Thursday, January 13, 2011

How Many Iraqi Refugees Are There?

The United Nations used to say that Iraq was one of the worst refugee problems in the world. Most of the displacement came after the February 2006 bombing of the shrine in Samarra, Salahaddin that accelerated the civil war to its highest point. By 2007, many aid groups were claiming that 60,000 Iraqis were being displaced a month. Thousands of people fled throughout the conflict, but the exact amount is unclear. From 2006-2009 the most common number given was 2.5 million. Almost 2 million of those were said to reside in Syria and Jordan. Many experts now think those numbers were far too high.

Iraqis registering at a Syrian immigration center (UNHCR)

Syria and the United Nations have said that between 1.2 million to 1.5 million Iraqis came to the country from 2003-2009, but that’s now disputed. From February 2006 to October 2007 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) claimed that up to 600,000 Iraqis entered the country. From 2003-2010 however, the UNHCR had only registered around 260,000. Damascus has also always acknowledged a constant flow of people back and forth between the two nations. In February 2007, the UNHCR for example, reported that a Syrian immigration official told them that 1,200 Iraqis had entered Syria in January, but around 700 went back at the same time. In 2010 that led the United Nations to revise its number of Iraqis refugees in the country. People that didn’t contact the UNHCR offices for four months or did not pick up food vouchers for two months were dropped from its rosters. That led to 58,000 being eliminated. By April 2010 the U.N. only had 165,493 Iraqi refugees on its books in Syria. Returns, deaths, and moves to other countries were reasons given for the decline. The United Nations and other aid agencies believe that there are more Iraqis in the country than are registered, but not many more. In a March 2008 survey, the UNHCR found that 86% of refugees had signed up with them. Despite the changes in the U.N. numbers, the Syrian government has stuck with its own figures.

Iraqis at aid agency offices in Amman, Jordan (New York Times)

Jordan’s experience with Iraqi refugees has been almost the same as Syria’s. Amman claimed that around 500,000 Iraqis had fled to their country, but the UNHCR only registered 65,000. In 2007, the Norwegian Institute Fafo conducted a survey of Iraqis in Jordan and estimated that 161,000 were there. The Jordanian government disagreed with the findings, delayed the release of the paper, and when it did finally come out, had the government’s official number of 450,000-500,000 included in it. In 2007 Jordan opened its schools to Iraqi students and expected 50,000 to show up. Instead, less than 12,000 arrived, and in 2008 the Jordanian Education Ministry issued a report saying that the actual number was even less than that. Just like Syria, Amman continues to claim that around half a million Iraqi refugees are still in their country.

There are a couple reasons offered for why Syria and Jordan have stuck with the high numbers, but the main culprit appears to be that both governments have used the refugees crisis for their own benefit. When both countries have asked for assistance with Iraqi refugees, they have included the demands of their own publics within the requests. The governments claim they need to provide something for their own people so that they don’t turn on the Iraqis. Jordan for example has received around $400 million to help Iraqis. Most of that went directly to the Jordanian government who spent it on schools, hospitals, water and sanitation projects. With far fewer Iraqis in the country than the government claims however, that means most of this aid went to poor Jordanians rather than refugees. To maintain this aid Amman and Damascus have refused to revise their estimates for Iraqi refugees in their countries.

The state of Iraqi refugees has changed over the last couple years. Many have returned to Iraq, while others have moved on to Western Europe, the United States and other industrial countries. Host countries in the region continue to claim that there are around 1.5 million refugees, but Refugees International recently estimated that there may be only 500,000. Originally, the international community and aid groups were caught by surprise by the flood of Iraqis out of the country due to the civil war. Without adequate studies of the event, the U.N., aid groups, and the media began calling it a crisis. Syria, Jordan, and others took advantage of the situation by claiming hundreds of thousands of refugees had come to them. They requested and received huge amounts of aid as a result that they mostly spent on their own people rather than Iraqis. Not wanting to loose that assistance, they have continued to talk of the costs Iraqis impose on them. The question now is whether aid will shift to be more targeted towards Iraqis or whether it will eventually wither as world attention focuses on other crisis points because there are still large communities of Iraqis throughout the Middle East that need help.

SOURCES

Cohen, Robert, “Iraq’s Displaced: Where To Turn?” American University International Law Review, Fall 2008

Dagher, Sam, “In quieter Baghdad, perils still lurk,” Christian Science Monitor, 12/24/07

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

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, “Middle East: Population Displaced from Iraq,” 4/29/10

IRIN, “MIDDLE EAST: Iraqi refugees – interpreting the statistics,” 12/28/10
- “SYRIA: Number of Iraqi refugees revised downwards,” 6/20/10

Refugees International, “Iraq: Preventing the Point of No Return,” 4/9/09

Seeley, Nicholas, “In Jordan, aid for Iraqi refugees is often redirected,” Christian Science Monitor, 7/2/08
- “The Politics of Aid to Iraqi Refugees in Jordan,” Middle East Report, Fall 2010

UNHCR Briefing Notes, “Iraq: Latest return survey shows few intending to go home soon,” UNHCR, 4/29/08

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “UNHCR Syria Update on Iraqi Refugees,” February 2007

United Nations Security Council, “Report of the Secretary-General pursuant to paragraph 6 of resolution 1770 (2007),” 1/14/08

United States Government Accountability Office, “Iraqi Refugee Assistance Improvements Needed in Measuring Progress, Assessing Needs, Tracking Funds, and Developing an International Strategic Plan,” April 2009

9 comments:

amagi said...

Excellent sleuthing and connecting of dots. Do you yourself believe the 500,000 number to be roughly accurate? When (if ever) do you think we will see the record revised towards historical accuracy?

I have a little bit of an ideological axe to grind, it's true, but mostly it riles me to see such numbers get passed around uncritically and then parroted by major media outlets the world over.

Joel Wing said...

500,000 sounds about right, but I'm not sure we'll ever be able to figure out the true number. Most Iraqis went to cities in the region, which makes counting them much harder than if they'd gone to refugee camps obviously.

I don't know where the popular 2.5 mil refugees figure came from. Whether that was from the U.N., the host countries, or a combination of both. The history seems that everyone got caught off guard when thousands of Iraqis began pouring out of the country during the sectarian civil war and started counting every Iraqi outside Iraq as a refugee, and then that got taken up by the media, which in turn became conventional wisdom.

Joel Wing said...

I came across this personal attack on the Common Ills website

http://thecommonills.blogspot.com/2011/01/iraq-snapshot_14.html

“Yesterday, we noted that spin on Iraqi refugees that's being advanced. Strange, isn't it? At a time when the White House should be explaining the number of refugees admitted to Iraq, instead there's a 'press' 'movement' about to insist that there were never that many Iraqi refugees. We called out those lies yesterday and the chief liar. Turns out Thomas E. Ricks' online equivalent of a sex toy, Joel Wing, is advancing the lies as well. In a lengthy post that says so very little, he advances every lie in the book and then -- to back up his lies or make it appear that they have been -- he lists 12 sources. But only two of them apply to "Not so many refugees!" and they're both the bad 'reporting' of Nicholas Seeley. Seems to me if you're including Works Cited for a piece claiming that the number of Iraqi refugees was much smaller than reported, you'd need more than one source for that claim but Nicholas Seeley is Wing's only source. Joel Wing may not be lying, he may truly be that stupid. Stupid tends to attract stupid and that would explain that Wing-Ricks online loving. But if you're so damn stupid that you don't grasp that most refugees in the country are not going to register -- especially in countries where they are not legally allowed to work -- or the issues of 'visiting' which requires some Iraqi refugees to cross the border back into Iraq and then return to get their passports stamped, then maybe you should find another subject to write about? “

Common Ills doesn’t have comments and I couldn’t find an e-mail to respond so I’ll do it here.

1) Besides Seeley the following sources also mentioned problems with the numbers on Iraqi refugees

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

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, “Middle East: Population Displaced from Iraq,” 4/29/10

IRIN, “MIDDLE EAST: Iraqi refugees – interpreting the statistics,” 12/28/10

IRIN, “SYRIA: Number of Iraqi refugees revised downwards,” 6/20/10

United States Government Accountability Office, “Iraqi Refugee Assistance Improvements Needed in Measuring Progress, Assessing Needs, Tracking Funds, and Developing an International Strategic Plan,” April 2009

I also noted the Norwegian Fafo report from 2007 that estimated only 161,000 Iraqi refugees in Jordan rather than the 450,00-500,000 that Amman claims.

Fafo/Jordan Department of Statistics, Iraqis in Jordan 2007: Their Number and Characteristics (November 2007)

Common Ills claimed I only had 1 source, Seeley, that there may not have been as many refugees as commonly reported. I actually had 7 total, plus mentioned the Fafo report in the article as well.

Joel Wing said...

2) It’s commonly been reported that a lot of Iraqi refugees haven’t registered with the U.N.

I mentioned a March 08 UNHCR survey that estimated that they had registered 86% of the Iraqis in Syria however, which has the most refugees.

There are many stories that said Iraqis would not go to the U.N. unless they were desperate. At the same time, there are just as many reports that Iraqis were in that exact situation because they couldn’t find work, their savings had run out, etc. Most of the Iraqi refugees fled in 2006-2007, so they’ve been in Syria and Jordan for 4-5 years now. It would seem that these refugees have either found jobs in their new countries, moved onto another country, or would be registered with the U.N. by now because they have nothing left.

3) Officially Iraqis can’t work in many of the neighboring countries, but in reality the majority of Iraqis that fled were middle class professionals and were able to find employment either officially or illegally.

4) I think Common Ills has misinterpreted what the “visiting Iraqis are.” They aren’t just going across the border to get their visas stamped and then going right back. Reports I’ve read said Iraqis often go back to Iraq for days, weeks, etc. to see family, to check on their property, etc. You therefore have a large group of people routinely going back and forth across the border. This complicates counting the number of refugees leaving, and the number returning because you could actually have a lot of the same people going back and forth all the time.

I would’ve appreciated a more reasoned response from Common Ills, and the chance to directly respond, but the tone and name calling leads me to doubt that’s the authors style.

amagi said...

Whoa, harsh! Well, we still like you.

Also, I'm not sure what the need to connect you to Thomas Ricks is... he may have changed his tone recently (I mean, I don't know if he has or not), but last I checked he was still convinced that Iraq: The Unraveling was close at hand. His rhetoric has been pretty consistently negative.

You, by comparison, tend to do a large amount of analysis but very little prediction (one of the reasons why I keep coming back). Anyway, I just don't see any similarity between you and Ricks.

Whatever. As your students probably say, 'haters gonna hate.' On behalf of the rest of us, please keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

JW,

I find that 86% number dubious. There are several reasons that Iraqis wouldn't register, among them:

they weren't desperate enough to need the assistance UNHCR was able to provide

they wanted to stay as "off the books" as possible out of fear of repercussions from Syrian authorities

they wanted to stay off the books because they were worried that other iraqis wanted to kill them

they were engaged in illegal activities (such as prostitution) and thus wanted to stay as anonymous as possible

Joel Wing said...

Anon,

There were all kinds of contradictory reports about Iraqi refugees during the peak years of the war. Many would say that they were desperate from the get go, running out of their savings, not being able to work, being forced into poverty, etc. At the same time the media would say that most refugees wouldn't go to the UNHCR unless they were desperate, but the number registered was always far, far lower than the official counts. Which was the truth?

Since it's been 5-6 years since the majority of them fled and the number of refugees registered with the U.N. has gone down I can only speculate that most have gone back to Iraq, moved onto another country, or found work in their new host country.

As for trying to hide from the authorities, most countries were pretty open to Iraqi refugees initially because most of them were Sunnis, and even when they started putting restrictions they never tried to stop them at the border. Also it appears that Iraqis are pretty open about their nationality in the region, and there have been Iraqis in those countries for decades dating back to the Saddam years, so I don't think most of them had much to worry about.

Joel Wing said...

Amagi wrote,

"Also, I'm not sure what the need to connect you to Thomas Ricks is"

Yeah I thought that was odd as well. Ricks has cited my blog quite often, but didn't mention my post about refugees. Seems that the CI has an axe to grind against him.

"As your students probably say, 'haters gonna hate.'"

Now that had me spit out my food laughing when I read it.

Anonymous said...

"and even when they started putting restrictions they never tried to stop them at the border."

I recall a period in either mid-late 07 or early 08 when Iraqis who were in Lebanon were actively being turned away from Syria at the Lebanese-Syria border. Interestingly, it was the Lebanese Amn al-Aam who were preventing the Iraqis from leaving Lebanon unless they were able to show proof of employment, because without it they were not going to be allowed into Syria. The border station was a madhouse.

"Also it appears that Iraqis are pretty open about their nationality in the region"

of course they are, even if they didn't want to be, their accents/dialect would give them away.

"As for trying to hide from the authorities, most countries were pretty open to Iraqi refugees initially"

Yes, the Syrians were pretty open initially, but the situation did get fairly out of control. apartment rental prices in Sham went up 75%-100% over a period of several months, large segments of Jarmana and other districts became nearly exclusively Iraq. Neither here nor there though. You're point is valid, no way in hell we'll ever have any real idea about what the numbers actually were.

Mosul Campaign Day 193, Apr 27, 2017

There were no advances in west Mosul for a second day. Federal Police commander General Shakir Jawadat said that his ...