In July 2008, the International Crisis Group issued a new report on Iraq’s refugees. According to the United Nations, Iraq has the second largest refugee problem in the world, only behind Afghanistan, with almost one in five Iraqis being displaced. The majority of people left during the sectarian war period from 2006-2007. The Crisis Group’s study focused upon Iraqis in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, and the Iraqi government’s and international community’s response. Its overall conclusions were that while those three countries have absorbed thousands of Iraqis, they have since tightened restrictions and failed to adequately care for them, while Baghdad and the world have not done much better.
Some general trends appear in the study’s look at how Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon dealt with Iraqis. First, when the war started there were few restrictions on the flow of refugees to these countries. As the numbers grew however, they began imposing restrictions to stem the flow. Since many of the fleeing Iraqis were middle class professionals they also added to inflationary pressures with their added spending, especially in the housing market. This caused public resentment against their presence in Syria and Jordan. In Lebanon the government and public were too involved with their own internal problems to care about Iraqis and their plight. Many believed that the Iraqis would eventually leave, but as time passed governments began to worry that the refugees might become permanent. These issues together led countries to cut whatever assistance they were giving to Iraqis, and increase the limits on further immigration.
The international community was late to recognize the problem, and was tight fisted when giving aid. Some countries do not want to give assistance because they are opposed to the war. Some do not give because they are against Syria’s regional policies. Others who have donated, simply aren’t offering enough to meet basic needs. The European Commission for example, offered 50 million Euros in 2007, but by the end of the year had only come up with 10 million of what they promised.
The worst culprit in the report is the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Its main concern seems to be to keep Iraqis within the country with little regard for their plight. When Syria said it was passing visa restrictions on Iraqis, Maliki and his advisers welcomed it, with one calling the refugees cowards. The government’s main response has been to offer money to the displaced to come home, but then nothing else once they do. For instance, in late 2007 when Baghdad began a public relations campaign to encourage refugees to come back, it later admitted that it could not handle any that did. U.S. commanders complained that they were stuck with the job of dealing with returnees because the government couldn’t. There is no evidence that many have returned, but those that do often find security to still be a question, their homes have been destroyed or occupied, their neighborhoods are controlled by different sects or militias, and there are few services. 70% of those that have tried to return have not been able to go back to their original homes, becoming displaced persons once again.
The Crisis Group’s main conclusion is that the Iraqi refugee problem is long term and actors need to step up with their aid. They do not believe that many Iraqis will return in the near future. Therefore host countries, the international community, and Baghdad need to assist them more. Some need to be integrated into their present countries, others need help to travel on to other places, but in the end, the majority do need to go back to Iraq. Many Iraqi refugees are middle class, which has robbed the country of its human resources. In order to rebuild it needs this know how, but until conditions and the government improve considerably these important persons will stay away because they do not feel safe.
International Crisis Group, “Failed Responsibility: Iraqi Refugees In Syria, Jordan and Lebanon,” 7/10/08
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