The Iraqi Refugee Crisis
Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, millions of Iraqis have fled their country, seeking refuge in neighbouring Iran, Syria, and Jordon. As the West fails to respond and neighboring countries begin to close their borders to this refugee crisis, the fate of Iraq's displaced people hangs in the balance.
One in six Iraqi people are now displaced within and outside Iraq, making this the biggest mass exodus in the history of the Middle East. As the security situation is only getting worse, analysts suggest this shocking statistic is set to rise. Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has stated that, despite Iraq being the world’s best-known conflict, it is simultaneously the least well-known humanitarian crisis.
According to the latest UNHCR statistics, there are currently 2.2 million Iraqi refugees and 2.3 million internally displaced people (IDPs). Statistics indicate that the humanitarian crisis is only getting worse. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 402,000 persons were displaced between 2003 and the end of 2005. Since February 2006, almost one million additional persons have been displaced with an average of 60,000 people displaced per month in 2007.
Living in a transitory state, these people currently have neither little hope of returning to their homes nor the possibility of any meaningful durable solution in sight. While endless money is plunged into military expenditure, humanitarian agencies have been struggling to provide services, which meet the needs of those most vulnerable, notably the IDPs. In fact, every week, military expenditure in Iraq shockingly exceeds the total annual budget of UNHCR.
Population displacement has historically been used as a strategy for armed conflict and formulated part of Saddam Hussein’s methods of strengthening his political power. Today, armed groups vying for territorial control are again using this tactic in order to consolidate their rule within a given area. Patterns of displacement indicate that this is following ethnic and/or religious lines with Sunnis fleeing to Sunni areas, Shi’a to Shi’a areas, Christians to Ninewah province, and Kurds to the northern provinces.
Displacement is being caused not only by sectarian violence, but also by generalized violence, military operations, a lack of basic services, the loss of livelihoods, and general lawlessness. Iraq was arguably once the Middle East’s most “developed” country. Today, healthcare, education and social services are virtually non-existent on a national scale. According to the UN Assistance Mission to Iraq, 54% of Iraqis are now living on under $1 a day, of which 15% live on $0.50 a day. As a result, Iraq has now become one of the world’s biggest refugee-producing countries.
The majority of refugees fleeing Iraq have found shelter in Syria (1.2-1.4million) and Jordan (500,000-750,000). With the sheer numbers of refugees spilling into their territories and the unlikely prospect of lasting peace in Iraq, the previous tolerance of Syria and Jordan is now starting to wane. Both governments are suffering under the burden of hosting refugees, feeling pressure on their national infrastructure, health, and education systems. Both countries have experienced a rise in inflation and cost of living, with competition for housing increasing. Mukhaimer Abu Jamous, Secretary General of the Jordanian Ministry of the Interior, has estimated that the presence of Iraqi citizens in Jordan is costing the country $1 billion per year. Furthermore, Faisal al-Miqdad, the Syrian deputy foreign minister has stated that the prices of foodstuffs and basic goods have risen 30% and property prices are up 40%.
Jordan, whose population is a mere 5.7 million, now has up to 750,000 Iraqi residents. This would be the equivalent of the UK hosting just under 8 million refugees. Historically one of the world’s most generous refugee hosting states, Jordan extended this hand to Iraqis. However, following the bomb attacks in Amman by three Iraqis in November 2005, Jordan’s reception has changed. Entry restrictions have tightened and it has been reported that the authorities are now preventing the entry of all single Iraqi men between 17 and 35 in the name of security.
In response to growing domestic security concerns, both the Jordanian and Syrian governments have implemented increased border controls and threatened further restrictions on admissions. Other neighbouring states are even more intolerant despite hosting fewer refugees. For example, Saudi Arabia is in the process of constructing a $7 billion high-tech barrier along its border to prevent Iraqis claiming their basic human right to asylum.
However, it is not just neighbouring countries who are restricting entry but also certain governorates within Iraq. According to the IOM, as of June 2007, 10 of 15 governorates are restricting IDP entry due to economic and security reasons. Methods involve the need to prove one originates from a given governorate to be able to enter, to gain sponsorship from someone living there, or the cessation of registration so IDPs are ineligible for assistance.
With entry restrictions and limited access to basic services such as clean water or the food distribution system, the IDPs in Iraq are an extremely vulnerable group. Responding to the needs of IDPs is extremely difficult both politically and logistically. Humanitarian service delivery, particularly for international NGOs, is highly restricted due to constrained humanitarian space, the need to remain “impartial,” and a highly volatile security situation. In both the short and the long term, this will have catastrophic consequences. As Iraq continues to be divided along religious and ethnic lines, armed groups and community leaders are filling the void that humanitarian actors and the Iraqi government should be filling. This simultaneously strengthens the hold these leaders have over their communities and territories, while heightening people’s disillusionment with the government and the international community.
The long-term effects of displacement are already being felt as Iraq’s social spaces alter. The educated elite were among the first to flee, and now, with 90% of those who die violent deaths being men, the numbers of unaccompanied minors and female-headed households are on the rise. These factors will continue to undermine the reconstruction efforts in Iraq. Instead of “democracy” being instilled, the future of Iraq looks bleak with the patterns of displacement highlighting the deep political divisions within Iraq and the newly altered social, geographic, and demographic make-up of the country.
An urgent response is required from the international community to deal with this neglected humanitarian crisis. Essentially, the countries that are responsible for this mass displacement have not taken adequate steps to respond to this crisis. If the UK and US truly engaged with the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding, they would in effect be acknowledging their failure. Instead, they have allowed Syria and Jordan to bear the brunt of this exodus. Likewise, donors have been slow to contribute to the relief effort, having invested billions into a nation-building project they would hate to admit has failed.
The international community, and in particular the UK and US, need to respond quickly by providing host governments with financial support for social and infrastructural services and begin implementing a serious and fair resettlement programme. However, hopes for resettlement seem poor. While the US made an effort to resettle 7,000 Iraqi refugees by June 2007, this is a dent in the ocean of the two million refugees in the region. On the other hand, the European Union is widely opposed to resettlement in the EU, and the UK has continued to return failed asylum seekers. An Amnesty report in September 2007 condemned the UK for being one of the key players in the forcible returns of Iraqis, having sent back 86 Iraqis. Host governments, and in particular Jordan and Syria, deserve not only recognition, but also the support necessary to provide services for refugees and their own population. This should not only be delivered in the form of humanitarian aid, but also, through “burden sharing.” At present, this is clearly not being implemented. The UN has also been extremely slow to respond to this crisis and its acknowledgement earlier this year, which warned of Iraq being on the brink of a full-scale humanitarian emergency, was painfully overdue. With one in six Iraqis displaced, meaningful political solutions and flexible responses need to be found, together with a concerted international commitment to the humanitarian relief effort. In the meantime, with the humanitarian crisis intricately tied to insecurity, displacement will continue until the roots of the conflict are resolved and the security situation improves.