Given the national wave of anxiety that occurred when we had a few thousand Iraqi refugees turning up in Australia, it is curious how little attention has been given here to the huge number of refugees that have flooded out of Iraq (as well as the many more internally displaced people) in recent times.
I can recall the excited media coverage given to a comment by our then Immigration Minister, Mr Ruddock, when he warned back in 1999 that whole villages of up to 10 000 people were planning to pack up and come to Australia. At that time, in 1999, Mr Ruddock said that “The situation is that something like 700,000 people from Iraq have been displaced.”
A lot has happened since then. Australia used its armed forces to turn away refugees fleeing Iraq, and of course also used its armed forces to assist in invading Iraq and have stayed since in an effort to help rebuild the country.
This report on the current situation is worth reading. Among other things, it states
The latest UN figures concerning the refugee crisis in Iraq indicate that between 1-1.2 million Iraqis have fled across the border into Syria; about 750,000 have crossed into Jordan (increasing its modest population of 5.5 million by 14%); at least another 150,000 have made it to Lebanon; over 150,000 have emigrated to Egypt; and — these figures are the trickiest of all — over 1.9 million are now estimated to have been internally displaced by civil war and sectarian cleansing within Iraq.
These numbers are staggering in a population estimated in the pre-invasion years at only 26 million. At a bare minimum, in other words, at least one out of every seven Iraqis has had to flee his or her home due to the violence and chaos set off by the Bush administration’s invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Yet, as even the UN officials on the scene admit, these are undoubtedly low-end estimates.
Sometimes all these numbers can just turn into more statistics, and depersonalise such traumatic situations. Having lived in Australia all my life, I find it very hard to imagine what it must really be like to be forced to flee your home and neighbourhood into total uncertainty. If you want to gain some personal insight, I recommend reading this post from Baghdad-based blogger, Riverbend. It shows the combination of the monumental and the mundane which can co-exist in such a situation.
I remember Baghdad before the war- one could live anywhere. We didn’t know what our neighbors were- we didn’t care. No one asked about religion or sect. No one bothered with what was considered a trivial topic: are you Sunni or Shia? You only asked something like that if you were uncouth and backward. Our lives revolve around it now. Our existence depends on hiding it or highlighting it- depending on the group of masked men who stop you or raid your home in the middle of the night.
On a personal note, we’ve finally decided to leave. I guess I’ve known we would be leaving for a while now. We discussed it as a family dozens of times. At first, someone would suggest it tentatively because, it was just a preposterous idea- leaving ones home and extended family- leaving ones country- and to what? To where?
Since last summer, we had been discussing it more and more. It was only a matter of time before what began as a suggestion- a last case scenario- soon took on solidity and developed into a plan. For the last couple of months, it has only been a matter of logistics. Plane or car? Jordan or Syria? Will we all leave together as a family? Or will it be only my brother and I at first?
After Jordan or Syria- where then? Obviously, either of those countries is going to be a transit to something else. They are both overflowing with Iraqi refugees, and every single Iraqi living in either country is complaining of the fact that work is difficult to come by, and getting a residency is even more difficult. There is also the little problem of being turned back at the border. Thousands of Iraqis aren’t being let into Syria or Jordan- and there are no definite criteria for entry, the decision is based on the whim of the border patrol guard checking your passport.
An airplane isn’t necessarily safer, as the trip to Baghdad International Airport is in itself risky and travelers are just as likely to be refused permission to enter the country (Syria and Jordan) if they arrive by airplane. And if you’re wondering why Syria or Jordan, because they are the only two countries that will let Iraqis in without a visa. Following up visa issues with the few functioning embassies or consulates in Baghdad is next to impossible.
So we’ve been busy. Busy trying to decide what part of our lives to leave behind. Which memories are dispensable? We, like many Iraqis, are not the classic refugees- the ones with only the clothes on their backs and no choice. We are choosing to leave because the other option is simply a continuation of what has been one long nightmare- stay and wait and try to survive.
On the one hand, I know that leaving the country and starting a new life somewhere else- as yet unknown- is such a huge thing that it should dwarf every trivial concern. The funny thing is that it’s the trivial that seems to occupy our lives. We discuss whether to take photo albums or leave them behind. Can I bring along a stuffed animal I’ve had since the age of four? Is there room for E.’s guitar? What clothes do we take? Summer clothes? The winter clothes too? What about my books? What about the CDs, the baby pictures?
The problem is that we don’t even know if we’ll ever see this stuff again. We don’t know if whatever we leave, including the house, will be available when and if we come back. There are moments when the injustice of having to leave your country, simply because an imbecile got it into his head to invade it, is overwhelming. It is unfair that in order to survive and live normally, we have to leave our home and what remains of family and friends… And to what?
It’s difficult to decide which is more frightening- car bombs and militias, or having to leave everything you know and love, to some unspecified place for a future where nothing is certain.
(links found via The Daily Briefing)