Correction to This Article
A Feb. 4 article said that about roughly a third of Jordan's population of 5.9 million are Palestinian refugees. The proportion includes Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

War in Iraq Propelling A Massive Migration

Iraqis in growing numbers are fleeing the war at home, creating the largest refugee crisis in the Middle East in almost 60 years. Many, like Hussein Ghani, live as refugees in Amman, Jordan, and fear deportation.
Iraqis in growing numbers are fleeing the war at home, creating the largest refugee crisis in the Middle East in almost 60 years. Many, like Hussein Ghani, live as refugees in Amman, Jordan, and fear deportation. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)

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By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 4, 2007

AMMAN, Jordan -- Inside his cold, crumbling apartment, Saad Ali teeters on the fringes of life. Once a popular singer in his native Baghdad, he is now unemployed. To pay his $45 monthly rent, he borrows from friends. To bathe, he boils water on a tiny heater. He sleeps on a frayed mattress, under a tattered blanket.

Outside, Ali, 35, avoids police officers and disguises his Arabic with a Jordanian dialect. He returns home before 10 p.m. to stay clear of government checkpoints. Like hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees here, he fears being deported. Six months ago, near his home in Baghdad, two men threatened to kill him. Singing romantic songs, they said, was un-Islamic.

So when his pride hits a new low, he remembers that day.

"Despite all the hardships I face here, it is better than going back to Baghdad," said Ali, long-faced with a sharp chin, who wore a thick red sweat shirt and rubbed his hands to keep warm. "They will behead me. What else can I do? I have no choice."

As the fourth year of war nears its end, the Middle East's largest refugee crisis since the Palestinian exodus from Israel in 1948 is unfolding in a climate of fear, persecution and tragedy.

Nearly 2 million Iraqis -- about 8 percent of the prewar population -- have embarked on a desperate migration, mostly to Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The refugees include large numbers of doctors, academics and other professionals vital for Iraq's recovery. Another 1.7 million have been forced to move to safer towns and villages inside Iraq, and as many as 50,000 Iraqis a month flee their homes, the U.N. agency said in January.

The rich began trickling out of Iraq as conditions deteriorated under U.N. sanctions in the 1990s, their flight growing in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Now, as the violence worsens, increasing numbers of poor Iraqis are on the move, aid officials say. To flee, Iraqis sell their possessions, raid their savings and borrow money from relatives. They ride buses or walk across terrain riddled with criminals and Sunni insurgents, preferring to risk death over remaining in Iraq.

The United Nations is struggling to find funding to assist Iraqi refugees. Fewer than 500 have been resettled in the United States since the invasion. Aid officials and human rights activists say the United States and other Western nations are focused on reconstructing Iraq while ignoring the war's human fallout.

"It's probably political," said Janvier de Riedmatten, U.N. refugee agency representative for Iraq, referring to the reason why the world hasn't helped Iraq's refugees.

"The Iraq story has to be a success story," he said.

For decades, Jordan welcomed refugees. Roughly a third of its 5.9 million residents are Palestinian refugees. According to the United Nations, 500,000 to 700,000 Iraqi refugees live in Jordan, but aid officials say the actual number is nearer to 1 million because many Iraqis live under the radar. Jordan's tolerance has waned, however, since a group of Iraqis bombed three hotels in November 2005, killing 60 people, according to Iraqis, aid officials and human rights groups. The government fears that Iraq's mostly Sunni Arab refugees could remain in the country permanently or become recruits for Iraq's insurgency.

Now, the exodus is generating friction and anger across the region, while straining basic services in already poor countries. Iraqis are blamed for driving up prices and taking away scarce jobs. Iraq's neighbors worry the new refugees will carry in Iraq's sectarian strife.


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