Regional Dimensions to the Iraqi Displacement Crisis and the Role of the United Nations

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

October 25, 2007

I have been asked to talk this evening about the regional and international impact of Iraqi displacement.

Iraqis in the Middle East

Let’s start with numbers. The best estimates today are that there are some 2.25 million internally displaced Iraqis and over 1.5 million Iraqis in Syria, 500-750,000 in Jordan, 150,000 in Egypt, 55,000 in Iran, 40,000 in Lebanon, 10,000 in Turkey and 200,000 in the Gulf (including Saudi Arabia.) With the exception of a few hundred Iraqi Palestinians, none of these refugees live in camps. This is an urban refugee situation – just as inside Iraq, it is an urban IDP situation. In fact, this is the largest urban refugee situation in the world. While there are many positive aspects to the Iraqi dispersal among the host country’s population rather than concentrated in camps, one of the clear consequences of the urban nature of the displacement is that it is less visible. It is harder to get a handle on the conditions facing urban IDPs and refugees and even on their numbers. It is more difficult to organize humanitarian assistance to people who are often ‘in hiding.’ I find it shocking that there has been so little media attention to Iraqi displacement and that it has been so invisible in the current political debates about the ‘surge.’

But behind the numbers and the politics are the people: Iraqis who have fled their homes and their communities because of fear – fear of sectarian violence, fear of coalition forces, fear of bandits and kidnappers. Many leave because they have been targeted by sectarian militias or because of explicit threats to their lives or their families. Some leave because they cannot get medical care inside Iraq or because their children cannot go to schools or because their businesses are no longer sustainable. They take what they can with them, but most of their belongings remain in Iraq – their homes and photographs, their furniture and books, their computers and televisions. Surveys indicate that most would like to return to their homes, but also that they don’t think that this is likely in the foreseeable future.

The regional dimension

In the region, only Iran, Egypt and Yemen are signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention which means that Iraqis in most neighboring states are not considered refugees with the rights and responsibilities entailed by this status. Host governments are concerned about the economic impact of a sudden increase in population, about the strain on their public services, and about social stability. They are also worried about the possible spillover of the Iraqi conflicts and the possibility that a long-term presence of the refugees could exacerbate social problems. Regional reactions to the Iraqi refugees are also deeply conditioned by the region’s experience with Palestinian refugees over the past 59 years. It is noteworthy that throughout the current emergency, neither Jordan nor Syria facilitated the movement of Palestinian Iraqis – a terribly vulnerable group – into their countries; rather they were confined to small camps in the virtual ‘no-man’s land’ between borders. The memory of Palestinian refugee camps in Arab consciousness is undoubtedly a factor in the urban settlement pattern of Iraqi refugees in Jordan and Syria. Urban refugees – like urban IDPs – are less visible than those living in camps.

Today, Iraq’s neighbors have largely closed the borders to Iraqis. With a few exceptions for skilled professionals and business people, Iraqis are not able to leave the violence in their country.

Most of the refugees are living in Jordan and Syria. In both countries, there are reports of rising prices for basic necessities and of over-stretched public services. Although governments of both countries allow Iraqis to attend public school, the percentage of Iraqi children who actually do so is less than 30% – a fact that UNHCR and UNICEF are trying to address. In both countries, there is growing popular resentment of the presence of the Iraqis and reports of exploitation of Iraqi labor and of increasing prostitution by desperate Iraqi women. There are also reports that in both Jordan and Syria, Iraqi refugees are growing resentful of the host states for not doing more.

Unlike refugees in other parts of the world, the Iraqis who came to Syria and especially to Jordan did not arrive penniless. Particularly in the initial months following the US-led invasion, the wealthy left early, buying up apartments and real estate. As the demographics of the refugee flow changed and increasing numbers of poorer people began to arrive – and as the savings of those arriving earlier dissipated—there was increasing stress on public services in both countries. In Jordan especially, there are concerns about the strain the Iraqis place on already limited water supplies.

At present, humanitarian assistance for Iraqis in Jordan and Syria is increasing and the humanitarian community is gearing up to try to meet the basic needs of the Iraqis and to decrease the strain on the Jordanian and Syrian governments. But funding has been inadequate for multilateral efforts and especially for bilateral support to Jordan and even more especially for Syria. It is in the international community’s interest to ensure that the Iraqi refugees receive adequate assistance.

Although there are many similarities between the pressures on Jordan and Syria, there are also some important differences. Let me turn briefly to some of the political dynamics which are apparent in both countries.


First of all, Jordan is by far the largest host to Palestinian refugees. In fact, Palestinian refugees and descendants of refugees make up some 70% of Jordan’s population. If the present estimates of the number of Iraqis living in Jordan (500-750,000) are true, this translates into an additional 10% of the Jordanian population. In addition to the economic and social pressure on Jordan of responding to this additional population, there are security concerns, particularly fears of Islamic militancy, especially of al-Quaeda affiliated groups coming out of Iraq. Jordan, a largely Sunni nation, is concerned about Iran’s support for Shi’a militants and more generally about the impact of Iraqi Shi’a refugees on its own sectarian situation. About 25% of the Iraqi refugees entering Jordan are Shi’a and there are reports that Iraqis arriving at Jordan’s airport or border are asked about their sectarian identity. The Jordanian government imposed stricter regulations two years ago and in January 2007 largely closed its border with Iraq, allowing only a small number of Iraqis to enter. One of the difficulties with the visa regime is that Sunnis don’t want to go to the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad for fear of being kidnapped or killed by Shia death squads who control the roads leading to the embassy.[1] The Jordanian government has made it clear that it will never allow Jordan to become a staging ground for initiating problems within Iraq.


Syria has long prided itself on its commitment to Arab unity and solidarity, as manifest in its welcome of nearly 200,000 Lebanese fleeing the Israeli attacks in the summer of 2006. Syria’s generous response to the Iraqi refugees may stem from its commitment to Arab unity, but undoubtedly has political underpinnings as well. Because of Syria’s ubiquitous internal security apparatus, Syria is probably better able to control the movement of Iraqis within the country than in other neighboring states. The Syrians are also well-equipped to monitor and control any sort of political or sectarian-oriented opposition.

The Syrian public’s resentment toward the Iraqi population seems to be growing. The subsidized Syrian economy is buckling under the pressure of as many as 1.5 million additional people and many are worried that the country’s infrastructure will not be able to sustain the government’s generosity for much longer. Moreover, Damascus fears that Iraqis will bring sectarian rivalries and even sectarian violence with them into Syria. Citizens don’t want to be drawn into these battles. As of July 2007, Shi’a make up about 24% of the Iraqi refugees in Syria, Christians constitute another 20% and Sunnis are the largest group, about 50%. Although many Iraqi refugees are trying to distance themselves from overtly sectarian groups, there is concern that without sufficient humanitarian assistance, Iraqis may feel that they have few alternatives to recruitment by the militias.

When host governments are concerned about security threats associated with refugees, they tend to respond by deporting the refugees. This is now happening in Jordan and Lebanon. Unfortunately, deporting refugees back to Iraq is likely to increase the number of IDPs as many are afraid to return to their homes. If the war continues for years and the displacement of Iraqis becomes protracted, it is likely that the presence of the Iraqi diaspora will have political consequences for many years. There may come a time when governments in the region begin large-scale forced deportations of Iraqis back to Iraq, even if the war continues.

The role of the United Nations

The terrible security situation in Iraq has made it nearly impossible for international aid organizations to conduct their work. All UN agencies and most international NGOs moved their international staff out of Iraq after the 2003 bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad. UNHCR’s Iraqi support unit and IOM’s Iraq program are run from Amman and carried out by staff and partners inside Iraq. This model of ‘remote management’ is probably the only way that they are able to operate, but it does present particular challenges, especially in monitoring operations. UNAMI brings together the different UN agencies working in Iraq from Amman in a number of ‘clusters.’ Cluster F is responsible for refugees and IDPs and serves an important coordination function. In addition to its staff in Amman, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has one international staff member in Baghdad – whose movement is restricted — and a small office in the northern city of Erbil.

In August 2007, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution to expand the mandate of UN operations in Iraq.

In addition to the difficult security situation in Iraq which confronts all humanitarian actors, the UN faces at least three specific difficulties in playing a leadership role in the country.

  1. While the UN is seen in many parts of the world as an idealistic, neutral organization, it has a different reputation in Iraq. The long years of UN sanctions which reportedly resulted in widespread civilian casualties were tremendously unpopular among Iraqis. The widespread corruption in the UN’s Oil for Food program was well-known in Iraq and there was a perception that UN officials were enriching themselves with Iraqi resources. Finally, the weapons inspections were perceived as a humiliating exercise for Iraq. In other words, even in the best of circumstances the UN would face an uphill battle in re-establishing its credibility among the Iraqi public. And these are far from the best of circumstances.
  1. The UN is further hampered by the legacy of the August 2003 bombing of its headquarters in Iraq and the death of its well-respected UN official, Sergio Viera de Melo along with 21 UN staff. Not only did the UN immediately withdraw its personnel from Iraq, but it instituted wide-ranging changes in its internal security system which limits its ability to travel to dangerous areas. (In fact, some argue that the greatest impediment to UN access to humanitarian situations is its own internal security guidelines.) Moreover, the UN Staff Association has come out strongly against deployment of UN personnel to Iraq in light of the security threats.
  1. Of particular concern in the UN resolution, , the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) is asked to “promote, support, and facilitate, in coordination with the Government of Iraq: the coordination and delivery of humanitarian assistance and the safe, orderly, and voluntary return, as appropriate of refugees and displaced persons.”[2] Security for humanitarian work may well be the Achilles heel of UN efforts to play a more active role in Iraq. When UN staff arrive in communities accompanied by US or MNF-I forces, their neutrality is immediately compromised. It is in US interests that UN agencies operate independently and that they are perceived as independent actors. If the US sees the UN as its agent or ally, the UN will not be able to act effectively. The US needs to give the UN its humanitarian space and to distance itself from UN operations.

In addition to these particular challenges, the UN will have to overcome the same kinds of difficulties it does in other situations in which it is tasked with delivering humanitarian assistance and in eventually coordinating the return of refugees and IDPs. In order for the UN to surmount these difficulties and regain its lost credibility, it will have to perform well and to deliver assistance quickly and effectively. But the reality is that its ability to do so is dependent on factors largely outside its control. For example, while the return of refugees and IDPs will be an important factor in Iraq’s eventual recovery, this will depend more on the security situation inside the country than on UN programs to support return.

I hope that I am wrong, but my sense is that the effects of Iraq’s displacement will have an impact for decades on Iraq, the Middle East, the United Nations and the world – in ways that are difficult to imagine now.


[2] UN Security Council Resolution 1770, 10 August 2007.