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Reviewed by:
  • The Iraqi Refugees: The New Crisis in the Middle East
  • Sarah Kenyon Lischer (bio)
The Iraqi Refugees: The New Crisis in the Middle East, by Joseph Sassoon. London, UK and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2009. xvi + 170 pages. Notes to p. 211. Bibl to p. 238. Index to p. 247. $75.

Since 2003, an estimated two million Iraqis have fled to neighboring countries, creating a massive humanitarian crisis and a risk of regional destabilization.1 Overall, the international reaction to the crisis has been apathetic, stingy, and sometimes hostile. Joseph Sassoon convincingly demonstrates the pressing need to address the plight of the refugees, for both humanitarian and political reasons. His comprehensive treatment of the current Iraqi displacement crisis provides a valuable service to academics and policymakers who seek to understand and respond to this issue. Readers will benefit from the author's extensive experience and field research in the region.

Sassoon organizes Chapters one through four geographically by host country, with particular attention to Jordan and Syria, which have received the vast majority of the refugees. Chapter four deals briefly with the other countries hosting refugees in the Middle East and the rest of the world. Chapters five through seven take a more thematic approach and address the role of humanitarian organizations, the "brain drain" from Iraq, and the issue of return.

In the first four chapters, Sassoon explains that the Iraqi refugees suffer from many of the same problems that plague the various host states, including lack of access to legal employment, education, and healthcare. The majority of refugee children are now woefully behind in their education. The shortage of medical care has led to a [End Page 508] rapid deterioration of refugees' physical and mental health. Exclusion from the legal workforce has forced refugees into poorly compensated and illegal jobs. Economic desperation also has caused a rise in prostitution and child labor. In addition, since neither Jordan nor Syria has signed the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the refugees live in constant fear of deportation.

The thematic chapters, especially the ones on the "brain drain" and refugee return, provide more in-depth analysis and background information than the geographically organized chapters. Particularly enlightening is Sassoon's linkage of Iraq's economic conditions over the past 20 years with the current brain drain, which has seen the mass exodus of skilled professionals from the country. He asks the essential question about this phenomenon, "Can Iraq's brain drain be reversed, how does it compare with the experiences of other countries and what are the long-term implications for the country?" (p. 149) Frustratingly, he does not give sufficient attention to answering that question.

The difficulty inherent in such a timely book is maintaining its relevance despite constant changes in the situation, such as shifting population flows and political circumstances. For example, rapid and unpredictable modifications can occur in host states' policies, such as visa permissions and access to social services. One important way to increase the book's staying power is by offering a thorough analysis that transcends data points. Another strategy is to provide background information that is usually missing from think tank and non-governmental organization (NGO) reports. Sassoon supplies that analysis and background to some extent; however, he could have further boosted the book's long-term significance by proposing more policy recommendations based on his extensive scholarship and first-hand experience. For example, he convincingly demonstrates the vital nature of the property issue for refugee return, but then provides only a single paragraph of comparison with the Bosnian case (p. 162).

Surprisingly, the massive numbers of refugees and their potential for regional destabilization have not prompted an outpouring of attention to the Iraqi displacement crisis. Scholarly articles have begun to address the crisis, but few books have done so. Despite its shortcomings, Sassoon's book provides a solid and essential building block for future scholarship and an important tool for present-day policymakers. [End Page 509]

Sarah Kenyon Lischer

Sarah Kenyon Lischer is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Wake Forest University.


1. Statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Iraq Operation, "Monthly Statistical Update...


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