Security, Displacement and Iraq: A Deadly Combination

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

August 27, 2007

Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, millions of Iraqis have been forced to flee their homes. They have fled from coalition military operations, widespread sectarian violence, and fear. Today there are around 2 million Iraqis displaced inside their country and another 2 million displaced beyond the national borders, the bulk of them in Syria and Jordan. As the security situation continues to deteriorate inside Iraq, human displacement escalates to levels unparalleled in the region since the Palestinian displacement nearly sixty years ago.

Humanitarian assistance to Iraqis has become one of the largest and most complex humanitarian operations in the world. The international aid community has tried to draw international attention to the often-desperate plight of the war’s victims and to mobilize international assistance to respond to their needs. But their discussions are largely outside the attention span of those writing from the perspective of national security who, when they have paid attention at all to Iraq’s displaced, have tended to talk in terms of the need to “contain” the spillover of Iraq’s problems in the region and to prevent the de-stabilization of the region by the presence of refugees. The two communities are largely speaking past one another and rarely engage each other in discussing the links between security and humanitarian issues. Nowhere in the world are these linkages more important than in the present humanitarian crisis in Iraq.

This study examines the relationship between security and displacement in Iraq by first exploring implications of the large-scale displacement on Iraq’s domestic security. It then considers the impact of the external displacement on the security of two of Iraq’s neighbors: Jordan and Syria. For Iraq, national security is compromised by both refugee flows and internal displacement. The exodus of Iraq’s professionals has led to severe brain drain, hitting the health, education, and government sectors particularly hard. This will have serious implications for Iraq’s ability to rebuild the country when the violence decreases. Internal displacement is resulting in ethnic and sectarian homogenization of the country, and displaced communities are increasingly vulnerable to violence, kidnappings, and control by militias. Displacement is both a consequence and a cause of sectarian polarization in the country. Jordan and Syria now face internal security threats related to the immense economic burden of hosting the Iraqi populations, new sectarian demographics, tension among host and refugee populations as well as across sectarian divides, the potential of increased regime opposition, and the possibility that refugees will be recruited into armed militias if humanitarian assistance isn’t sufficient to meet their needs.

At the regional level, there are now multiple and overlapping displacements in the Middle East, and the Iraq emergency must be examined within this context. The long-standing Palestinian refugee crisis impacts the behavior of refugees and host states alike. There are also potential impacts on the Sunni-Shi’a relationship and, in the case that neighboring states become destabilized, the balance of power throughout the region.

The study concludes with a discussion of the implications of this impact for US foreign policy. Specific recommendations for the US government include the following:

  • Put humanitarian issues on the US agenda for Iraq
  • Play a leadership role in mobilizing more humanitarian assistance for Iraq’s war-affected civilian population, internally displaced persons and Iraqi refugees living in neighboring countries
  • Appoint a Humanitarian Czar for Iraq
  • Make protection a priority
  • Work with the UN
  • Plan for the long-term
  • Engage with Syria

The paper argues that humanitarian assistance to Iraqi internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees is in the interest of security – as well as a compassionate response to people who have lost almost everything.