Iraq’s internally displaced populations and external refugees – a soft landing is a requisite for us all

The refugee crisis in the Middle East and North Africa shows little sign of abating, with continued fighting further inflaming the situation across the region. In Iraq, which has been at the center of conflicts in the region since the first Gulf War, population displacements have been ongoing for a quarter of a century and the country is now coping with nearly 3.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs). Of these, around 2.5 million were added just in 2014. Approximately 46 percent of these IDPs and a quarter of a million Syrian refugees fled to the Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI), increasing its population by 28 percent in a matter of months.

After Northern Iraq, the largest number of Iraqi IDPs are in: Anbar province in the west with 400,000; Kirkuk in the center with 350,000; and Baghdad with 310,000. Most Iraqi IDPs have been displaced by the conflict with the Islamic State group. Often the IDPs find themselves in a difficult position in places like Baghdad, where the need for proper papers and wariness of the authorities make it difficult to register with the Ministry of Migration and Displacement and receive the monthly stipend of $240 provided by the government. They are also unable to receive benefits ranging from pensions to health care to other social protection programs. Although the new government in Iraq heralds a more inclusive approach, it takes time for change to percolate down to the working level―especially in times as tense as these.

According to the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Al-Mutlaq, Iraq is in need of some $5 billion to address the needs of its IDP population. In the meantime, the U.N. estimates that with large cities like Mosul and many smaller towns in danger of being engulfed in the fighting as the Iraqis try to regain lost ground, the number of IDPs may well exceed 3 million in the near future. Further refugees from Syria are also possible.

In February 2015 the World Bank released a report titled “Kurdish Regional Government (KRG): Economic and Social Impact Assessment of the Syrian Conflict and ISIS Insurgency,” which broadly outlines the challenges faced by refugees, IDPs, and the host communities and government. It is worth noting that the crisis hit the KRG at a time of a fiscal crisis, with a 90 percent drop in fiscal transfers from the central government in Baghdad. The report focuses on the immediate impact of the crisis on KRG’s fiscal situation and the economy, and on stabilization costs, i.e., the additional spending needed to restore the well-being of KRG residents. All of the following statistics are taken from this World Bank report.

That stabilization cost is estimated to be about $1.4 billion (5.6 percent of KRG’s non-oil GDP), and this falls within the range of major disasters worldwide. In the meantime, the economy of the KRI contracted by 5 percent in 2014 while the poverty rate more than doubled, from 3.5 percent to 8.1 percent. A rough estimate of funds required to bring poverty in the KRI down to pre-crisis levels is between $66.5 million to $107.8 million for 2015.

The costs of stabilizing the impact on human development are estimated at $846 million (3.5 percent of GDP) in 2015. Adequate shelter needs to be provided immediately to over 243,000 vulnerable IDPs. The government has built 26 IDP camps across the three governorates of the KRI with a combined capacity for 223,790 IDPs―leaving three-quarters still needing adequate shelter. The KRG has committed to funding three of these camps. The international community is expected to fund 20 camps with three camps remaining unfunded. It is estimated that the health sector will need an additional $317 million to stabilize the situation. There are 325,000 children under 18 among the refugees and the IDPs and 70 percent of IDP and 48 percent of refugee children are not enrolled in school. At a minimum, there is a need for $34 million for the refugees and $161.5 million for the IDPs to stabilize the education sector.

The regional conflict also increased the stress on the KRI’s infrastructure, which was already facing challenges before the crisis. On the energy front, the fighting obliged the KRG to source from refineries much further south, leading to significant increases in fuel prices with a predictable impact on costs across the economy. The demand for electricity increased in all governorates of the KRI. Furthermore, the additional demand for water for refugees and IDPs is estimated at 11 percent over pre-crisis levels. Sanitation is a major concern with existing gaps now widening―the cost of sectoral stabilization is around $214.3 million for 2015. Needless to say, there are serious environmental impacts that will need to be mitigated as well.

This is a significant burden on the KRG and gives an indication of the challenges facing Iraq―especially at a time of some donor fatigue. Yet, the donor community needs to find innovative means of providing support at this critical juncture in Iraq’s history. The World Bank, for example, was able to provide funding for local communities in Jordan to help with the Syrian refugees there. Similar programs that focus on building local resilience are needed from the donor community as a whole. Investing in Iraq now and ensuring a relatively smooth landing for these populations is in the interests of the region and the world. That is one clear lesson of the Palestinian refugees 70 years later.