Aid worker and activist totals war’s toll on Iraqi refugees

The Iraqi refugee crisis is the largest long-term population movement in the Middle East since 1948, outstripping the migrations of people from Darfur and the Balkan conflicts, Noah Merrill told a crowd of about 30 people during a speech at the College of Public Health on Tuesday.

Merrill, a Quaker aid worker and activist, highlighted the humanitarian implications of this mass migration, saying that more than 1 million people have been displaced since February of 2006 at a rate of 60,000 per day.

“We need drastic increases in funding, we need drastic increases in diplomatic support, and we need drastic increases in advocacy in the United States… so that (the refugees) can go home when the situation is better,” he said.

He stressed the complexity of this issue, focusing on the difficulty of tracking the spectrum of healthcare problems caused by the displacement of so many people. The rampant spread of diseases such as cholera in refugee camps and the mental and emotional wounds of displaced Iraqis who have lost their families and any semblance of a normal life don’t get tallied like death totals, he said.

“(There is) a total lack of basic services and total lack of human security, and those two things would put any country in the world in the condition that Iraq is in,” Merrill said. “The infrastructure has collapsed; open sewage is in the streets in many, many places; (there is) no electricity, no fuel, no healthcare. Cholera was a disease unheard of in Iraq prior to the 13 years of (US) sanctions … cholera is something you don’t have to have. All you need is clean water.”

This massive displacement of the population has prevented most Iraqis from finding necessary medical care, Merrill said.

“One third of doctors registered in Iraq fled at the time of the invasion,” he said, adding anecdotes about several Iraqis who had made perilous trips to Jordan, in some cases as many as three times, just to find medical attention.

He also discussed the problems of housing, employing and educating all the refugees. Syria, a country already beleaguered by poverty and a dearth of natural resources, houses the largest portion of refugees almost 1.5 million Iraqis living among the 18 million native Syrians.

The economic and security issues of housing so many people have made many countries reluctant to take on the refugees, Merrill said. The U.S. set a goal of settling 7,000 Iraqis by the end of October, but reached only 1,700 because of these issues.

Merrill enumerated three crucial steps to solving the refugee crisis. Those affected by the war must be able to peacefully resettle in another country. Merrill called this a “minor and small solution.” Then, they must be able to fully integrate into the local population, and after the end of the conflict, allowed to resettle in their home country.

“The heroes of what’s happening in Iraq are the Iraqi people,” Merrill said. “The hope for the future of Iraq are the Iraqi people.”

Alec Shurtz can be reached at (813)974-6299 or