Syria and Jordan called on US to share refugee burden

WASHINGTON, April 09, 2008 ( -- The ambassadors of Syria and Jordan called on the United States to share the burden of the unprecedented Iraqi refugee crisis.

"The situation is terrible and the burden" on Syria's resources and population is horrendous, said Imad Moustapha, Syrian ambassador to the U.S. The "United States is categorically refusing to help" solve the refugee crisis, "the largest exodus in the Middle East," he said.

Moustapha was a participant on one of several panels at an April 4 forum, "The Iraqi Refugee Crisis: Law, Policy and Practice," in Washington. The forum, sponsored by Villanova University School of Law in Pennsylvania, gathered advocates, aid workers and lawyers involved with Iraqi refugees.

Moustapha stressed the economic and security problems that 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria have caused the already strained government, which subsidizes social programs such as health care and education for Syrians.

He recalled a discussion he had with U.S. officials, who asked him what Syria needed to cope with Iraqi refugees. Moustapha said he asked for 200 garbage trucks, some ambulances and five water-treatment facilities. The officials agreed, but Moustapha said nothing materialized.

"We have low expectations from the U.S.," he said.

Prince Zeid Ra'ad Zeid Al-Hussein, Jordan's ambassador to the U.S., said the "volume of people in such a short space of time (in Jordan) is staggering to the mind."

"There has to be some gratitude shown to the host countries for the enormity of the burden," he said. Zeid, whose father was an Iraqi refugee who made Jordan his home, said Iraqi refugees "are not vermin. ... They are human beings, but the size and volume of the problem is just too much to bear for a country like Jordan."

Najla Chadha, director of the Catholic-run Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center, said the Lebanese "are starting to get jealous" of the 50,000 Iraqi refugees in Lebanon because of the support they receive.

Chadha told
Catholic News Service there is a problem with overlap in services provided by nongovernmental organizations. In an effort to garner funding from donor countries, many organizations say they are working with Iraqi refugees, she said, adding there is a lack of coordination on the part of donors and service providers.

Several other aid workers discussed the unique problems faced by Iraqi refugees, many of whom are illegally residing in their host countries.

Mark Schnellbaecher, Middle East regional director for the U.S. bishops' Catholic Relief Services, described the situation as the "flight of moderation" from Iraq because the refugees are Iraq's educated and middle class.

Schnellbaecher said domestic violence has been on the rise among Iraqi refugees because of an inversion of traditional family roles. Wives and teenagers are out earning money while men, who are the most likely to get picked up by authorities, stay at home all day, Schnellbaecher said.

"Refugees will be where they are for the next five years," he said, noting that "because this population was specifically targeted" many don't see an opportunity to go home.

He said nongovernmental and governmental organizations must focus on the needs Iraqi refugees might have over the next five years.

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