The Human Cost of War

Bob Woodruff reports on efforts to assist the millions who fled the war in Iraq.


June 21, 2007 — -- The United Nations has raised $60 million so far this year for humanitarian relief, with $18 million in contributions from the United States, but the international organization admits the assistance has yet to reach the majority of the refugees who have fled Iraq since the start of the war.

In Damascus, Syria, Sanaa Yousef treks three miles each afternoon to pick up a meal provided by a local church. It is the only food her family will eat all day.

"How can we survive?" she asks.

She cannot work, and said she would "like" go to America.

In fact, thousands of vulnerable Iraqis have applied to be resettled in the United States. But since the start of the war, this country has accepted fewer than 500, and just 63 so far this year.

The Bush administration is accused by critics of dragging its feet because to accept refugees would be a tacit admission of the failure of its policy in Iraq, a charge the administration rejects.

"We have not given up in Iraq. Our troops have not gone. We're still there," said Ellen Sauerbrey, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. "We're still working very hard trying to create a democracy and a peaceful, stable Iraq."

At the same time, more than two million refugees have been displaced from Iraq since the war began in 2003, and tens of thousands more are leaving every month, including one family that fled after its children were injured.

After his young son was badly burned in a missile attack and his daughter's school suffered repeated bombings, Hussein Ali decided it was time to pack up his family and leave Baghdad.

"I did not think we would survive another day," he said.

Nearly one in 10 Iraqis now lives outside of Iraq, and the vast majority is pouring into Jordan and Syria.

"On any given day we'd have up to a thousand refugees coming here," said Sybella Wilkes, a representative for the United Nation's high commissioner on refugees in Damascus. "Many of the Iraqis here are coming with very little money and are in a very desperate situation."

Ali and his family moved to Amman, Jordan, where they now pay $30 a month to live in a squalid apartment. Jordan, which has already taken in about 800,000 Iraqis, is feeling the crunch. Officials estimate that the influx of refugees is costing the country roughly $1 billion a year.

Syria is also struggling under the weight of its new 1.5 million refugees. Schools are overcrowded, rents have skyrocketed and the government can no longer afford to provide free medical care to the refugees as it does to its residents.

Once they cross the border into Jordan or Syria, Iraqis who used to live comfortably as engineers, doctors and teachers face a tough new reality as refugees.

"If you look at us now, we are like beggars," one man told us. "This is not the way we used to live."

In Jordan, the government says economic and security concerns have forced it to tighten its borders, which means that men aged 18 to 40 are now virtually shut out of the country.

This change came in response to the Amman bombings of 2005, when young Iraqi men coordinated devastating attacks on three hotels in Amman. "We have to ensure that no person on Jordanian soil is a threat to our national security," said Nasser Judeh, the spokesman for the Jordanian government. "That is our right and we will safeguard that right with everything we have."

Though Syria has welcomed Iraqi refugees with open arms, the government does not allow them to work legally, so the country has seen a rise in child labor and prostitution as people struggle to find under-the-table ways to make ends meet. Without a legitimate way to earn money, many refugees must subsist on charity while they watch their funds trickle out.

"They are human tragedies," said Bouthaina Shaaban, the Syrian minister of expatriates. "Every Iraqi person on the street is a human tragedy, and I don't think we have the solution. I don't think we have the answer."

Advocates for the refugees say it has taken the world, and particularly the United States, far too long to recognize this crisis. Bill Frelick of Human Rights Watch characterized the situation by saying, "I think so far it's been a matter of ignoring the problem, sweeping it under the rug."

In fact, the United States did anticipate and make preparations to handle a refugee problem when the war first began in 2003, but when refugees didn't immediately materialize, the government thought there would be no crisis.

However, as the violence escalated between the Sunnis and Shiites, Iraqis began to flee in overwhelming numbers. Today at least 4 million Iraqis have been displaced from their homes, 2 million of which still live within Iraq.

Experts say the refugee crisis carries serious implications for the future of the Middle East since most Iraqis, like the ones we met, blame the United States for their new poverty and homelessness. A primary concern is that this anger could breed a new generation of terrorists.

"Refugees are not just a humanitarian issue that needs to be addressed," noted Ken Pollack of the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. "They're also potentially a strategic factor that could lead to the outbreak of new wars or the extension of existing wars."

In spite of the potential dangers of allowing the refugee crisis to spiral out of control, the United States has been slow to share the burden of resettlement.

The first group of Iraqi refugees to be accepted from this war by the United States applied for resettlement after the fighting began in 2003 and are scheduled to arrive this June -- a group of less than 70 people.

Sauerbrey estimated that her office will approve roughly 2,000 resettlement applications for Iraqi refugees by September. But some say it's too little, too late.

"It is amazing that the United States who started this war, in a sense, does not feel its moral responsibility to these people," said Shaaban.

Though most refugees we met told us they dream of going back to Iraq someday, too much has changed for them to return. "How can we return to Iraq when every day there are bombs and there are killings?" asked one man.

"Anyone with a decent mind would not stay in Iraq."

If you are interested in making a donation to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees to help with this crisis, follow this link:

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