held overseas, depositors simply repatriated their funds. The result was a liquidity glut that irrigated an economy long parched for capital.

“All the dirty funds are coming back to Syria,” says Jihad Yazigi, editor in chief of The Syria Report, an online economic bulletin. “And you can thank these US sanctions.”

In the current standoff, however, there is little margin for error, and the 41-year-old Assad is still relatively new at the game. It was the Palestinian refugee crisis, after all, that led to civil wars in Jordan and Lebanon, the latter of which was quelled by a Syrian intervention that paved the way for Syria’s long and painful occupation of the country. Assad has to keep a wary eye on Aleppo, Damascus’s rival city to the north, which has a growing Salafist movement. When the Grand Mufti of Syria died in 2004, Assad waited two years before replacing him with Sheik Ahmed Hassoun, who as the mufti in Aleppo had skillfully kept a lid on sectarian tensions. As Syria’s exile population swells–in Aleppo as well as in Damascus–so does the prospect of confrontation.

If anything, says Laith Kubba, a former spokesman for the Iraqi government, the United States should thank the Syrian government for not turning its back on the Iraqis. “I would be happier to see Iraqi professionals staying in Jordan and Syria, preserving their skills,” says Kubba, who is now a senior director at the National Endowment for Democracy. “Sending them back only consumes or wastes them in the civil war.”

No one knows that better than Khulood Alzaidi, an aid worker who was forced to flee Iraq for Jordan in 2005 after receiving death threats slipped under the door of her home in the southern city of Kut. Poised and soft-spoken, the dark-skinned Alzaidi has kept the threatening letters as proof of her vulnerability. But her quest for asylum in the West is ensnared in a bramble of politics and red tape. She has no residency permit and has been picked up by security services and ordered to leave the country. Like her fellow émigrés, she dreads the prospect of being forcibly returned to the sectarian holocaust that is Iraq.

“I have nowhere to go,” she says. “The Jordanians want us out, and the Americans won’t take us in.”

Unlike the vast majority of her fellow exiles, Alzaidi has met the man most closely associated with her plight. On November 17, 2003, the 27-year-old Shiite was one of a dozen or so Iraqi women who were guests of President George W. Bush at the White House. The event was held to honor the group’s work on behalf of women in postwar Iraq, and was organized by Fern Holland, the feminist activist who less than a year later would be murdered by insurgents there.

On the day of Alzaidi’s meeting with the President, she was ushered into the Oval Office along with the rest of the group, where they stood before a phalanx of reporters and a galaxy of flashing strobe lights. According to Alzaidi, Bush centered himself directly to her left. He assured the delegation that the United States would not abandon Iraq and that his decision to invade the country would be vindicated despite the chaos and rising death toll (by then, Iraq’s sectarian violence had been escalating for several months).

“I saw the blood of Iraqis in his face,” Alzaidi says from a friend’s apartment. “This was the man who turned our lives upside down.” Alzaidi says she nearly cried from rage, but restrained herself out of respect for the President.

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