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Iraq Transition

Iraq refugee: 'I feel disaster' as crisis grows

Story Highlights

• Nearly 2 million Iraqis have fled violence to other nations
• One U.N. official calls situation a "simmering crisis"
• Syria, Jordan recently tightened borders
• Jordan says it can't sustain refugee flow for long haul
From Nic Robertson
CNN
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AMMAN, Jordan (CNN) -- Dr. Nafie Abtan once operated a thriving medical clinic in Baghdad, but one day last June he received a hand-delivered letter threatening to cut his head off if he remained.

"We tell you to leave your job and to travel and to leave your hospital," the letter said.

Three days later, he did just that. He fled Iraq for neighboring Jordan, bringing with him his wife, Suhair, and young son, Moutaz.

Abtan and his family are like hundreds of thousands of other Iraqis who have fled their country amid the deadly violence that has wracked the nation and is creating what the international community calls a growing humanitarian crisis.

The United Nations estimates 700,000 Iraqis have fled to Jordan -- more than one-tenth the entire kingdom's population. As many as 1 million more Iraqis are estimated to have sought refuge in Syria, about 120,000 are in Egypt and 40,000 in Lebanon, according to the United Nations. (Watch Iraqis tell their stories Video)

Inside Iraq, another 1 million to 2 million people have been forced out of their homes as a result of the violence, according to the United Nations. About 26 million people live in Iraq.

"It's been a simmering crisis for quite a while, and it's just coming to everybody's realization," said Robert Breen, the representative in Amman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Further compounding the situation, Jordan and Syria recently tightened their border crossings, making it more difficult for Iraqis to escape, leaving long lines of people at the border hoping to get out. Other neighboring nations, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Turkey and Iran, have been even more strict about letting Iraqis in. (See where Iraqis are fleeing)

'Strain' on economy

To enter Jordan, Iraqi refugees have to be more than 40 years old or younger than 20, have enough money to support themselves inside the kingdom and have a new passport -- passports that Iraqis say are difficult to come by, according to the United Nations.

Many of those fleeing are doctors, lawyers and engineers, all top flight professionals looking for work or for visas to move on to other countries.

"It does stretch the country. It is a strain on our natural resources," said Nasser Judeh, a Jordanian government spokesman. "Our economy is already strained. We have problems with unemployment."

He said Jordan also is concerned about letting in the wrong people and having the violence in Iraq spill over inside the kingdom. Members of al Qaeda in Iraq carried out triple suicide bombings in Amman in November 2005, killing more than 50 people.

"We can't, God forbid, again become the score settling ground for Iraqi differences," he said.

Breen agreed that the terror threat is legitimate. "The security concerns for Jordan are genuine and real," he said, citing the 2005 terror attacks.

U.S. to take in more refugees

When Jordan opened its borders to refugees after the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, it did so on the condition that those who came would not stay in Jordan for good. But now officials are worried that if the refugees don't get visas to move on, they will stay in the kingdom and stretch the government's resources even more.

Some say the United States should do more to help refugees from a conflict the United States began when it invaded Iraq. The United States has accepted only about 500 Iraqi refugees since the conflict began, according to the U.S. State Department. (Watch how the U.S. plan has drawn fire Video)

Just last month, the Bush administration expanded its plan, saying it will admit roughly 7,000 Iraqi refugees this year.

"I hope we can see more of that," Judeh said.

Asked how many more refugees he would like Washington to take, he said, "I don't want to get into numbers, but certainly you just have to do the math."

'I need to get a visa'

But while governments try to figure out a solution, real people are suffering. Abtan and his family live in a tight, two-room apartment. He earns $600 a month treating cancer patients at a local hospital, with rent eating up one-third of that and the rest going toward paying the bills. (Watch what drove one family from Iraq Video)

Abtan said violence in Iraq has killed 10 of his relatives and four friends, including two doctors murdered at work. His wife has lost three relatives. They have no plans to return to Iraq anytime soon, but they want better lives now.

"I need to get a visa to another country," Abtan said.

He went to the U.S. Embassy in Amman to find out more about getting a visa to travel to the United States. He says he was asked if he worked for the U.S. military in Iraq, one of the main prerequisites to obtain a visa.

"I say to them, 'No, I am a doctor.' They say, 'No, you do not come here. You go direct to U.N.' "

American consular officials told CNN they are "ramping up" their Iraqi resettlement program and are "concerned about Iraqi refugees who have experienced or fear serious harm due to their association with the U.S. government and seeks to ensure that they have access to protection and assistance."

The U.S. officials also said they "refer all Iraqis who approach us claiming to be refugees" to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

For Abtan, that brought little relief. "I feel disaster, frustration," he said.


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Dr. Nafie Abtan reads from the letter that threatened to kill him if he didn't leave Iraq. He fled to Jordan three days later.

SPECIAL REPORT

• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide
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