Protracted Refugee Situations: An Iraq Case Study

On April 20, 2011, Roberta Cohen addressed American University’s Washington College of Law on the topic of protracted refugee situations. The beginning of her speech follows, and the full speech is available for PDF download.

In looking at protracted refugee situations, my focus will be on Iraq from where some 2 million refugees fled for Jordan, Syria and other Middle Eastern countries beginning in 2006. My main purpose, however, will be to explore the options open to refugees in order to see whether the Iraq situation or ones similar to it can be addressed and prevented from becoming long lasting.

The exodus from Iraq was the largest one in the Middle East, larger even than the original Palestinian exodus. But unlike most Palestinians, the Iraqis are able to reside in urban areas, not camps. However, they have no legal rights in neighboring Arab states and it is now five years since they fled to Jordan and Syria. What are their prospects?

To begin with, let’s examine the cause of their exodus because the reasons often influence whether returns are possible or desirable. Some 2 million fled Iraq in 2006 and 2007 because of intense sectarian violence following the U.S. invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Under Hussein, the Sunnis had been in a dominant position whereas thereafter the majority Shia came into ascendance. The inability of the two groups to work out power sharing peacefully, combined with the absence of an effective government, resulted in violence and forced displacement.

Shia and Sunni militias, sparked by the bombing of a major Shia shrine, systematically and purposefully began to persecute, kill and expel members of the opposite group from their home areas in Baghdad and other cities. And the brutality used – beheading of people for example — was intended to ensure that those expelled would not seek to return to their home areas. And to date it has succeeded. Most of those who fled to Jordan and Syria do not want to return to their original homes, according to the United Nations. And of those who have returned, many prefer to stay in areas where they are in the majority rather than return to their original homes. This pattern may be similar to what happened in Bosnia and Herzegovina after the ethnic cleansing. Although substantial numbers did eventually return, at least a million did not, and most of those who did return did not go back to their homes of origin but to areas where their ethnic group was in the majority. The point being that persons deliberately targeted on ethnic and religious grounds have a different experience from those trapped in generalized violence and for that reason may be more wary about returning to or wanting to return to their original homes.