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A refugee crisis in Iraq

Some Iraqis homeless due to escalating sectarian violence. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

Nada Joaan wept as her husband added their names to a growing list of religious refugees.  Migration officials say the Shiite farmers are among at least 65,000 Iraqis made homeless by escalating sectarian violence.

“They are being threatened,” explains Dana Graber of the International Organization for Migration. “Their family members are being assassinated or kidnapped and they are leaving out of fear.”

Who are the refugees? The Iraqi government says 80 percent are Shiites forced out of Sunnis villages around Baghdad.

“This is a national crisis that could lead to a full blown war,” says Suheilah Abed Jaffer Al-Kinani, Iraq’s Minister of Displacement and Migration.

The tent cities started to crop up after the destruction in February of a Shiite shrine in Samara.

According to the United States military, four times as many Iraqis were killed in March in sectarian attacks than in car bombings.

The result was dramatic: there was only one refugee camp two months ago.  Now there are eight - and plans to build four more.

But the Joaans don’t want to live in a camp.  This week they collected a few government handouts and bought their new home: an auto-repair shop in a Shiite neighborhood.

They live in a back office with their daughter, son-in-law and grandson.

“We lived among Sunnis for 21 years and never had any problems,” says Jalim Joaan.

No problems, that is, until masked gunmen ordered them to leave.

This could be a major, new phase in the conflict here, with entire neighborhoods and villages being divided along religious lines and displaced families like the Joaans say it is nothing less than the early stages of ethnic cleansing.

And it’s causing yet another burden here — a long-term internal refugee crisis.