Sunday, November 9, 2008

Iraq’s Refugees And What Needs To Be Done

The Fall 2008 issue of the American University International Law Review has an article by Robert Cohen on Iraq’s refugee crisis. The piece is like many on the topic outlining the cause and effects of Iraq’s displacement of almost five million people. It notes that one major reason why neither Baghdad nor Washington D.C. have effectively dealt with the problem is that the displacement of millions disrupts the narrative those two governments have put out that everything is improving in Iraq. In the end, Cohen argues that a final solution to the refugee crisis won’t be found until Iraq’s major parties come to a grand compromise about the future of the country.

Iraq has approximately 4.7 million refugees. The problem actually started before the U.S. invasion with the Saddam regime. Under his rule nearly two million people left the country fleeing persecution by the government. The displacement after 2003 really took off in 2006 when the Shiite shrine in Samarra was bombed, leading to the sectarian war. By early 2007 up to 60,000 Iraqis were fleeing a month. In total, approximately 1,596,448 Iraqis joined the exodus after the February 2006 bombing. The numbers leaving didn’t decline until 2008 when the security situation changed in the country. In total, around 15-20% of the population left their homes in what was called the fastest growing displacement crisis in the world.

The U.S. and international response to Iraq’s refugee problem has been muted so far. Many around the world see it as a result of the American invasion, and therefore view it as their responsibility to solve, and have not offered much help. That is a responsibility the White House has not embraced. The U.S. has not placed any urgency on helping the refugees. Only around 6,000 Iraqis have been admitted to the country, compared to 37,000 during the Saddam era. Instead, the U.S. has been pushing for Iraqis to return instead. It has only been because of the urging of Congress that the administration has increased its aid, and the number of Iraqis admitted to the U.S. Assistance went from $43 million in 2006, to $208 in April 2008 largely due to a number of bills introduced and passed in Congress. After the 2003 bombing of the United Nations compound, the majority of non-government organizations also withdrew from the country even further limiting the aid available to Iraqis.

The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hasn’t done much about the issue either. The Minister of Displacement and Migration for example, admitted that his ministry didn’t know how to deal with the refugee crisis, and had no experience with the matter anyway. Overall, the Iraqi government lacks the will, skill, and resources to handle the issue. Neither the United States nor the Iraqi governments want to admit the size of the problem either because it would go against the positive image of the country they are trying to portray.

The situation for many of Iraq’s refugees has worsened as a result. In August 2008, the International Organization for Migration reported that conditions for the country’s internally displaced was deteriorating. It found that 70% couldn’t get their food rations, 31% found their homes occupied by others, and 20% were forced into squatting. In late 2007, the first reports of Iraqis returning began appearing. The U.N.’s High Commission on Refugees found that most were coming back because they were running out of money or visa problems. Many couldn’t occupy their houses or found them damaged, unemployment was rampant, and they lacked access to social services. Some left the country again or became internally displaced. By the end of the year, Baghdad admitted that it couldn’t handle the returnees.

Countries like Jordan and Syria that have received some of the largest number of Iraqis have been left to deal with the problem largely on their own. Both are afraid of the long-term effects of refugees, including the possibility of radicalization. Iraqis however, don’t fit the profile of those likely to be open to militants because many are victims of violence themselves, are middle class professionals, and are not in camps, but rather dispersed in urban areas. Many nations in the Middle East have also been frightened by the Palestinian experience, and are afraid that Iraqis will become a second permanent refugee group. Citizens in Jordan and Syria have also begun blaming Iraqis for economic problems like rising prices and declines in social services. As a result, at the end of 2007 and the fall of 2007 Jordan and Syria respectively began limiting the number of Iraqis allowed to enter. Neither give Iraqis refugee status either because they did not sign the Refugee Convention. In neither country are Iraqis allowed to officially work, few children attend school, and there is a lack of health care. Both hope that Iraqis will eventually leave.

In July 2008, Maliki’s government finally attempted to come up with a national refugee and displaced policy. That followed a conference on the topic with international organizations. The plan is suppose to be a comprehensive one to deal with helping the displaced and eventually assisting with their return. Because of the government’s track record, and corrupt, sectarian and incompetent ministries, many doubt that it will be able to fulfill its promises.

In the end, Cohen believes that resolving Iraq’s refugee problem will take a very long time. He argues that for them to return there must be a stable political situation. That will only happen when Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds come to a national compromise on the future of the country. In the meantime, Cohen says that the Iraqi government needs to prove that it can implement its refugee policies. That will require working with NGOs and foreign governments, coordinating their efforts at the national, provincial, and local levels, providing more staff, and setting up a mechanism to deal with property disputes between the displaced and those that now occupy their homes. Little of that has happened so far. The U.S. also has to play a critical role, pushing Iraq to do more, providing more aid, and taking in more Iraqis. Cohen doesn’t believe that will happen under the remaining months of the Bush administration because it is not a priority. That means there will be no major change in U.S. policy, and pressure on Baghdad until a new administration comes to office.


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

International Organization for Migration, “IOM Emergency Needs Assessments,” 10/1/08

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