One in ten Iraqis has left the country. Baghdad's elite are trying to make ends meet in neighboring Jordan and Syria. Washington wants the United Nations to address the refugee crisis. In the meantime, the country is losing its best minds -- the very people needed to rebuild Iraq.
The first stage on the road to safety is a $20 taxi ride. It takes the future refugee past nervous soldiers, through dangerous checkpoints and along streets with nicknames -- like "Grenade Alley" and "Sniper Boulevard" -- that bespeak the perils of travel in Iraq.
Iraq, a country still shaken by daily violence, is currently the scene of what is likely the biggest refugee disaster since the displacement of Palestinians in the Arab-Israeli War in 1948. On the eve of the Iraq war, the United States, the United Nations and neighboring countries had expected refugees to number in the tens of thousands. Four years later, more than 2 million Iraqis have already left the country. Jordan has accepted close to 750,000, the Gulf states 200,000, Egypt 100,000 and Syria at least 1,400,000. Roughly one in 10 Iraqis has fled the country, and about the same number are now internal refugees.
They are not just the country's poor and desperate. Many are the elites of a nation that already lost many of its best and brightest during decades of tyranny and economic embargos. Ironically, those choosing to leave the country today are precisely the doctors, lawyers, judges, engineers and government bureaucrats the country will desperately need to rebuild itself.
The West -- especially the two leading coalition nations, the United States and Great Britain -- has opened itself up to severe criticism for its unwillingness to step up to the plate. Since the 2003 invasion, Britain has accepted a mere 115 and the United States only about 500 of a total of more than 14,000 seeking asylum in the West. The Bush administration has promised to process 7,000 applications for political asylum this year and has made a commitment to accept 3,000. Former senior US diplomat Richard Holbrooke calls the Bush administration's efforts "pathetic" and the American public's indifference "shameful."
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently contributed $5 million to a fellowship fund for Iraqi academics. The purpose of the fund, says a foundation spokeswoman, is to "protect Iraq's intellectual capital." The foundation currently receives about 40 applications a week, but the program's funds are only enough to pay for about 150 academics and will have been used up within a few months.