During the height of sectarian violence in Iraq, many Iraqis left their country to find solace in Syria. Yasir Imad, 29, was one of them. In 2006, Imad was almost killed when a road bomb exploded on his car in Iraq. Later that same year, he was kidnapped and held captive for three days without knowing why. Ten days after he was released by his kidnappers, he received a note telling him to flee the country or risk being killed. “Some people think it might be because I worked for a telecom company and also for my religious views,” said Imad. “My family said you have to go now. We love you, but we don’t want to lose you.”
The grim reality of war, persecution, and growing violence, forced a record number of people to flee their homes and across borders in 2011. “In the last year, 4.3 million people became displaced (within their country) and 800,000 people became refugees. That’s more than any time since 2000,” said Khaled Hosseini, best-selling author of The Kite Runner and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Goodwill Envoy.
A former Afghan refugee, Hosseini took on the role of Goodwill Envoy for UNHCR in order to put a human face to the growing crisis. According to UNHCR’s 2011 Global Trends report, Afghanistan is the largest source of refugees followed by Iraq and numerous nations in Africa. “The issue is that 80% of the refugees around the world live in either under-developed or developing countries,” said Hosseini. Most of the Afghan and Iraqi refugees flee to neighboring countries like Iran, Pakistan, and Syria. “A lot of these host nations have social economic, political security and economic concerns of their own.”
Imad chose Syria because it has the easiest and least expensive visa entry process. However, he was not legally allowed to work there. “I worked so many jobs where the employer wouldn’t pay because they knew I couldn’t do anything about it. I couldn’t sue or anything,” recalls Imad. “I remember there were days that I couldn’t afford a meal… I got into a depression and tried to commit suicide a couple of times…It (being a refugee) is degrading. It’s about trying to have a life when you actually don’t have a life.”
With no legal status and no work authorization, refugees like Imad live in constant fear of arrest, detention, and deportation. He describes the over-all feeling among Iraqis living in Syria as divided into two groups. The first is waiting anxiously for years to be resettled, putting their lives on hold, yet not knowing the status of their cases. The other group is in despair, resigned to living the rest of their lives in limbo with no hope for a future.
“My family said you have to go now. We love you, but we don’t want to lose you.”
Since 2010, a series of protests and demonstrations across the Middle East and North Africa known as the Arab Spring created even more displacement, uncertainty and tension for the refugees in those regions. In Syria’s case, escalating violence between Syria’s government troops and the opposition made the security situation too volatile. United States, among other nations, closed its visa office and postponed sending officials from the Department of Homeland Security to conduct required interviews for the completion of the visa applications.
“While Iraqi refugees living in Syria, approximately 100,000, are not affected directly by the events in the country, I am increasingly concerned about the disruption of resettlement activities and thus the lack of durable options since the majority of them cannot return to their country of origin,” said Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR representative for the United States.
Imad was one of the lucky ones. After years of waiting, he was recently allowed to immigrate into the United States. “I definitely consider that I’ve wasted four years of my life because I was waiting. You can be hungry in New York City and you can be hungry in Damascus (Syria), but at least you are safe and can go to training and have a career in the United States.”
The question becomes: why should the international community care what happens to people and countries troubled by poverty, violence and corruption? Aside from the moral obligation to respond to massive human rights abuses, local conflicts and unrest can spread quickly to neighboring countries. The instability also creates economic and security threats for the industrialized regions like Europe, Israel and United States. A war in a country like Syria can destabilize an entire region and create serious political and diplomatic problems for the rest of the world.
In May 2012, a new solutions strategy, which was drawn up between Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and UNHCR in Geneva, focuses efforts on supporting Afghan refugees wanting to return back to Afghanistan. Since 2002, 5.7 million Afghans have returned home. However, there are still two million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and almost one million in Iran. The number of people wanting to return has slowed down in the recent years due to lack of infrastructure. According to the UNHCR website, “The strategy aims both at preserving asylum space for Afghan refugees in neighboring countries over the coming three years and beyond, and at supporting sustainable reintegration for those Afghans who return home. It also calls for assistance to host countries.”
“The first is to help those refugees that want to return to Afghanistan with logistical assistance, legal aid, legal advice, and help with reintegration. The second is helping to improve the reintegration inside Afghanistan by looking at development at the village level. And also to advocate for the returning communities to be included,” explains Hosseini. “The whole idea is to improve the conditions inside the country. Get rid of those push factors like lack of jobs, access to schools, clean water, food security, shelter. So that Afghanis feel that there is a chance of a viable life for them in their home country.”
Khaled Hosseini’s goal is to bring worldwide attention to this humanitarian crisis. “This is more than just a burden for the developing countries, but rather an international issue. This is a huge crisis that affects everybody globally,” he said.