Preparing for the Iraqi Humanitarian Crisis

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

March 5, 2008

One of the presidential candidates 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 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, for the region, for America.

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, with serious political and security consequences.

Candidates should speak out forcefully and knowledgeably about the Iraqi humanitarian situation and propose concrete ways of addressing this crisis. Once elected, the new president 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 those who have suffered the consequences of this US-initiated war.

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 US policy toward Iraq and for Middle East peace and stability are grim.

But expressions of commitment are not enough. This commitment should be translated into concrete actions; there are many steps that can be immediately implemented. Specifically, inter-agency collaboration should be both strengthened and broadened to respond to humanitarian needs. An Iraq humanitarian czar (IHC) should be appointed who has direct access to the president and who can bring together the relevant departments and agencies within the government. This czar should 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.

Substantively, protection and assistance must be increased for the 2.2 million refugees living in neighboring countries. If refugees do not have adequate support to survive in Jordan and Syria, it will not only be a humanitarian tragedy, it will create a serious security risk. They will be more likely to turn to criminal/insurgent activity and to support the activities of Al Qaeda. Similarly protection and assistance needs to be increased for Iraq’s 2.5 million internally displaced persons and the Iraqi government must assume its responsibilities in this regard.

One way or another, the ticking time bomb of property disputes will have to be dealt with. Indications are that at least a third of the homes left behind by refugees and internally displaced people are now occupied by others. Resolving property disputes is incredibly time-consuming, expensive, and absolutely central to long-term peace and stability in the country. In fact, if less than half of the refugees 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.

Serious planning is needed for eventual returns of refugees and internally displaced persons. Pressure is increasing now in host countries for the refugees to go back to Iraq. But if they return on a large scale and too soon, they can be a de-stabilizing force. The temptation should be resisted to encourage displaced Iraqis to return until security is established in Iraq. Finally, a serious inter-agency planning process is needed for contingency planning for worst-case scenarios. We have learned in Iraq that inadequate planning can have catastrophic consequences. We have also learned that unexpected things happen.