Iraqis not fleeing — yet

«The whereabouts of 5,000 refugees from Ivory Coast who are traveling through areas affected by civil conflict in eastern Liberia are unknown.» That, not tales of fleeing Iraqis, was last week’s top story on refugees from around the world. So far, Iraqis have endured bombardment without abandoning their homes and property. The UNHCR, which keeps a watch on the Iraq border, has not recorded any movement of civilians toward neighboring countries. Some Sudanese who lived in Iraq have crossed over to Jordan on their way home, but the only streams of internal movement were undertaken for preventive reasons in Iraqi Kurdistan, when groups of Kurds left the cities for the countryside, close to the Iraq border. This should be no surprise. During the first Gulf War, Iraqis did not flee until long after hostilities began and the situation had become unbearable. «People won’t readily leave their homes and fields,» says a Greek woman doctor who is on the Iraq-Jordan border. «The rich left long before the war started. The others stay and wait.» Instead of refugees leaving Iraq, the reverse has occurred: Iraqis who live in Jordan have crossed back over the border into their own country, probably in order to fight. From March 16-24, 5,284 Iraqis crossed from Jordan into Iraq, according to the Jordanian border guard. This will certainly change as the food and water supplies which helped many residents of Iraqi cities get through the first week of the war gradually run out. Then some people will take refuge in neighboring countries, where the UNHCR has prepared 10 reception camps. Others may manage to force their way into Europe. France has already announced that it has prepared camps to receive a few thousand Iraqis, though there is deep reluctance within the EU to care for any refugees inside Europe itself. In fact, Britain has proposed that EU asylum applications be processed outside the EU. «It is extraordinary that a proposal to reinforce ‘Fortress Europe’ is being debated at this time when war in Iraq may result in many people fleeing the country. It is doubly incongruous that the present proposals were initiated by the EU member state that is part of the military operations in Iraq,» said Dick Oosting, director of Amnesty International’s EU Office.

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