Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Refugee And Displaced Returns Have Slowed To Iraq

Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have returned to their country. In the first three years of the conflict, many of those were people that had fled Saddam's dictatorship in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2005 a whole new set of people lost their homes due to the growing sectarian civil war. Beginning in 2008 many of those began to come home as well when security got better. That rate has slowed down considerably this year. The question is what has caused this change.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 1,272,726 Iraqis have returned since 2003. The majority, 808,730, have been internally displaced with just 463,996 refugees having made the trip. 2007 had the fewest returns at 81,420 due to the raging civil war, but that quickly picked up the following two years to 221,260 in 2008 and 204,830 in 2009 due to the improved security. From January to July 2010 however, only 79,490 have come back. If that rate were to be maintained the rest of the year, only around 141,000 would return.

Total Returns 2003-July 2010
Year 
Displaced
Refugees 
Total 
2003 
0 
55,429 
55,429 
2004 
98,000 
193,997 
291,997 
2005 
98,000 
56,155 
154,155 
2006 
150,000 
20,235
170,235 
2007 
36,000 
45,420 
81,420 
2008 
195,890 
39,280 
221,260 
2009 
167,740 
37,090 
204,830 
2010 Jul. 
63,100 
16,390 
79,490 
TOTALS 
808,730 
463,996 
1,272,726 

Refugee and displaced returns have been concentrated in specific provinces. In the last year most internal refugees have gone back to Baghdad, Diyala, Ninewa, Babil, and Salahaddin. It's no coincidence that those have been the most violent areas of the country since 2003 due to their sectarian and political make-up. Baghdad, Diyala, and Babil for example, are all mixed Sunni-Shiite areas, while Salahaddin and Ninewa were Baathist and insurgent strongholds. Those coming back from other countries have mostly gone to Baghdad, Qadisiyah, Dhi Qar, Diyala, Maysan, Karbala, and Najaf. Qadisiyah, Dhi Qar, Maysan, Karbala, and Najaf are all majority Shiite governorates so many of the returnees there might have left Iraq under Saddam or earlier in the Iraq war when Shiite militias were fighting U.S. forces only to turn to exploiting their own people. Overall, Baghdad has seen the most displaced and refugees making the trip back because it has always been at the center of the conflict within the country and has the largest population.

What needs to be analyzed is why are fewer people returning this year. There are a couple possible answers. One is that the remaining number of Iraqis willing to come back is dwindling. All those that lost their homes were not expected to return. Many of Iraq's minorities for instance have been forced out, and they are not likely to come back because Baghdad has proven incapable of protecting them. Sunnis, who make up the majority of refugees, may feel uncomfortable with a government largely run by Shiites and Kurds, while Shiites, who are the largest group of displaced, could  have decided to stay where they are rather than return to mixed areas of the country where violence is still an issue. Still others may not have the means to leave where they currently reside. Another possibility is that aid agencies and neighboring countries have grossly overestimated the number of Iraq's displaced, and most have come back already. In Jordan, the government claims there are around 500,000 Iraqis, but a survey found only 161,000 and even fewer, 60,000, have registered with the UNHCR there. Syria says they have 1.5 million refugees, but other estimates have counted as few as 300,000. The International Organization for Migration cited political uncertainty following the March 2010 elections as another reason in an April report. Finally, there are questions about security, always a major reason for returns, with U.S. forces withdrawing and insurgents picking up mass casualty attacks. More data and polling is needed to figure out exactly why the number of refugees is declining.

SOURCES

International Crisis Group, "Failed Responsibility: Iraqi Refugees In Syria, Jordan and Lebanon," 7/10/08

International Organization for Migration, "IOM Emergency Needs Assessments Four Years of Post-Samarra Displacement In Iraq," 4/13/10

Seeley, Nicholas, "In Jordan, aid for Iraqi refugees is often redirected," Christian Science Monitor, 7/2/08

UNHCR Iraq Operation, "Monthly Statistical Update on Return – July 2010," United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, July 2010

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