Saturday, July 28, 2007

West has abandoned Middle East to deal with Iraqi flight

Steven Edwards, CanWest News Service
Published: Friday, July 27, 2007

UNITED NATIONS -- An international conference focused on the plight of millions of Iraqis who've fled the violence in their country said Thursday the world must do more to help -- but added most of them should give up hope of being permanently resettled in other countries.

While Jordan, Syria and Iraq complained the West had abandoned them to deal with the bulk of the massive flight, delegates to the day-long session in Amman, Jordan, issued a communique that suggested little would change.

"The real and effective solution to the problem of the Iraqis in host countries is their return to their country, Iraq," said the participants, who included the United Nations, Iraq and its neighbours, and major powers such as the United States, the European Union and Japan.

The UN refugee agency says more than two million of Iraq's 26 million people are in refugee camps in Syria and Jordan, while the advocacy group Refugees International says "most ... are determined to be resettled to Europe or North America."

But the Amman communique said key to their future would be "a political process leading to national reconciliation, in which all political, religious and ethnic groups take part."

With 1.4 million Iraqis in camps in Syria, Milad Atiya, Syrian ambassador to Jordan and head of his country's delegation, said the United States in particular should be doing more to relieve the burden because "its policy led the plight (they) are currently in."

The 750,000 Iraqi refugees in Jordan, meanwhile, are costing the desert kingdom $1 billion US a year, said Mukheimar Abu-Jamous, Secretary-General of the Jordanian Interior Ministry. He urged the West to "rise to their obligation" and re-settle the largest possible number of the refugees.

The UN says the scale of the exodus is the biggest the Middle East has seen since the population shifts of mainly Palestinians at the time of the creation of Israel in 1948. But it will screen just 150,000 Iraqis this year for possible permanent resettlement - and pick only 20,000 of them.

The United States has pledged to take 7,000 of that group, while Canada -- which says it was not invited to the Amman conference -- will take 1,400.

The UN says more people than ever are fleeing the violence and in addition to 50,000 Iraqis actually leaving the country each month, some two million have fled their homes to take refuge elsewhere inside its borders.

But in a separate statement from its base in Geneva, the refugee agency charged Turkey -- an Iraq neighbour that doesn't settle refugees, but generally allows asylum seekers time to find an alternative country to take them -- had forcibly returned 135 people to Iraq.

"We urge all countries to re-settle as quickly as possible the numbers of people they have pledged to take," said Jahanshah Assadi, the agency's representative in Canada.

In the three years following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein, Canada admitted 2,821 Iraqi refugees for permanent residency -- an average of 940 a year. In 2002, the last full year of Saddam's rule, Canada admitted 1,067.

Amman delegates issued an appeal for more funds to improve services in the camps, especially in the areas of health and education.

At a UN-hosted conference in Geneva in April, Canada answered a similar appeal with a pledge of $2.5 million beyond its regular annual funding for the refugee agency's programs.