Iraq’s Displaced: Where to Turn?

Roberta Cohen
Roberta Cohen Former Brookings Expert, Co-Chair Emeritus - Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

December 31, 2008


Refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) are hardly a new phenomenon for Iraq. Under Saddam Hussein’s long and brutal rule, forced displacement was a deliberate state policy. Expulsions were used as a tool to subdue recalcitrant populations and punish political opponents. The main victims were the Kurds — Iraq’s largest minority which staged repeated rebellions — and the Shi’a majority, many of whose members opposed the regime, including hundreds of thousands of Marsh Arabs. Saddam Hussein also expelled more than 100,000 Kurds as well as members of the smaller Turkmen and Assyrian (Christian) minorities from the oil rich Kirkuk region in an effort to ‘Arabize’ the area. In all, close to one million people were internally displaced in Iraq when the United States invaded in 2003.[1] Another one to two million Iraqis lived abroad fearing persecution should they return. In fact, Iraq was one of the largest refugee-producing countries in the world prior to the US entry on the scene.[2]

The US invasion and the toppling of Saddam Hussein, far from resolving the problem however, made it worse. It catapulted the country into a near civil war between Shi’a, who had largely been excluded by Saddam Hussein’s regime, and Sunnis who until then had dominated the government. Intense and bloody sectarian violence, combined with coalition military action, fighting among Shi’a militias and between the government and the Mahdi army as well as generalized violence and criminality caused massive uprooting. In 2007, some 60,000 Iraqis were reported to be fleeing their homes each month. New displacement diminished sharply in 2008 as overall security improved in Iraq. But together with those who had been displaced earlier, some fifteen to twenty percent of the Iraqi population — or 4.7 million people out of a total of 27 million – remained displaced. Of this total, 2.7 million (10 percent of Iraq’s population) are inside the country while some 2 million are abroad, mostly in neighboring countries.[3]

Today’s displaced Iraqis are not viewed as sympathetically around the world as those persecuted and uprooted by Saddam Hussein.[4] One reason is that they are seen as a problem largely of America’s making and one that America should therefore ‘fix.’ The US’ failure to establish security in the country after its invasion or prepare effectively for the country’s reconstruction is considered a major reason for the chaos and violence that caused the mass displacement. Many donor governments as a result have been reluctant to fully share the burden of Iraq’s displaced, believing the United States should foot most of the bill together with the government of Iraq, which over the past year has been able to accumulate considerable oil wealth. Nor have they been overly forthcoming in resettling Iraqi refugees or in offering funds to the governments of Jordan and Syria which house most of the refugees.[5]

The government of Iraq’s attitude toward its displaced population has contributed to this international unwillingness to extend needed support. Even though Iraq’s budget surplus from oil revenues is projected to be $79 billion by the end of 2008, the Shi’a-dominated government of Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has delivered only minimal amounts of funding to neighboring states for the refugees.[6] Some believe it is because many of the refugees are Sunni and Christian or because the refugees humiliated the government by departing. Still others argue that support for the refugees will discourage their returning home. Nor has the government been forthcoming with support for its internally displaced population, again dampening other countries’ willingness to contribute.

US government fear of terrorism after September 11 has also cast a shadow of suspicion over Iraq’s displaced. Alarm bells are constantly raised that some Iraqi refugees could be associated with terror cells whereas others could become potential terrorists if they remain displaced without assistance for long periods.[7] Although the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and US Embassies in the area have identified 24,000 vulnerable Iraqis for resettlement in the United States, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has subjected them to such intense screening that resettlement has been excruciatingly slow and the number admitted excessively small – fewer than 6,000 of the Iraqis who fled since 2003.[8] The extensive delay even prompted the American Ambassador to Iraq to complain to Washington about the failure to expedite for resettlement the Iraqis who have worked for the US government.[9] By contrast, the victims of Saddam Hussein fared much better in gaining admission to the United States; in the past, the US resettled 37,000 Iraqi refugees fleeing that regime.[10]

Neighboring states, which to their credit have taken in up to 2 million Iraqis, also share fears that the refugees could bring their home grown ethnic and religious struggles to their countries of asylum. In Jordan, in November 2005, three Iraqi nationals recruited by al-Qaeda entered Jordan and blew themselves up at Amman hotels killing 60 people. Although this violent incident did not involve the ‘refugees’ per se, Jordan subsequently began to bar from entry Iraqi men from the ages of 18 to 35 and there have been repeated warnings that large numbers of Iraqi refugees could represent a security threat to the region. Displaced men and women desperate for funds, it is argued, could easily fall prey to militant groups. In fact, the Iraqi refugee situation is often compared to the worst refugee case studies (e.g. Afghanistan) in which refugees paid and armed by third parties undertook jihad against their countries. [11]

The Palestinian refugee problem has further affected how Iraqi refugees are seen and at times has undermined a willingness to help the Iraqis. For sixty years, Arab countries have borne the brunt of the Palestinian refugee crisis and are therefore mindful of the consequences of accepting large numbers of refugees for long periods. “Adding another large refugee population could seriously undermine the viability of a key US ally in the Middle East,” commented one Middle East specialist, when speaking of Jordan.[12] Although both Jordan and Syria have been widely commended for admitting large numbers of Iraqis, Jordan began to restrict entry at the end of 2006 while Syria began to restrict entry in the fall of 2007. The two governments, it is feared, could in time deport the refugees back to Iraq or make life so untenable for them that they will have no choice but to return. By now, eight to twelve percent of the populations of Jordan and Syria have become Iraqis.[13]

Particularly unacceptable to both governments is the entry of Iraqi Palestinians. Jordan, already 70 percent Palestinian because of the Palestinian influxes of 1948 and 1967, has refused entry to Iraqi Palestinians, while Syria since 2006 has sought to bar their entry as well. After considerable negotiations, Syria did allow into a camp in its northeast those stranded on the Iraqi-Jordanian border, but other Palestinians were denied entry and remain in Al Tanf, a camp in a no-man’s land between Syria and Iraq, as well as in a camp on the Iraqi side of the border.[14] Syria has now begun to deport hundreds of Iraqi Palestinians to Al Tanf. [15]

The perilous situation Iraq’s more than 4 million displaced persons face is sometimes presented as a temporary problem, especially when filtered through the positive political prism of the Bush Administration. The return of tens of thousands of refugees since mid- 2007 has been cited as evidence of an improved security environment, made possible by ‘the surge’ (the addition of 30,000 US troops to the 130,000 already there).[16] But when analyzing the returns more closely, UNHCR found that most of the refugees returned because their resources or visas ran out in Syria and Jordan.[17] Moreover, many of those who returned could not for security reasons reclaim their homes or found them damaged beyond repair. Nor could they find jobs or basic services. Some as a result went back to Syria, while most others became displaced inside the country.[18] Iraqi government authorities have acknowledged that they do not have sufficient capacity for handling returns.[19] In the words of one Middle East expert: “It would not be surprising if, 20 years from now, millions of Iraqis still lived outside their home country.”[20]

Taking into account the unique situation in which Iraq’s refugees and IDPs find themselves, this article examines the problems facing the displaced, the different solutions being proposed and possible ways forward.

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[1] An estimated 600,000 to 800,000 were displaced in the north of the country and an estimated 300,000 in the center/south. See Roberta Cohen and John Fawcett, “The Internally Displaced People of Iraq,” Saban Center, Brookings Institution, Memo #6, November 20, 2002; and John Fawcett and Victor Tanner, The Internally Displaced People of Iraq, Brookings-SAIS Project on Internal Displacement, An Occasional Paper, October 2002.

[2] U.S. Committee for Refugees, World Refugee Survey 2000, Washington DC, pp.5, 185; and World Refugee Survey 2002, Washington DC, pp. 5, 170.

[3] The International Organization for Migration estimates 2.7 million IDPs, see IOM Emergency Needs Assessments, Bi-Weekly Report, 15 March 2008. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates 500,000 to 700,000 refugees in Jordan (down from original estimates of one million) and up to 1.5 million in Syria, see, although the numbers are disputed. NGOs like the Danish Refugee Council and FAFO have said the figures are lower (in particular, less than one million in Syria), suggesting that the governments concerned have provided inflated figures to the international community. An additional 200,000 Iraqis can be found in the Gulf States, 130,000 in Egypt, 50,000 in Lebanon, and 57,000 in Iran. See Kenneth H. Bacon & Kristele Younes, “Outside and Inside Iraq’s Border, a Forgotten Exodus,” Washington Post, January 20, 2008. For the decrease in 60,000 fleeing each month, see Written Statement of L.Craig Johnstone, Deputy High Commissioner of UNHCR, before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight and the Subcommittee on Middle East and South Asia, February 26, 2008.

[4] The US and its allies, for example, set up a no fly zone at the end of the Gulf War in 1991 to protect displaced Kurds from Saddam Hussein’s wrath. In 1996-7, the US rescued 6,600 Kurds from northern Iraq in Operation Pacific Haven and resettled them in the US, see Department of Defense,

[5] Sweden has been an exception, taking in more than 25,000 in 2006-2007. From 2006-June 2007, Greece, the Netherlands, Germany and the UK took in small numbers although more than the United States (Greece, 4,900; the Netherlands, 3,327; Germany, 2882; and the UK, 1,970), see Kelly O’Donnell & Kathleen Newland, “The Iraqi Refugee Crisis: The Need For Action,” Migration Policy Institute, 2008, pp. 3, 22.

[6] Iraq last year pledged $25 million for refugees in 2008 ($15 million for Syria, $2 million for Lebanon, and $8 million for Jordan), see Walter Pincus, “Iraq’s Slow Refugee Funding Has Ripple Effect,” Washington Post, May 17, 2008. For Iraq’s increasing oil revenues, see James Glanz & Campbell Robertson, “As Iraq Surplus Rises, Little Goes Into Rebuilding,” New York Times, August 6, 2008. For funding for IDPs, see below note 106.

[7] See for example Daniel Byman & Kenneth Pollack, Things Fall Apart: Containing the Spillover from an Iraqi Civil War, Brookings Institution, 2007. The Department of Homeland Security has expressed the fear that “terrorists will seek to infiltrate” the resettlement program if procedures are weakened and large numbers are put in the pipeline, Interview of author with Amelia Templeton of Human Rights First, March 3, 2008.

[8] The total of 6,000 does not include the backlogged cases of those who fled the Saddam Hussein regime and who were still being admitted up to May 2007. Interview of author with Amelia Templeton of Human Rights First, May 14, 2008.

[9] Spencer S. Hsu & Robin Wright, “Crocker Blasts Refugee Process,” Washington Post, September 17, 2007. The US brought in 429 Iraqi translators and interpreters plus their family members in FY 2007 and 318 plus their family members in FY 2008 (as of April), see “US Humanitarian Assistance for Refugees and Internally Displaced Iraqis,” Office of the Spokesman, Department of State, April 15, 2008. Although a new law provides for admission of 5,000 each year, the law has not yet been implemented.

[10] Statement by Lawrence E. Bartlett, Department of State, “Iraq: the Human Cost of War,” Georgetown University, Institute for the Study of International Migration, March 21, 2007.

[11] Byman & Pollack, supra note 7, at 23-4.

[12] Interview of author with David A. Korn, January 24, 2008.

[13] See Bacon & Younes, supra note 3.

[14] Ashraf al-Khalidi, Sophia Hoffmann & Victor Tanner, “Iraqi Refugees in the Syrian Arab Republic: A Field-Based Snapshot,” Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement, June 2007, pp.14-15.

[15] Interview of author with UNHCR official, February 29, 2008.

[16] Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), “Iraq-Jordan: Few Iraqis returning home,” 10 December 2007; and “Syria: Not safe enough for Iraqi refugees to return – UNHCR chief,” 14 February 2008.

[17] Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), “Iraq-Syria: Starving to survive,” 2 January 2008; and UNHCR, “Iraq government busses refugees home from Syria,” November 28, 2007.

[18] Interview of author with UNHCR official, January 28, 2008.

[19] See Abed Al-Samad Rahman Sultan, “An unenviable task,” Forced Migration Review, June 2007, p. 17; Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), “Iraq: Parliament committee demands fixed budget to aid the displaced,” February 11, 2008; and “Iraq: More government money for IDPs, refugees,” 14 February 2008.

[20] Daniel L. Byman, “The Next Phase of the Iraq War,” Slate, November 29, 2007.