Prepare for the Iraqi Humanitarian Crisis: Open Letter to U.S. Presidential Candidates

Elizabeth Ferris
Elizabeth Ferris
Elizabeth Ferris Former Brookings Expert, Research Professor, Institute for the Study of International Migration - Georgetown University

February 29, 2008

Dear candidates,

One of you will be faced with the challenge of dealing with the humanitarian catastrophe in Iraq. Even in the best of cases—security improves, coalition forces are drawn down, Iraqi military capacity is strengthened—there will still be almost five million Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) who will need your help to find solutions. If they don’t find solutions—if they remain homeless, jobless, destitute, and vulnerable to abuse and exploitation—the ramifications will be widespread—for Iraq and for the region. And if the conflict takes a turn for the worse—which could happen if the al-Sadr ceasefire is revoked, or the Sunni awakening subsides or the Concerned Local Citizens turn into independent militias—the humanitarian crisis could deteriorate dramatically. If this should happen, the political and security situation will inevitably worsen.

According to the latest information, there are at least 2 million Iraqis living outside their country, mostly in Syria and Jordan. They have fled violence, especially sectarian violence, to seek safety elsewhere. In spite of the rhetoric of solidarity, no government in the region wants them. Borders have been virtually closed to Iraqis, they are not permitted to work, and as their savings are depleted, their economic desperation is increasing. An additional 2.5 million Iraqis have been displaced by violence but remain within the country. These internally displaced persons (IDPs) are even more vulnerable than the refugees and they too are finding that the internal borders of most governorates are closed to them.

I humbly suggest that…

As a candidate, you speak out forcefully and knowledgeably about the Iraqi humanitarian situation and that you propose concrete ways of addressing this crisis. As President, you should make it clear that the US has a responsibility to the victims of this war. The world is looking to the US for leadership—not only to resolve the conflict in Iraq but also for leadership, courage and accountability—to respond to the victims of this US-initiated war. You should state that your plans for Iraq will place a priority on responding to the humanitarian needs of Iraqis. And you should carry through on this commitment. The sections below provide some specific suggestions of directions you could take. Frankly, while I hope that you will adopt these recommendations wholesale, at the least, I hope that you will think about the issues, and perhaps be inspired to take different steps to address the underlying humanitarian and security problems.

Why? Addressing the humanitarian crisis is the right thing to do. It will help re-establish US moral standing in the international community. It will take a step toward repairing the damaged US reputation in the Muslim world. It will indicate a change from the previous administration—a change which will potentially benefit millions of people. Without presidential leadership at this critical juncture, the likely consequences for your Iraq policy and for Middle East peace and stability are dire.

Some suggestions of what should be done, what could be done

On an organizational level:

Make it clear that humanitarian response to Iraqi civilians is a priority for your administration.

  • Strengthen and broaden inter-agency collaboration in responding to humanitarian needs. Appoint an Iraq humanitarian czar (IHC) with direct access to the President who can bring together the relevant departments and agencies within the government. This must be someone with both personal credibility and the solid backing of the President him/herself who can make things happen. We need someone who can tell the State Department, the Department for Homeland Security and the Defense Department: “the President wants to ensure that Iraqi IDPs receive adequate food rations or resettle 20,000 refugees this year. Make this happen.” This Iraq humanitarian czar (IHC) must work exclusively on responding to Iraqi humanitarian needs, must have the support needed to carry out his/her coordinating function and must be expected to work multilaterally to the extent possible.

Why another czar? Experience has shown that the US government is capable of rapidly and competently responding to emergency situations when there is clear presidential leadership and commitment. By having an IHC with direct access to the president and with adequate support, this individual will be more able to cut through bureaucratic impediments and territorial feuds that delay action.

Why work multilaterally? The US can’t go it alone in responding to the humanitarian needs of 5 million Iraqis, much less in developing long-term programs. By reaching out to international organizations and to allies in the West and in the Middle East, a much more comprehensive approach can be developed with a better chance of success. There is a feeling in Europe that ‘the US got into this mess in spite of our opposition, let the US fix it.’ By bringing in European partners, by working with Middle East countries which have an obvious interest in resolving the refugee problem, and by using the capacity of the UN and other international organizations, more resources can be mobilized. But there’s another reason to work in concert with others. Right now, efforts by the US to provide humanitarian assistance are seen as (and often are) in support of its military efforts. By working with the multilateral community, there is a chance to de-politicize and de-militarize humanitarian work which will make it more likely to succeed. Although the US will not have the visibility it normally expects in its assistance programs, this is in the long-term interests of the US.

  • Develop, through a consultative process, humanitarian benchmarks for progress in Iraq and establish an independent monitoring mechanism to assess these benchmarks on a quarterly basis. These benchmarks should be specific and measurable. They could build on some of the baseline data already collected by international organizations—e.g. number of refugee and IDP returns and their access to clean water or number of Iraqi children in school in Jordan—and could suggest specific ways of collecting additional data. The consultative process should include not only US departments and agencies and Iraqi ministries, but also the relevant international organizations and non-governmental organizations –all of whom have a role to play in meeting the benchmarks. The independent monitoring mechanism could consist of the UN agencies and IOM who presently form the so-called “cluster F” working group coordinated by the UN Mission in Iraq (UNAMI).

Why? So we can be certain of progress, redirect programs to meet unmet needs, and identify new challenges. By having an independent monitoring mechanism, this process will have more credibility than assessments made by the US government alone. By having a forum to share information and agree on results, some of the present confusion—with different organizations using different measures and drawing different conclusions—will be avoided.

On the substantive level:

1. Increase protection of refugees in neighboring countries

  • Publicly recognize US responsibility in creating the displacement and acknowledge the immense impact this has had on neighboring countries.
  • Increase assistance through multilateral channels to Jordan and Syria. The IHC should meet with both governments in his/her first week on the job.
  • Encourage governments in the region to allow the refugees to remain and to be treated with full respect for their human rights. Talk to the governments of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt. Listen to their concerns, elicit their suggestions, express appreciation for what they have done so far and encourage them to continue or initiate more humane treatment of the Iraqis already in the country. The US and Syria disagree on many important issues but this is an area where US and Syrian issues are actually aligned. In fact, Syria may want a quick and peaceful resolution to the refugee problem even more than the US.
  • Implement a robust US resettlement program as both an expression of US commitment to the humanitarian burden and as a way of protecting the most vulnerable Iraqi refugees. Ensure that resettlement processing is carried out rapidly. The longer the delays in refugees moving out of Syria and Jordan, the greater the impatience and the more likely the governments will begin encouraging/forcing people to return to Iraq.
  • Encourage other countries in the region to offer resettlement places to Iraqis. The IHC should mount a diplomatic initiative in the region in his or her second week on the job, not only to urge countries to take more Iraqi refugees, but to listen to their concerns and elicit their suggestions.
  • Encourage European allies to send the same messages to Middle Eastern countries, to allow Iraqi asylum-seekers to remain in their countries, to increase support to multilateral institutions and to give bilateral support to Jordan and Syria.
  • Don’t encourage large-scale return of refugees until security is established and mechanisms are in place to adequately deal with their return.

Why? In the best-case scenario, conditions in Iraq will improve, but it will take time before conditions are safe and stable enough for the refugees to return on a large scale. If they are forced to return too soon—because they are desperate and destitute in exile—they could overwhelm fragile Iraqi capacity. In the worst-case scenario, the conflict inside Iraq will escalate, the Iraqi government/military will not be able to provide security, and the refugees will not try to return. If they do not have adequate support to survive in Jordan and Syria, it will not only be a humanitarian tragedy, but a serious security risk. They will be more likely to turn to criminal/insurgent activity, to support the activities of Al Qaeda or the men may return to Iraq to join militias so they can send money to their families in Syria and Jordan. And the possibility of the Iraqi refugee situation developing into a long-term Palestinian-like diaspora is of obvious concern to everyone.

2. Increase protection and assistance to Iraqi internally displaced persons

  • Strongly encourage the Iraqi authorities to:
    • Recognize the scale and severity of the problem,
    • Beef up the capacity of the relevant Iraqi ministries, especially the Ministry of Migration and the Ministry of Human Rights, ensuring that there is a clear focal point for IDPs
    • Adopt a comprehensive policy on IDPs which incorporates the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and international law,
    • Dramatically increase the resources available to IDPs and to the communities which host them,
    • Make needed changes to the Public Distribution System to ensure that displaced persons are able to access food rations,
    • Ensure the voting rights of those displaced,
    • Ensure that all ministries are adequately trained on displacement-related issues (e.g. the Ministry of Education needs to ensure that displaced children can enroll in school even when they do not have the proper documentation from their previous schools)

    Why? In addition to the obvious humanitarian needs of these 2.5 million people, there is a security dimension. As it is ultimately the responsibility of the Iraqi government to protect and assist its citizens, including those displaced, Iraqi participation and buy-in of the process must be a priority. It simply doesn’t work for the international community to assume these functions over the long haul. While there is no evidence so far that Iraqi IDPs have been particularly susceptible to militia recruitment, this could change if they have no other sources of income and/or experience violence at the hands of armed groups.

    3. Deal with the ticking time bomb of property issues

    The question of property will be a huge issue in Iraq—as in most displacement situations. According to IOM and UNHCR, about 25% of Iraq’s IDPs cite a main reason for their displacement as “forced displacement from property.”[1]Although over half of Iraq’s IDPs said they didn’t know the status of their property left behind, about 17% indicated it had been destroyed and about 34% said that it was being occupied by others.[2]

    If these results are typical, the issue of property rights is a ticking time bomb. Even in the best case scenario—that the refugees and IDPs are able to return home in security and dignity—it is likely that property restitution and compensation will be on the agenda for decades. In fact, if less than half of the refuges and IDPs return home—say 2 million—and a third of those find their lands destroyed or occupied by others—that is a potential caseload of over 650,000 property claims.

    Let me put this in perspective. In 2004, the Iraqi government established a mechanism for violations of property rights during the Saddam Hussein regime. As of April 2006, 132,000 property claims had been filed and 22,000 resolved.[3] Many more claims could be filed. According to IOM’s Peter van der Auweraert, it will take 30 years just to address the appeals that have already been ruled on by the Judicial Committee.[4]

    The issue of conflicts over property and the need to set up mechanisms to resolve these conflicts will clearly be an enormous challenge to a future Iraqi government which will have many other priorities. As Brookings consultant, Rhodri Williams, has argued, there are measures which can be taken now to make future challenges over property less onerous.[5] But it seems that very few are paying attention to this task.

    What should be done?

    • Commission a study, with the participation of the relevant Iraqi ministries, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), UNHCR, UNAMI and both Iraqi and international professionals who have worked on property compensation/restitution processes to design a process which will be both fair and expeditious.
    • Use US leverage with the Iraqis to have this process adopted and adequately resourced

    Why a study? Issues of property compensation/restitution are incredibly complex. It is less time-consuming and expensive for these issues to be resolved by an administrative commission rather than through individual cases adjudicated by the legal system. But the mechanism itself should only be designed after careful review of the present Commission for the Resolution of Real Property Disputes CRRPD, Cassation Commission, the Iraqi legal system and other relevant experiences to avoid repeating the problems of the past. We simply don’t have the knowledge to propose a solution without serious study. But it should be done as soon as possible.

    4. Think seriously and creatively about livelihoods

    • Ask the World Bank, UNDP and USAID to jointly convene a meeting to come up with concrete ways of jump-starting employment for IDPs and eventually for returning refugees. This meeting should include representatives of related Iraqi ministries, international humanitarian organizations and the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization and should be tasked with developing specific ways of providing jobs for the next 2 years. The UN’s Early Recovery Cluster, if willing to devote serious energy to this, could also be challenged to participate.

    Why? Presently Iraqi IDPs indicate that one of their biggest problems is the lack of employment and income. Many, perhaps most of the Iraqi refugees in neighboring countries, have spent most of their savings. If—and when—they return, they will have to start from scratch. Presently unemployment in Iraq is very high. The return of even half of Iraq’s refugees and IDPs would severely tax the economic system, increasing social unrest. While Iraqi reconstruction funds should be able to remedy this situation in the long term, solutions are needed now for IDPs and could be needed at very short notice if spontaneous or forced returns take place.

    5. Plan for returns

    • Ask the strengthened and broadened interagency process (described above), to set up a working group to develop a list of requirements for large-scale refugee returns from Syria and Jordan. These requirements should obviously include security, but also spell out the returnee needs for assistance in the short and medium-term and should begin to address the property issue. Based on these requirements, assign responsibilities to international and US organizations for responding to these needs and ask each of those organizations to develop detailed plans which can be implemented as conditions warrant or as spontaneous returns begin. Task the IHC with ensuring appropriate Iraqi ministry representation in these meetings.
    • This working group should also be tasked with considering the relationships between: a) IDP and refugee returns, and b) returns and communities of origin. Plans should be made to ensure that assistance to returnees does not inadvertently contribute to resentment and conflict.
    • On the political level, the IHC and the president should affirm that returns should not be encouraged until security is established in Iraq and should use their persuasive powers to prevent forcible returns. The IHC should work particularly closely with UNHCR in this regard.

    Why? It is likely that pressure will increase in host countries for the refugees to return. The international community needs to be prepared for this and to be ready to respond immediately in the event of large-scale returns. However, it is also likely that returns will occur over the next few years in a ‘trickle’ rather than a ‘flood,’ which will provide an opportunity to test and refine the plans.

    6. Plan for other contingencies

    Ask the IHC to develop an interagency process for contingency planning for worst-case scenarios. Hopefully these will never need to be used, but if they are necessary, there won’t be time for adequate planning when they are needed. These contingencies could include: 

    • a terrorist attack in Amman or Damascus which is blamed on Iraqi refugees, leading to immediate forced returns of Iraqi refugees
    • the Kirkuk referendum is held with a Kurdish victory and there is widespread violence; alternatively, the referendum is postponed and there is widespread violence
    • the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) launches further attacks on Turkey and Turkey responds with a large-scale invasion of Northern Iraq
    • increased Shi’a on Shi’a violence as a result of provincial elections or a proposed referendum on region formation
    • escalating sectarian violence within Iraq leads to all-out civil war, with hundreds of thousands of would-be refugees fleeing towards the borders

    Why? Because we have learned in Iraq that inadequate planning can have catastrophic results. And we have also learned that unexpected developments should be expected.

    [1] IOM, Governorate Profiles: Anbar, Baghdad, and Dyala, December 2007, p. 4.

    [2] Ibid., p. 13.

    [3] Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, “Iraq—A Displacement Crisis: A Profile of the Internal Displacement Situation,” 30 March, 2007.$file/Iraq+-March+2007.pdf

    [4] Peter Van der Auweraert, “Property Restitution in Iraq,” Presentation at the Symposium on Post-Conflict Restitution, Hosted by Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM). Arlington, VA, 6-7 September 2007.

    [5] Rhodri C. Williams, “Applying the Lessons of Bosnia in Iraq: Whatever the Solution, Property Rights Should be Secured.” Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement, 8 January 2008.

  • Increase financial support for non-governmental organizations providing support to Iraqi IDPs and review the requirements for these grants to allow the necessary flexibility in responding to their needs.
  • Recognize that the most effective way of delivering assistance is through organizations which do not have a direct link to the coalition forces and support the efforts of multilateral organizations, such as ICRC, IOM, OCHA and UNHCR to become more active in Iraq
  • Support the development of an Iraqi ‘humanitarian security’ unit within the Iraqi military which is trained in international humanitarian and human rights law to provide security to humanitarian workers and support a ‘humanitarian oversight working group’ to monitor its impartiality and effectiveness
  • Support meetings in Amman of Iraqi Ministry officials, NGOs and UN agencies to come up with more creative and sustainable ways of meeting the immediate shelter needs of Iraqi IDPs
  • Provide training at the governorate and municipal levels for authorities working with IDPs (and eventually returnees)
  • Increase training of Iraqi police on human rights and displacement issues