Friday, May 28, 2010

Plight Of Iraq’s Refugees/Displaced Continuing

 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for Refugees (UNHCR) has registered far fewer Iraqis living in other countries, and the number of displaced is likely out of date due to returns over the last several years.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


Joel Wing said...

This comment was originally by Maury. I hit the wrong button and accidentally deleted it. Sorry!

We still hear references to people "displaced" by Katrina. I guess we're supposed to believe they couldn't buy a $50 bus ticket at some point in the last 5 years. At what point do the displaced become residents of their new community...after raising a few generations of children maybe?

If a Shiite prefers Lebanon over Najaf, and a Sunni prefers Jordan over Ramadi, nothing the government does will persuade them to return home.

Joel Wing said...

Maury, while some Iraqis have been displaced for years, I think they can be still called that term if they want to go back to their homes but can't for whatever reason. Polling of internally displaced within Iraq have consistently showed that a majority want to return to their homes for example.

Here's the legal definition of refugee in U.S. law. It basically says that if a person feels like they will be persecuted if they go back to their home country they are a refugee, and that applies to many Iraqis who still are afraid of the violence in their country and the demographic changes that have gone on there.

U.S. legal definition of refugee:
"Any person who is outside any country of such person's nationality or, in the case of a person having no nationality, is outside any country in which such person last habitually resided, and who is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of, that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion."

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you updated the situation on this as it's a real hidden tragedy. Unfortunately it doesn't seem like it will be resolved at least for a long while.

I have read that the apathy of the Iraqi government may be in part due to ethno-secretarian reasons. Do you have any statistics on the make up of refugees, in terms of Sunnis, Shiites etc? What is your view on this? I think a book was actually written about this same issue

Joel Wing said...

There are no good stats on Iraqi refugees. Lots of people say the majority of them are Sunni and that's a major reason why so few have returned, buy I have never seen any numbers to prove that. There are good numbers on the internally displaced and most of them are Shiite.

The book you may be thinking about is the Eclipse of the Sunnis be Deborah Amos.

As far as Baghdad is concerned they only seemed to want to make a PR event out of returning Iraqis otherwise they have shown no real interest. Several members of Maliki's government have called refugees traitors, and have tried to make Arab governments make it harder for Iraqis to live there. The program in Diyala is the one exception, otherwise they have been pretty pathetic.

Don Cox said...

There are also all the Jewish refugees from Iraq - I have seen estimates that a million Jews lived in Baghdad a few decades ago. I doubt they will return (unfortunately). Nor the Yezidis, nor the Christians.

Once a rich mix of traditions is destroyed, it is hard to recover it.

Joel Wing said...


Yes a lot of Iraqs minorities have become displaced or refugees, especially because they were targeted by Islamic militants. Those same minority groups were also persecuted and forced out under Saddam as well.

According to a U.S. report in Dec. 08 only 3% of Iraq was made up of minority groups such as Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks, etc., but 15% of registered refugees in Jordan and 20% of the registered refugees in Syria were minorities. The Iraqi Ministry of Displaced and Migration said that they believed 50% of the country's minorities had fled.

Also to Anon who asked about the make-up of Iraqi refugees, that same US report said that in Jordan 59% of registered refugees were Sunni compared to 27% Shiite, and in Syria that has the largest Iraqi refugee population, 58% were Sunni vs 19.5% Shiite, so I guess there are some numbers to prove that most refugees are Sunni. That compares to the numbers for Iraq's internally displaced, which are 58.8% Shiite and 35.5% Sunni.

Maury said...

Joel, I think Iraq has very few legitimate refugees. The U.S. definition of refugee you quoted refers to persecution based on race,religion,ethnicity etc. Christians and Yazidi's may well feel unsafe anywhere in Iraq, but that can't be said for Sunni or Shia. If a Sunni feels persecuted in Fallujah, it isn't because of his race, religion, or ethnicity. Ditto for a Shia in Najaf. At some point, most of these people went from being refugees, to simply being people looking for a better life elsewhere.

"Most of these refugees have no intention of ever returning to Iraq, despite the voluntary repatriation programme launched by the UN in 2008. Most dream of a new life in the west, but less than five percent of refugees benefit from UN-assisted reinsertion programmes, according to UN figures."

Joel Wing said...

Maury I would just have to strongly disagree.

About 1 mil were displaced under Saddam and most of them were Shiites and Kurds. From the numbers it appears many of the Shiites have gone back, but not many Kurds have not. They were displaced during Saddam's Anfal campaign that has been labeled genocide. 4,000 villages were destroyed, they got gassed, thrown into camps, etc. While some of them have gone back since 2003 many have not because 1) there's nothing to go back to, their village got leveled, 2) Arabs got moved into their areas by Saddam, 3) they don't trust Arabs. Many of them are living in refugee camps in Kurdistan so its not like they have some great life there as well.

Another 1.5 mil got displaced during the sectarian war. The largest displacement happened in Baghdad, Diyala and Ninewa and they were driven out because of their sect. You mentioned Fallujah, the population of that city were driven out twice because of the military operations, but then they returned. The largest number of displaced from Anbar are Shiites who got driven out by the Sunnis. Most haven't gone back because they're afraid. Around half of the internally displaced are from Baghdad which went form mixed sect neighborhoods to majority one sect. Not only that but many that go back find someone living in their house. During the civil war militants would go house to house threatening and killing people to force them out, and then rent out the places to families of their sect to make money and fund their operations.

As for the quote, I'm sure many Iraqi refugees would like to go to a Western country, but the reality is that very few have. In the countries they're in, they are banned from working, many are banned from sending their kids to school, etc. so it's not like they're having a great time there either.

The civil war just ended 2 years ago. Most people got driven out specifically because of their sect, and now most likely that other sect that drove them out is living in their former homes. I think that would constitute feeling persecuted if they tried to go back.

Joel Wing said...

Maury, if you want to see the demographic changes brought on in Baghdad by the fighting look at these maps:

Maury said...

Joel, there are 3 million or so "displaced" Iraqis. I understand that many lost their homes and can't go back to their old neighborhoods. But, it takes more than that to earn refugee status. Katrina evacuees went to Houston, Chicago, or New York. Not Canada, Mexico, or France. An Iraqi family forced from its home in Baghdad could have chosen any number of places in Iraq to move to, and most did. The fact is, many Iraqis prefer living somewhere besides Iraq.

We all know how safe Kurdish areas have been for the last 7 years. We all know Kurdish authorities welcome Kurdish refugees back with open arms. Granted, having one's village leveled is a tragedy. But, it's not reason enough to earn permanent refugee status. If they haven't returned to Iraq yet, it's because they don't WANT to, not because they can't.

Joel Wing said...

Getting your house wiped out by a storm and having some Mahdi Army militiamen tell you you're going to get killed if you don't leave, having them move in a Shiite family into your house, having the entire area turn Shiite, and then still being there today is a much different situation.

Maury said...

How is it different Joel? If you have to live elsewhere for whatever reason, do you move to another city, or move to another country? Those Mahdi militiamen didn't force Sunni families out of Iraq. Baghdad or Diyala maybe, but they didn't control the entire country.

Most Iraqi's displaced by sectarian violence chose to stay in Iraq. Some chose what they saw as greener pastures. Preferring Amman to Fallujah doesn't qualify one for refugee status in my opinion.

Joel Wing said...

Again, Baghdad saw the largest displacement and that was directly due to the sectarian fighting between insurgents, Al Qaeda, Shiite militias and the government. There are very few displaced from southern Iraq for example.

And you're basically ignoring history because there are dozens and dozens of examples of people fleeing their countries during conflicts to move to another country to escape the fighting. Jews fleeing Germany to escape the Nazis, Eastern Europeans moved westward towards Germany to escape the Red Army at the end of WWII. Chinese moved to Vietnam to escape the Cultural Revolution. Tibetans moving to India. Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians fled to Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, U.S. after the Vietnam War. Afghans moving to Pakistan. Rwandans fled to Uganda, Congo, etc., etc. etc. I could go on and on with examples.

Joel Wing said...

I just looked this up on Wikipedia, and here are some past examples of people fleeing their country to another due to wars

2 mil refugees from Algerian war of independence. Some fled to Morocco, Tunisia, France

220,000 Azeris and 18,000 Kurds fled from Armenia to Azerbaijan, and 280,00 Armenians fled Azerbaijan to Armenia in the 1990s

Thousands of Kurds fled Turkey to Kurdistan

6 mil Afghans moved to Pakistan and Iran during Afghan War

10 mil Bangladeshis moved to India during independence war

250,000 Burmese fled to Bangladesh during the military take over

150,000 Tibetans moved to India after Chinese take over

103,00 Sri Lankans fled to India, Canada, Europe, Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia during civil war

1.5-2.6 mil Kashmiris fled to Pakistan from India

Thousands of non-Muslims fled Tajikistan during civil war moving to Russia and Israel

90,000 ethnic Turks left Uzbekistan for other Central Asian countries

3 mil Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians fled their country after Vietnam War

500,000 Angolans left country during civil war

80,000 Asians fled Uganda during Idi Amin’s rule

2 mil Rwandans left their country during civil war

200,000 Hungarians fled to Austria and West Germany in 1956

300,000 Czechs fled after Russian crackdown

35,000-213,000 Greeks and Macedonians fled Greek Civil War

300,000 Bulgarian Turks fled to Turkey due to assimilation campaign

700,000 from former Yugoslavia moved to other parts of Europe

Most non-Chechens fled Chechnya in 1990s

30,000 Ossetians fled to Russia in 1990s

500,000 Salvandorans left the country during the civil war

Large numbers of Guatemalans also left for Mexico and the U.S. during civil war

Thousands of Cubans came to the U.S. after the Cuban Revolution

Thousands of Colombians left their country

And there are a lot more from African countries as well

Maury said...

My wife and her family were refugees from Cambodia Joel. Her dad worked for the US Embassy. They would have been killed if they had stayed. Once it was safe for them to return, they ceased being refugees. Her dad was the only one to move back. His home and land were long gone, but he was free to live just about anywhere else in Cambodia. The rest of the family prefers not to return. They're as American as anyone else now.

Muhanned, at Iraqi Mojo, was a refugee. I don't think that's accurate anymore. Emigrant is more apt in my opinion.

Joel Wing said...

Civil war has only been over for 2 years in Iraq and the country still has the most terrorist attacks in the world with a couple hundred people killed a month. I think that's enough deterrent to keep people from going back to their homes, especially because the places with the most violence are the places that had the most refugees. Plus like I said most Iraqi refugees and displaced have not found a better life where they're living, and many express the desire to go back home, but haven't yet.

Dolly said...

Joel Wing:
"Iraq has the most terrorist attacks in the world."

That would be because they are not "terrorist attacks," there is a war going on.

A war which you started, by attacking Iraq in March 2003

Joel Wing said...

Well, YOURE losing it because hardly any Iraqis support the attacks anymore.

Joel Wing said...

Dolly Im not going to post your sectarian comment, but rest assured your ideas have lost the war. Thats why the majority of Sunnis gave up the fight, switched sides, and are now trying to get involved in politics to join the new Iraq.

Dolly said...

You are out the door soon, and your associates will be chopped to pieces.

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