Bill Frelick, Human Rights Watch

From the November/December 2007 issue.

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Mother Jones: Will refugees from Iraq be processed through the U.S. embassy? How will that work?

Bill Frelick: The big overarching question right now with respect to any contingencies involving refugees—that is, people who cross an international border—is whether the borders will be open to refugees, period. Because Jordan has essentially closed its border. Saudi Arabia is building a multibillion-dollar barrier on its border. And Syria has a limit to how many refugees it can take; it’s already got well over a million that are in the country now. It’s been certainly the most open of the neighboring countries. So Syria is the key question in terms of whether people will even be allowed to leave the country. In terms of planning and contingencies, this is really the first question to be asked—whether people are going to be able to cross borders at all, and if they aren’t able to cross, what happens to people who are forced out of their homes and are forced to leave? Where are they going to go?

MJ: I’m picturing camps set up all along those borders.

BF: Except if you’ve seen those borders, it’s very hard to picture that because—and I’m talking particularly about the borders with Syria and Jordan—this is a really, really inhospitable area. It’s basically desert, rocky desert, not sandy desert. It’s not a place that can sustain human life without considerable outside support. Besides that, Iraqis associate refugee camps with Palestinians. There is a very strong cultural negative reaction to the idea of living in a camp. I’ve asked Iraqis who’ve been turned away at the Jordanian border, “Why didn’t you just set up camps at the border?” and they said, “I would never do that.” They’re more likely to live in very dangerous conditions in an urban environment than to live in a remote desert location in a tent. They see themselves as urban.

MJ: Perhaps if things got exponentially worse that would push people to consider other options.

BF: In many refugee situations there are different waves of refugees, and often times the first or the earlier wave or waves of refugees tend to be the professionals, the elites, the people who have some resources, people who can get out of the country, people who have travel documents that allow them to move and this sort of thing. And so many of the people that I’ve talked to who are refugees are people who have some resources and some skills and what I’ve told you perhaps reflects a class bias. It could be that if you’re looking at much poorer refugees, people who have significantly fewer skills and resources, it might be that an Iraqi population could end up in tents.

But, here’s the million dollar question: If they can’t cross the border, and if they’re not going to be congregating in tents, where are they going to be? I think there is a very terrible scenario where the civil war could get much worse than it is now, where you have sort of battling internal armies fighting each other. You know, real battles for Baghdad in the same way that we saw the battles for Beirut—that scale of civil violence. Thankfully we haven’t seen that yet, but it could happen. It could really be a significant humanitarian disaster.

MJ: If we draw down our troops, what sort of security will there be for IDP camps?

BF: IDP camps, by the very notion of still being in your country of origin, are generally not safe. You’re more likely to be safe if you can get out of the country; the farther away, the better, in many respects. When what’s purported to be the government of your country is a party to the conflict itself, you may feel that you will be persecuted at their hands. That’s all the more reason your security, your safety cannot be guaranteed inside your country of origin.

MJ: Back to my original question about processing, will refugees be processed through the U.S. embassy?

BF: In-country processing is a fairly rare thing, and usually applies to a relatively small number of people. There is a lot of foot dragging by the government, particularly the Department of Homeland Security, about any sort of in-country refugee processing out of Iraq. There are both political reasons for that in terms of the continuing foreign policy and military goals that the U.S. has in Iraq, as well as security concerns for the officials who would be conducting the interviews.

MJ: So, how will it work?

BF: My vision is a fairly pessimistic one as you’ve probably gathered. My advocacy would be to offer considerably more support for Jordan and Syria to provide much more international burden-sharing, including refugee resettlement. I think that’s a very hard sell all the way around, but it is what we are pushing for. Part of the difficultly is, in interviewing the refugees that I’ve had the opportunity to talk with, mostly in Jordan, there are very few that have any interest in returning to Iraq anytime soon. Most of them want to get as far away as possible. This group is traumatized and fearful. They see very little future for their country or for themselves in the country.

The best-case scenario is that the Iraqis stare into the abyss and realize that they’re staring at a disaster, and whether they love each other or not, they make an accommodation with each other. Then there is a political solution they work out and the Americans get out of the way, basically, and let the Iraqis deal with their situation in a way that hopefully will avoid conflict displacement, killings, all that. That’s what we can hope for, but it’s not within the power of the internationals to control.

It’s all highly speculative, and I think that probably anyone you’re interviewing on this is probably having the same sort of feelings of trepidation at crystal-ball gazing here. It’s a particularly murky ball.


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