In August 2008, the Brooking Institution released a study of Iraq’s refugees. It said that fundamentally, refugees are a security problem. They initially fled because of violence, and could destabilize host countries and Iraq in the future if the problem is not resolved. Currently, Iraq has the largest refugee crisis in the Middle East since the Palestinians. The problem is unlikely to be solved soon because too many displaced Iraqis are insecure about their future and what will happen if they return. Ultimately, the study argues that Iraq will never be a stable country until the refugee problem is solved.
Iraq’s refugees are one of the biggest problems the country now faces. The United Nations estimates that there are approximately 2 million Iraqi refugees and 2.7 million internally displaced. That’s roughly 1 in 6 Iraqis. Many left their homes because of the violence, but others left for medical care or their businesses failing. The sectarian war of 2006-2007 was by the far the greatest cause however. Many militants used sectarian displacement as a tactic to solidify control of areas. From 2003-2005 for example, 190,000 Iraqis were displaced. In contrast, during the height of the sectarian fighting, 60,000 were fleeing a month. Since September 2007, displacement has slowed down. 80% of them are women, and 80% come from Baghdad. Many have moved from one area of the capitol to another. Most are also living in alternative housing, which means only 1-2% are in refugee camps. Refugees also add to the poverty level in the country, which stands at around 40% according to the Planning Ministry. Half of the country’s provinces restrict the entry of the displaced because of the strain they place upon resources.
Iraq’s refugees pose a regional problem as well. Many live in Syria and Jordan, but there are tens of thousands in countries like Lebanon, Egypt and the Gulf states as well. Afraid that Iraqis will become the next Palestinians, who have become permanent residents, many governments have limited the entry of Iraqis. There is also growing public resentment against their presence. International aid is increasing to help Iraqis and their host countries, but it is still not enough. The study warns that if the refugees are not adequately taken care of they could become a security issue in the region, open to radicalization and political manipulation.
Beginning in the winter of 2007 there were reports that Iraqi refugees were returning, but it was politicized by Baghdad. The Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration said that 30,000 had come back by November 2007. The Iraqi Red Crescent reported 46,000 had returned to Baghdad from September to December 2007. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki paid for buses from Syria to bring back Iraqis and offered $800 to each family that did. 365 families took up the offer. Afterwards however, the government admitted that it could not find housing for those that took the buses, and the program was stopped. The United Nations warned that it was not time for any returns. A survey they conducted of 110 families that came back from Syria found 46% said they returned because they were running out of money, 26% said it was because of new visa restrictions, and 14% said it was because security was better. The International Organization for Migration and the Ministry of Displacement and Migration did a poll of 300 displaced families that said 45% were trying to go back to their homes because security was better, but 84% were going from one Baghdad neighborhood to another. That was because 70% found their homes occupied or destroyed, or they moved to other areas where their sect was predominant and they felt secure. By January 2008, the U.N. found that 1,200 Iraqis were fleeing to Syria, while only 700 were coming back. The New York Times reported that many that returned in 2007, ended up leaving once again.
Claims that Iraqis were returning and the government was prepared to accept them proved premature. The failed return program of 2007 turned out to be one of many problems the government faced. The Public Distribution System doesn’t work well, and in January 2008 they cut food rations. This was a crucial government service to the displaced, many of who found it hard to work and thus had to rely upon public assistance. There are now plans to do away with the system completely. The competency of the Ministry of Displacement and Migration has also been questioned. It faces all the problems of the rest of the government such as lack of a trained staff, corruption, and sectarianism. The study also wasn’t sure the ministry knew what it should be doing. Maliki also doesn’t want to recognize how big the refugee problem is because it would make his government look bad. Together this makes the government’s ability to respond to the problem very questionable.
The international community has also run into problems with their approach. Many countries believe that Iraq needs to provide most of the aid to the displaced. Those that have given aid were slow to react, but are now increasing their assistance, which still does not meet demand. The United States has given the most, but it’s immigration policy has been hampered by bureaucratic and political concerns allowing in a pitifully small amount of Iraqis. The report believes that the Bush administration does not want to let in large numbers because it would contradict their narrative that the war is being won. Europe has been reluctant to help because some countries were against the invasion. In 2007 they began giving more because it became apparent that the war not going to end anytime soon. Europe however is afraid of an influx of Iraqi refugees so many have placed restrictions on their entry, and some have even started deportations. Already, Iraqis are the largest group asking for asylum to Europe.
In the end, the Brookings study believes that Iraq’s refugee crisis will have to be resolved through property cases. Thousands of homes have been abandoned, destroyed or occupied. There needs to be a legal process to settle ownership and a compensation system for those that can’t or won’t go back. That will last for years. So far, the governments attempts to deal with this issue have failed. For example, in early 2007, Baghdad said all houses and property needed to be returned to the displaced, but it turned out the government didn’t have any means to implement the policy. Iraq is also hindered by the fact that its legal system rarely operates and is overflowing with security cases. Asking it to deal with lawsuits might be too much for it to handle right now.
Security today is improving in Iraq, but refugees and the displaced are not going back in large numbers. When they do return, it will be a sign that the country really is getting better. Today, the number of displaced is decreasing, but that’s because so much of the country has been divided and there are restrictions to stop their internal and external movement. Studies have found that many more would leave if they could. A positive aspect of the improved security environment is that it could mean that more aid is possible, especially from the international community. To solve the problem, the report said that the safety of the Iraqi’s return has to be ensured, there needs to be more aid, monitoring of the entire process, property disputes need to be resolved, a resettlement program established for those that can’t go home, and education and job programs set up. Many of the Brookings’ findings are similar to the study by the International Crisis Group discussed before. The major drawback of the report is that many of the statistics are dated. The Crisis Group was able to not only get more timely numbers, but get interviews with many people in Iraq as well. On the positive side, the Brookings’ report highlights the political nature of the refugee crisis that often impairs efforts to help them. It also points out that the displaced will probably be the longest, and perhaps last issue to be solved in Iraq.
Ferris, Elizabeth, “The Looming Crisis: Displacement and Security in Iraq,” Brookings Institution, August 2008
International Crisis Group, “Failed Responsibility: Iraqi Refugees In Syria, Jordan and Lebanon,” 7/10/08
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