Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Human Rights First Report On What To Do About Iraq’s Refugees

At the end of December 2008 Human Rights First released an excellent report on Iraq’s refugees entitled “How to Confront the Iraqi Refugee Crisis.” It noted that the refugee crisis is still on going. The United Nations Refugee Agency UNHCR for example, recorded 12,500 Iraqis entering Syria in 2008. Surveys show that one-third of Iraqis fled the general violence in the country, while the other two-third left because they felt directly targeted. Most of the displacement occurred after the February 2006 Samarra bombing that set off the sectarian war. This can be seen in the fact that Sunnis were only about 20% of the population, but represent 55% of the U.N. registered refugees. Iraq’s minorities such as Christians, Mandeans, Yazidis, Turkomen, Shabaks, and others have also greatly suffered, comprising 18-20% of the U.N. refugees, but only 3-4% of Iraq. The result has been a less diverse country and more homogenous neighborhoods, especially in Baghdad, which has seen the most displacement. The UNHCR, the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq, and the State Department all believe that Iraq’s refugees still need help. The Human Rights First report was notable for its up to date numbers, and analysis of the current situation in Iraq. It not only went through the current refugee crisis, but also made suggestions for the in coming Obama administration as well.

The forces directly responsible for Iraq’s displacement are many. Insurgents, terrorist groups, and militias all took part in violence aimed at the country’s population. What is often overlooked is that the Iraqi government was also directly involved. The media usually talks about how militias had infiltrated the security forces during this period, but refugees told Human Rights Watch that they believed the ruling parties had a plan to force out certain groups. The police, National Police, Ministry of Interior, and Ministry of Health all took part in sectarian attacks. As reported before, Shiite parties like the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and its Badr Brigade and Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army were directly enrolled into the security forces, and took control of specific ministries. They carried out a systematic campaign to cleanse certain areas of Sunnis. Iraq’s minorities were caught in the middle of this bloodbath. This has repercussions today, as many displaced still do not trust their government.

Iraq’s refugees have been both greeted and rejected in the countries they have moved to. Most can’t work legally, which leads to exploitation. Children are not going to school because they need to support their families, while some Iraqi women have gone into prostitution to make money. Many have run through their savings, while their cost of living expenses have risen. That has led to increasing dependence upon U.N. aid. Syria and Jordan are increasingly growing weary of the large number of Iraqis in their country. This is problematic since many Iraqis don’t seem to want to return anytime soon. Many who register with the UNHCR hope to be repatriated to a third country. 64,500 have applied for asylum in 2007 and the first six months of 2008, the highest amount in the world. Most want to go to Sweden, Germany, Greece or the United States.

Iraq’s internally displaced are facing tougher conditions as well. Many provinces have stopped movement of the displaced into their areas. Some want them to leave. Lack of jobs, access to services, and assistance from either the government or non-government organizations is chronic. The International Organization for Migration in its monthly reports have recorded dozens of cases of displaced families living in mud huts with no access to jobs, clean water, and sewage systems.

All of these hardships and the improvement in security have begun the process of return. By September 2008 the International Organization for Migration and the Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration counted 38,401 families who had come back, amounting to approximately 230,406 people. That was around 5% of the displaced. Most of these were internal refugees moving within Baghdad. Surveys say that 80% of the displaced in their own provinces want to go back to their homes while only around 50% of the displaced in other provinces want to. Many still feel their original areas are unsafe. Very few refugees have come back from other countries however.

Baghdad has also been pushing for Iraqis to return, but Human Rights First believes it actually might be detrimental. In late 2007 the government began to encourage Iraqis to come back. In 2008 they created a national policy on refugees and the displaced written with the help of the United Nations, and conforming to international norms. They called on Iraqis to return because the country was safe, and they could be protected. The plan allows the displaced to vote in elections, provides aid, and includes the eviction of squatters to resolve property issues. At the same time, Baghdad also tried to force refugees to come back from other countries. In 2007 Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told Syria and Jordan to tighten their visa requirements to stem the flow of Iraqis to those two countries. In early 2008 the government talked Germany out of taking in minorities. Iraqi, Syrian and U.N. sources told Human Rights First that the Iraqi leadership was against helping the displaced because they believe the displacement crisis made the country look bad. They also thought that refugees who refused to go back were traitors.

Human Rights First also found that the refugee policy was not being applied evenly. In August 2008 the International Organization for Migration reported that militias were selling houses illegally that they had seized from people in Baghdad, Diyala, Tamim, and Ninewa with the help of local security forces. Some refugees said they believed the government was still sectarian. The government for example, was supposed to create two centers to assist returns in Baghdad, one in the Shiite east and one in the Sunni west. Only the center in the Shiite area was opened. Other refugees thought the return program was part of campaigning for the upcoming elections. In general, many did not trust the government.

This was why Human Rights First did not think that Baghdad’s refugee program was good. It thought that it was important that the government began an eviction process, but dealing with property issues was not the only thing that would help the displaced. It believes that Baghdad needs to provide the rule of law, punish those that carry out attacks and abuses, get rid of sectarianism, protect minorities, expel militias, and deal with Kirkuk and other disputed territories. Minorities especially, are still being targeted, while violence against women is increasing. Some refugees have also been attacked and intimidated after their returns. None of this is helping with the situation. Overall, Human Rights First believed that the Maliki government lacked earnestness when dealing with the plight of refugees.

The U.S. has also not had a real strategy to deal with this problem. President Bush and Secretary of State Rice hardly talk about the issue. The 2008 and 2009 budgets for example, had no funds for Iraq’s refugees. It was because of Congress that $500 million was set aside for fiscal year 2008 and $350 million in 2008 for Iraq’s displaced. This has meant a dramatic increase in aid and programs. The U.S. has also taken in more Iraqis. In 2006 202 Iraqis were admitted, followed by 1,608 in 2007 and 13,823 in 2008. There is still no real U.S. leadership however. The Bush White House has argued that returns are the solution, and this will happen when security improves.

Human Rights First believes that the Obama administration needs to make a real commitment to this crisis. They need to help those that want to go back, and those that don’t. It recommended setting benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet. If they are not met, the U.S. should withdraw support form the Ministry of Displacement and Migration, and focus upon non-government organizations and direct aid to Iraqis. The U.S. should also encourage Prime Minister Maliki to provide accurate information on the situation within Iraq to refugees so that their returns are voluntary. The Americans also have to provide aid to host countries like Syria and Jordan, convince them to ease their visa restrictions on Iraqis, as well as facilitate the immigration of those Iraqis that have no plans to go home. Finally, a property claims/compensation program needs to be started even if the families never return. In order to ensure that this will be carried out, Human Rights First calls for a high level official to be appointed by the incoming president solely to focus upon Iraq’s refugees.

“How to Confront the Iraqi Refugee Crisis” provides not only a good synopsis of the causes and effects of Iraq’s displacement, but analysis as well, in a short and to the point report. It shows that Iraqi refugees outside the country and displaced within it are still suffering major problems providing for themselves and obtaining support. Although some Iraqis have begun to return, Baghdad is not doing a good job dealing with them, and in fact, may be making the situation worse because it is more interested in image than implementation. Those that are coming back are mostly the displaced, with Iraq’s two million refugees staying in their new homes. This is probably due to the fact that they are largely Sunni and minorities who have been the victims of the Shiite parties and militias that now run Iraq. Until there is more trust and effective government it is unlikely that large numbers of refugees will ever return to Iraq. That places a large onus on the U.S. and international community to provide for these people, and the countries where they reside. That is the main point of the report, Iraq’s refugee crisis is an on-going event that is getting worse for many Iraqis, and needs the full attention of the new American administration.


Ferris, Elizabeth, “The Real Challenge of Internal Displacement in Iraq: The Future,” Brookings Institution, 12/6/07

Human Rights First, “How to Confront the Iraqi Refugee Crisis,” December 2008

International Organization for Migration, “Anbar, Baghdad & Diyala, Governorate Profiles,” December 2008

Ministry of Displacement and Migration & International Organization for Migration, “Returnee Monitoring and Needs Assessments Tabulation Report,” September 2008

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