Refugees Resist Returning to Iraq Europe and the U.S. are facing increasing pressure to open their borders to more Iraqis, but there is little infrastructure or funding in place to do so. In some ways, Syria and Lebanon are picking up the slack.
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Refugees Resist Returning to Iraq

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Refugees Resist Returning to Iraq

Refugees Resist Returning to Iraq

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The Iraqi refugee crisis is the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world. More than two million people have fled the country since the war began and neighboring countries like Syria and Jordan are now putting limits as to how many Iraqis can enter.

Andrew Harper runs the Iraqi refugee program at the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. Welcome to DAY TO DAY.

Mr. ANDREW HARPER (U.N. High Commission on Refugees): Thank you very much. Good to be here.

BRAND: Well, we just heard in Deborah Amos's piece three stories of Iraqi women fleeing their country. They said they don't feel safe going home and they're not able to work or earn much money in Jordan or Syria. So what are their options?

Mr. HARPER: Very limited. And this is one of the major concerns that we've got. We're finding that Iraqis just do not want to return back.

BRAND: And so what is your job there at the United Nations High Commission on Refugees? What are your options in terms of placing them or getting them to places that are safe or in places where they like to live?

Mr. HARPER: Well, the first thing is to try to identify those people who are most vulnerable. And it's extremely difficult. Many people just do not want to be identified. They're afraid of being arrested. They're being afraid of being deported back to Iraq. And so one of our challenges is actually to go out, find those people who are in need of assistance, and provide assistance. And that could be in the form of finance or access to health or education. In many aspects it's easier to provide assistance to women in neighboring countries than what it would be for us to do such an assistance program inside Iraq.

BRAND: And are you having any difficulties raising money for these refugees? Are donor countries coming through with promised financial aid?

Mr. HARPER: We put out an appeal for $261 million. There's at least two million Iraqis outside the country and two million displaced inside the country. But even that amount of assistance, which may seem relatively large, is insignificant compared to the total need.

BRAND: Now, the United States admitted just 1,600 Iraqi refugees last year, and the State Department says it's hampered essentially by the need to conduct thorough background checks, post-9/11 background checks. Last October, Ellen Sauerbrey from the State Department was on this program. She told me things would speed up soon, and here she is.

Ms. ELLEN SAUERBREY (Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration): Well, UNHCR has referred to our program about 12,000. And of the 12,000, by the end of this calendar year we think we will have completed interviewing that entire initial group.

BRAND: Andrew Harper of UNHCR, we are into the next calendar year, and do you know if those interviews were completed of the 12,000 that your agency referred?

Mr. HARPER: Well, in regards to the numbers who entered the States, I think it was actually 2,600 who actually came in last year. Our referrals actually to the States has been 16,000. So at this point we've got U.S. teams in Damascus and Amman who are working with us to move this backlog, as we might say. The estimates that they're looking at moving in this year is about just over 12,000.

BRAND: And is that enough?

Mr. HARPER: UNHCR is estimating that there's probably about 80-100,000 Iraqis in need of resettlement. One purpose of my mission to Washington this week has been to try and ensure that people don't forget about the other 90 percent of the Iraqis who will not be able to access resettlement and who will be in need of protection and assistance in the region.

BRAND: So those 90 percent, what will happen to them?

Mr. HARPER: We don't know. We're providing some basic food items. We're allowing the Iraqi children access to Syrian and Jordanian schools. We've got access to medical care. But the costs of living in these countries is much greater than the amount of financial assistance that we can provide. So what we are doing is basically just delaying or providing token gestures for people before they step into abject poverty.

And then at that situation, what are their options? They are to sell whatever assets they've got left, which declines by the day. Are they forced to go back to Iraq because they've got no way to survive in Syria? Or do they - the women start being forced into prostitution, the children start being forced into soliciting on the streets or not being able to go to school?

So it is a horrendous situation which unfortunately I think is only going to get worst. We need to keep the humanitarian focus on those Iraqis who can't go back to Iraq.

BRAND: Andrew Harper, thank you for joining us.

Mr. HARPER: Thank you very much.

BRAND: Andrew Harper is head of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees Iraq unit. He joined us from Washington.

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