On June 23, 2008 the Gulf News reported that the Iraqi command in Baghdad had come up with a new plan to deal with Iraq’s displaced and refugees. The article said that in July security forces would set a deadline for all squatters to leave their residences in the capitol. That would pave the way for refugees to return to their homes, which the spokesman said would be a major part of the Baghdad security plan. The Missing Links blog added to the story from a release on the Shiite Badr Brigade militia’s website that said after the deadline for squatters expired, security forces would check homes and remove those that hadn’t left. For the last few years Iraq has had one of the greatest refugee problems in the world. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, 45,000 Iraqis have returned to Iraq, but there were still 2.7 million internally displaced and up to 2.5 million living in foreign countries. 60% of the refugees fled Baghdad because of the sectarian fighting. Returning the displaced would be a major step towards reconciliation in Iraq, but the government has not done a good job so far.
A Reluctant Government
The government’s plan comes in light of some harsh criticism aimed at Prime Minister Maliki, and his handling of the refugees crisis. In November 2007 Baghdad launched a public relations campaign claiming that the situation was improving. First they were caught inflating the number of refugees that were returning. Then Maliki created a media event by offering special buses to pick up refugees in Syria and bring them back with a cash reward. Only 2 trips were conducted before the plan was cancelled. At the same time they began airing commercials in Syria telling Iraqis to return. By December Baghdad changed course and told the displaced not to come home because they wouldn’t be taken care of. Instead it offered aid to those in foreign countries. Maliki promised $15 million for Syria, $8 million for Jordan, $2 million for Lebanon, and $40 million for the U.N.’s World Food Program. That too was criticized as not enough. Iraqi refugees in Jordan for example, have cost that country up to $2 billion over the last three years. The head of the Iraqi parliament’s committee on displaced said in June that the government needed to do more for the displaced within the country as well, and asked for $2 billion extra. He later said that the government wasn’t listening to his pleas. That would support an April report by Refugee International that claimed that the government didn’t really care about its refugee problem.
If the government comes through with its promise to force out squatters and return families that could be a major step towards solving the refugee crisis. However, Baghdad has not come through with its promises in the past. Despite swimming in oil money, it has only provided a fraction of the financing needed to take care of the displaced. The Migration Ministry has also been accused of being sectarian and only serving Shiites, while the majority of the displaced are Sunnis. Returning refugees is supposed to help overcome this divide, but the government maybe only perpetuating it. The words by the Prime Minister are welcomed, but they need to be backed up by more concrete action.
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- “Iraqi Militias Offering Aid To Displaced,” Washington Post, 4/15/08
Voices of Iraq, “Displaced in Iraq up to 800,000 – UNHCR,” 6/17/08
- “MP criticizes govt. on displaced measures,” 6/1/08
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