The other Mideast crisis: Hundreds of thousands of new refugees

As Iraq descends into chaos, hundreds of thousands of civilians flee

As Iraq tilts ever closer to abject chaos and civil war, the world’s attention naturally focuses on military actions, and on what steps the U.S. might take in a war it had hoped was over and done with. But it’s crucial to watch civilian actions, as well – in this case, the sudden and ballooning number of Iraqis fleeing their homes to avoid the war (amid reports of summary executions of civilians in Mosul by ISIS insurgents).

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, some 300,000 Iraqis have been displaced by the fighting in Mosul and other northern Iraqi cities, and are seeking refuge in the northern Irbil and Duhok provinces. That adds to the 500,000 or so already displaced by fighting in Anbar province, to the west of Baghdad. And those figures don't include previous displacements caused by the Bush administration's absurdly conceived invasion.

The three-year civil war in neighboring Syria has already sent more than 2.8 million people on the move, as well, the UNHCR says, meaning at least 3.6 million civilians in the region have been forced from their homes since January 2011. Some 200,000 of the Syrian refugees had earlier sought shelter in Iraq, and it’s unclear how many of them might now be on the move again. Many find space with family and friends living out of the way of the worst of the fighting, but tens of thousands of Syrians and Iraqis are squatting in camps scattered across the region, including neighboring nations such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

And this comes after forced displacements – within countries and refugees who crossed borders – around the world reached an 18-year high in 2013, driven by the war in Syria and a series of conflicts across the heart of Africa. So a bad situation is only getting worse.

There are no prescriptions for dealing with this, beyond the UNHCR trying to draw money out of member nations to provide shelter, basic medical care and food to those they can reach, and to maintain refugee camps. And that’s expensive. The UNHCR’s budget hit $5.3 billion at the end of June 2013, and its costs have increased since.

And no, there’s not much to be optimistic about here.

Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle

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