Daily news reports frequently show the latest violence in Iraq, but it was not until 2007 that the stories of displaced Iraqis — and their fast-growing numbers — became more desperate and more widely known.
At the beginning of 2007, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was planning for up to 2.3 million post-2003-invasion internally displaced people (IDPs) within Iraq by the end of 2007. Of the estimated 2.4 million IDPs in Iraq in November, almost 1.2 million were displaced after the February 2006 Samarra mosque bombing, which ignited sectarian and ethnic arms conflict. According to UNHCR, 347,600 of that 1.2 million were displaced between April and September 2007 alone.
Estimates vary, but UNHCR reports that about 2.2 million Iraqis have left the country. Bearing the largest burden are Syria, which hosts as many as 1.4 million Iraqis, and Jordan, which has between 500,000 and 750,000; smaller numbers of Iraqis are in Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, and the Gulf states.
When Jordan imposed visa restrictions on Iraqis in late 2006, Syria became the only neighboring-country option for those fleeing the country. However, in October, Syria implemented visa restrictions as well, effectively sealing the border. Elsewhere in the region, Saudi Arabia announced the building of a 900-kilometer border security fence to keep out smugglers, terrorists, and Iraqi refugees.
Iraqis who have the means to leave the Middle East have applied for asylum in record numbers. In the first half of 2007, Iraqi citizens lodged some 19,800 asylum claims in the 36 industrialized countries that provide data to UNHCR, compared to the 13,600 applications received in the last six months of 2006.
Almost half of all Iraqi applications during the first half of 2007 were submitted in Sweden, already home to a significant Iraqi population. Although still accepting Iraqi asylum seekers, Sweden has asked other nations to shoulder more of the burden, warning that the current situation is unsustainable.
In addition to diminishing international options, Iraqis have increasingly faced difficulty moving within their own country in 2007 as "safer" governorates, particularly in the north, have struggled to cope with IDP flows. By late November, 11 of Iraq's 18 governorates had imposed entry restrictions. The result is that Iraqis fleeing danger have few options.
Many are wondering why the United States is not doing more for Iraqis, especially those who have worked for the U.S. military. In February, Ellen Sauerbrey, Assistant Secretary of the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, said the country could admit 7,000 people by the end of 2007, too few and not fast enough according to many relief and refugee groups.
As of September 2007, UNHCR had referred over 11,000 Iraqis to the United States, but less than 2,000 had actually entered. However, Sauerbrey stated in October that the bureaucratic obstacles to resettling Iraqi refugees were "crumbling" and that the United States would "easily" resettle 12,000 Iraqis by the end of 2007.
With the security situation in Iraq stabilizing somewhat by mid-November, thousands of Iraqis in the region have reportedly been returning home. UNHCR has learned through interviews that many are going back because they face economic difficulties or have depleted their savings. Only if the stability lasts — far from certain — will large numbers be able to return.