Iraqi refugees waiting to register with United Nations in Syria, 2007
Iraq’s refugees are often ignored in reports on the improvements in the country. While security is much better and the government is attempting to bring in foreign investment to develop its oil and gas industry, the situation of several million Iraqi refugees and displaced is only getting worse. In February and March 2010 three organizations released reports on the problem. Those were Refugee International’s “Iraq: Humanitarian Needs Persist,” the Norwegian Refugee Council’s “Iraq Little new displacement but in the region of 2.8 million Iraqis remain internally displaced,” and the International Rescue Committee’s “A Rough Road Ahead, Uprooted Iraqis In Jordan, Syria, and Iraq."
Iraq’s refugee problem developed over several decades, and came in three waves. First Saddam Hussein forced out tens of thousands of Kurds, Shiites, and marsh Arabs for their opposition to his rule. There were also 80,000 Iraqis who lost their homes during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988 that were still displaced after the U.S. invasion. The second wave came during the U.S. invasion and its immediate impact. Most of those were temporary however. The last wave occurred after the bombing of the Samarra shrine in February 2006 that set off the sectarian civil war. It’s estimated that before 2003 around 1 million Iraqis were displaced, 190,000 more lost their homes from March 2003 to February 2006, and that 1.55 million were forced to leave after the Samarra bombing.
Displacement began to decline in 2007 as violence decreased, and there have been very few new examples since then. In 2009 for example there were no major displacements reported. In 2010, 4,300 Christian families temporarily left their homes following attacks upon their communities. There were also 4,200 families from Tamim, Ninewa, Salahaddin, Maysan, Dhi Qar, and Basra who lost their homes due to a drought.
In total, there are an estimated 1.9 million refugees and 2 million displaced. Both of those numbers are contested. First, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has registered far fewer Iraqis living in other countries, and the number of displaced is likely out of date due to returns over the last several years.
Iraqis returning home
Since the U.S. invasion over one million Iraqis have come back. From 2003 to 2009 approximately 745,630 displaced and 433,696 refugees have made the journey home, for a total of 1,179,326. The process of return has not come in the large, and steady waves as some hoped and predicted. For instance, 2004 saw the largest number of returns at around 291,997. The numbers were lower for the next three years before passing the 200,000 mark again in 2008 and 2009 respectively.
The major deterrents to coming back are the lack of jobs and security, and the demographic changes that occurred during the fighting. Baghdad for example, which saw the greatest number of Iraqis lose their homes, was once made up of mostly mixed neighborhoods, but is now largely segregated by sect. Most experts believe that refugees and those that left their provinces but still reside in Iraq are least likely to return.
Reclaiming property is another difficult matter. The Iraqi government doesn’t have the capabilities to deal with this legal issue, and hasn’t even taken care of all the property cases dating from before the war. As a result, the UNHCR reported in December 2009 that 15% of the displaced and 56% of the refugees that have returned have been unable to get their property back. Many people lack the papers to claim their lost land or homes. That also means that they are unable to send their kids to school, get services, or apply for government aid or food rations.
For those that continue to be displaced, their situation is getting worse. Of the 1.55 million that lose their homes from 2006-2007, 33% are estimated to be squatters, living in the worst conditions. They do not receive aid from the government, U.N., or non-governmental organizations. The authorities are actually opposed to helping them because they fear that will make their status permanent. In April 2010 the UNHCR reported that the number of squatters actually increased by 25% in 2009. It believes that 500,000 people live in camps, with the 260,000 in Baghdad alone.
The government has not created an effective program to deal with its refugee and displaced problem. In 2008 it began focusing upon getting Iraqis to come back, but that was largely a political move to improve the image of the country rather than to really help people. As part of the effort, $800 was offered to those that came back, but actually claiming the money proved to be a hard and arduous process due to the government bureaucracy. The authorities also issued orders to evacuate all squatters to make way for the returnees. Squatters were offered $250 per month for six months if they left. That plan was quickly dropped however.
The one exception has been in Diyala. There, the United Nations and the government have set up a largely successful program to accommodate returnees. Together they are working to rebuild 400 destroyed villages. Baghdad has committed $78 million to the project, which has resulted in 3,000 homes being rebuilt, with 6,000 more planned for 2010. Both Sunni and Shiite families have also gone back. In early 2010 the plan ran into problems, as authorities wanted to start rebuilding houses in the Khanaqin district of northern Diyala, which is a disputed territory. The district is controlled by the Kurds who object to Arab families going back there.
Iraqi family returning to Burah, Diyala 2010
In the rest of the country, there is no organized aid campaign. The Ministry of Displacement and Migration is under funded, and the amount allocated for the displaced has gone up and down. The 2008 budget had $210 million set aside, compared to just $42 million in 2009, before going back up in 2010 to $170 million. The government also stopped registering refugees at the end of 2009. When they did, they only dealt with those that lost their homes after 2006, excluding several hundred thousand Iraqis who lost their homes during Saddam’s time or during the early years of the war.
Refugees also lack assistance. Life in other countries is becoming increasingly difficult for Iraqis. Many cannot send their kids to school and employing them is banned, although lots work illegally. Many are facing poverty as a result, as their savings have been depleted. The UNHCR has a cash grant program that helped 6,000 families in Jordan and 12,000 families in Syria last year. Its resources are limited however, as donations for Iraqi refugees have decreased in recent years. 60% are also 25 years or younger, and there are fears that they may become a permanent refugee population, lacking skills, experience, and education to move on with their lives.
Although accurate numbers are hard to come by approximately 2/3 of Iraq’s refugees and displaced are still without their homes. Although the process of return has begun, it has happened at an up and down pace. Those that come back still face difficulties, and the government, United Nations, and NGOs do not have the capabilities to adequately assist them. This has led some to speculate that the majority of Iraq’s refugees and many displaced that left their provinces may never come back. That means the Iraqi government, aid agencies, and the international community needs to come up with a comprehensive campaign to deal with this large population. The displaced need to get more assistance, and be integrated into their new provinces or countries. The problem is that planning is often shortsighted, and lacks adequate funding because Iraq is a fading issue for many in the world. If things don’t change, Iraqis could become the new Palestinians without the media attention, causing social, political, and economic problems in their host countries, and within Iraq itself.
Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, “Iraq Little new displacement but in the region of 2.8 million Iraqis remain internally displaced,” Norwegian Refugee Council, 3/4/10
IRC Commission On Iraqi Refugees, “A Tough Road Home, Uprooted Iraqis In Jordan, Syria And Iraq,” International Rescue Committee, February 2010
Rao, Prashant, “Iraq squatter camp population on the rise: UN,” Agence France Presse, 4/11/10
Refugees International, “Iraq: Humanitarian Needs Persist,” 3/17/10
UNHCR, “Monthly Statistical Update on Return – December 2009,” 1/27/10