Status of Internal Displacement in Iraq

Roberta Cohen
Roberta Cohen Former Brookings Expert, Co-Chair Emeritus - Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

May 21, 2004

With an estimated one million existing Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) across Iraq and many new IDPs created by the recent upsurge in fighting in the central city of Fallujah, meeting the basic needs of this vulnerable group is becoming more urgent.

This massive problem is largely the result of 30 years of state policies of expulsion of groups considered “disloyal” to successive Iraqi regimes, most notably that of Saddam Hussein.

According to the US-based Brookings Institution, which has carried out extensive research on the topic, carefully planned national policies, programmes and institutions will be needed to respond to the humanitarian, reintegration and development needs of the displaced.

In excerpts from an interview with IRIN, Roberta Cohen, Co-Director of the Brookings School of Advance International Studies (SAIS) Project on Internal Displacement, asserted that although some progress had been made, urgent attention was required to ensure that IDP needs were met.

QUESTION: A report published in 2002 by the Brookings Institution said that the removal of Saddam’s regime would not result in the immediate resolution of the problems of IDPs. What is the current situation? Have you noticed any improvement?

ANSWER: To date, the displacement problem has not yet received the attention or priority it deserves. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) has largely been preoccupied with the political and security crises in the country. No stable, well functioning government yet exists while the growing insecurity and insurgency has undermined efforts to address the problem. Needed assessments of IDP conditions as well as assistance programmes and the management of returns and reconstruction programmes have all been slowed down because of the insecurity in the country and the departure of most international UN and NGO staff.

Meanwhile, the spontaneous returns of IDPs, in particular in the Kirkuk area in the north, have led to the displacement and expulsion of others. Fighting between Coalition forces and insurgent groups has also created new displacement.

At the same time, there are visible efforts to help the displaced. International organisations, through dedicated local staff and NGO partners on the ground, have been providing emergency aid to newly displaced IDPs as well as supporting programmes to help IDPs in more protracted situations with food distribution, shelter, health care, sanitation, water and education.

The UN’s Strategic Plan for Iraq, finalised in February 2004, has a sizeable section on IDPs, which UN agencies since April have begun to implement, albeit from offices in neighbouring countries. To this end, a Senior IDP Adviser has been assigned to the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), headquartered in Jordan.

At the national level, government ministries and commissions have been established, with support from the CPA and international agencies, but they are not yet fully or effectively operational. A Ministry of Displacement and Migration, for example, has been set up, and although not fully functional, has been developing a database of information on displaced populations and creating monitoring teams to track their conditions and movements.

An Iraq Property Claims Commission has also been set up, and although not yet functioning, is expected to deal with the many thorny claims to land and property that have arisen from years of forced displacement. In the north, even before the 2003 war, the PUK [one of the two Kurdish governing parties] set up a Ministry of Human Rights and IDPs while the KDP [the other governing party] established a high committee for IDPs.

In addition, some reconstruction in the north has begun, which has been helping displaced Kurds find better shelter. In the south, at least 50 percent of the marshlands have been re-flooded, and donor governments, in particular the United States, have begun programmes to help restore the marshlands and create economic opportunities for marsh dwellers. These programmes have encouraged some tens of thousands of Marsh Arabs to return, although it is not yet clear whether the marshes will prove sustainable.

In sum, while there has been some movement in addressing the problems of IDPs, they are not yet extensive and the overall political and security situation has considerably slowed up planned efforts.

Q: Do you have recent statistics on how many IDPs are in the north, centre and south?

A: No precise statistics are available on the number of IDPs in the country. The World Refugee Survey 2004 estimates an overall IDP figure of 800,000 to 1,000,000. The Global IDP Survey of the Norwegian Refugee Council [NRC] similarly estimates 700,000 to 900,000 IDPs, with 600,000 to 800,000 IDPs in the north and up to 100,000 in the south/centre. The International Organization for Migration [IOM] reports a lower figure in the centre/south, up to 40,000 “registered” IDPs.

These totals, of course, can be expected to decrease as more IDPs return to their home areas. At the same time, new displacement has been occurring.

Q: Give us a brief overview of the current IDP situation.

A: Most of Iraq’s IDPs were forced out of their homes by the policies of successive Iraqi governments, which used expulsion as a weapon to punish and subdue recalcitrant populations such as the Kurds and Shiites, secure valuable land and oil-rich areas like Kirkuk and the southern marshes and stamp out political opposition.

In the north, Iraqi governments, in particular that of Saddam Hussein, responded to repeated Kurdish rebellions and demands for greater autonomy by forcibly uprooting hundreds of thousands, destroying some 4,000 villages, attacking more than 200 of these with chemical weapons and planting landmines over some 900 square kilometres.

It also introduced an “Arabisation campaign” by which it expelled several hundred thousand Kurds, Turkmen and Assyrians from the fertile and oil-rich area of Kirkuk and brought in Arab families from the centre/south to take over their lands, homes and jobs.

In the centre/south, the Iraqi government expelled from their homes thousands of Shi’ites considered opponents of the regime. In addition, its forces deliberately destroyed the habitat of the Marsh Arabs along the lower Tigris and Euphrates rivers in an effort to eliminate a population outside the regime’s control and a sanctuary for armed Shi’ite opposition. It coupled massive hydrological engineering projects to drain water from the marshes with the shelling and burning of marsh villages, the poisoning of fishing grounds and the assassination and abduction of local leaders. The destruction of the marshes also enabled the regime to better exploit the substantial oil reserves beneath.

Since the 2003 war, the “new” displacement in Iraq can be traced to several causes. First, Kurdish efforts to reverse the “ethnic cleansing” in and around Kirkuk and Mosul have led to the displacement of tens of thousands of Arabs. At the same time, thousands of returning Kurds, finding their homes and lands occupied by others, have become displaced in their home areas. Second, fighting between Coalition forces and insurgents in and around Fallujah in the centre has produced up to 100,000 IDPs. Third, tens of thousands of returning refugees from Iran and Saudi Arabia have become internally displaced in the centre/south.

In addition, discriminatory treatment, including expulsions, against several thousand Roma people in Baghdad has produced displacement. Fourth, recent floods in the south have uprooted people as well.

Q: What are the main humanitarian issues facing Iraqi IDPs today?

A: FOOD: Throughout the country, IDPs as well as most other Iraqis, still are dependent upon monthly food rations. Indeed, the UN Oil-for-Food Programme, which provided food rations to 16 million (out of 27 million) Iraqis, did not close down; rather it was transferred in November 2003 to the CPA and through it, to national and local authorities, which continue food distributions throughout the country. Supplementary feeding programs have been set up as well, in particular at schools to supplement the diets of children. While no food emergency exists, food dependency remains a problem for IDPs and other Iraqis, with malnutrition continuing to be reported in some areas.

SHELTER: Substantial numbers of IDPs in both the north and the centre/south are in need of adequate shelter. In the Kirkuk area in the north, tens of thousands of returning Kurds are staying with host families, while thousands more have been living in public buildings, including squatting in a sports stadium. Kurdish IDPs in “collective centres” also need improved shelter, as many of these are decaying. Moreover, newly displaced Arabs from Kirkuk, whether in the north or centre/south, require adequate shelter, as do tens of thousands of returning Shi’ites from Iran, many of whom have taken refuge in public buildings or former military barracks. At least 10,000 of the women and children who fled Fallujah are in camps outside Fallujah and in and around Baghdad.

MEDICAL ATTENTION: IDPs, like other Iraqis, continue to face shortages of medical supplies. During the 12 years of UN sanctions, medicines were in extremely short supply, and immediately after the 2003 war, massive looting stripped hospitals bare of the medicines and equipment they had, including ambulances. To remedy this situation, international organisations and NGOs have been bringing in medical supplies and equipment and working to restore electricity and infrastructure in hospitals and clinics, but there still remain serious shortages. Access to health care, as well as to clean water and sewage systems, also remains problematic for many families, especially those in public buildings and tents, and in the marshlands. In the centre/south, moreover, the lack of security in many cities has caused medical personnel to stay away from their places of work.

PROTECTION: In the Kirkuk area in the north, where ethnic tensions are high, Arabs and Turkmen need to be protected from arbitrary displacement and violence. Mines and unexploded ordnance are also a serious protection concern in the north. In the centre/south, IDP women heads of household face protection problems as do women and children fleeing Fallujah who have taken refuge in tents. More than 50,000 displaced persons in Baghdad, according to the NGO Premiere Urgence are reported to be in need of protection and security. In particular, several thousand Roma need protection from harassment and expulsion.

Q: Are you expecting conflicts between ethnic groups when IDPs return to their homes?

A: Such conflicts have already begun with the return of tens of thousands of Kurds to the Kirkuk area and the re-establishment of Kurdish control over the city. Thousands of Arabs (the Global IDP Survey reports up to 100,000) have fled or been forced out by Peshmerga, or by returning Kurds, and Turkmen and Arabs have staged protests against Kurdish actions. At the same time, the CPA has taken some steps to restrain Kurds from returning en masse prior to the functioning of property claims commissions. In addition, the Kurdish government of Kirkuk has added more Turkmen and Arabs to the city council and has begun to set up institutional mechanisms, with the help of the United Nations, to deal with land and property claims as well as compensation. However, since many [title] deeds, cadastres [land registers] and other documents were destroyed by the Iraqi government, solutions will not be easy. Kurdish authorities are under heavy pressure from their own people to right the wrongs done them and to retake lost property and land, while the government of Turkey has indicated its support for the interests of the Turkmen.

If the new government of Iraq fails to work out an equitable sharing of oil revenues, in particular from the Kirkuk and Mosul region (which now provides 40 percent of the country’s oil), conflict between Kurds and Shi’ites can also be expected.

Q: Who has the primary responsibility for IDPs?

A: With the handover of sovereignty on 30 June, primary responsibility for IDPs will rest with the national authorities. It will be up to the government to ensure that the Ministry of Displacement and Migration is properly staffed and resourced to carry out its responsibilities and that infrastructure is established throughout the country to address displacement problems. In particular, the Property Claims Commission will need to become fully staffed and functional with regional offices, backed up by a functioning court system.

Carrying out national responsibility for IDPs will also mean turning to the international community to supplement national efforts. United Nations agencies have long experience in addressing the needs of displaced populations, setting up claims commissions and courts to deal with property issues, and carrying out reconstruction and development projects in return areas.

Q: How do you evaluate assistance to IDPs from the international community?

A: During the years of UN-imposed sanctions, international humanitarian agencies, such as the World Food Programme and UNICEF, did provide food, medicines and other supplies to the civilian population, including IDPs, and undoubtedly saved many lives. However, our 2002 report found that although IDPs were one of the most vulnerable segments of the population, UN agencies did not target them sufficiently or advocate on their behalf.

In the north, tens of thousands of IDPs had no access to regular health care or decent shelter. Nor did the UN speak out when the Iraqi government expelled Kurds and Turkmen from Kirkuk. In the centre/south, it was reported that displaced persons experienced difficulties registering for food rations and that discrimination was practiced against recipients, based on ethnicity and political loyalty. Given these problems for IDPs, our report called upon UN officials to be more “outspoken” in demanding access to and protection of the displaced.

It further called upon the UN to designate a focal point for displaced persons to regularly assess the conditions of the displaced and advocate on their behalf. It also called for “an independent evaluation and audit” of the Oil-for Food programme, noting that despite the US $6 billion a year generated for humanitarian supplies, IDPs remained in dire conditions.

With the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime following the 2003 war, international agencies helped avert a humanitarian disaster, most notably mass starvation. By stockpiling food and other supplies inside the country, the World Food Programme (WFP) assured that there would be sufficient food available to Iraqis, including IDPs, during the war. Immediately after the war, even though conditions were far from safe inside, WFP and other agencies regularly trucked in food and supplies while the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), whose international staff remained on the ground during the war, ensured the continued running of hospitals and also helped to get the water system restored in Basra. At present, most, if not all, international humanitarian and development staff have been withdrawn from the country, following the bombing of UN headquarters in August 2003 and subsequent attacks against relief workers Nonetheless, many international agencies, in particular WFP, IOM, UNHCR and UNICEF, continue to provide aid by working though local staff and NGOs on the ground. The UN has also developed a Strategic Plan for Iraq, with a section on IDPs, but its full implementation is not possible, given the absence of many humanitarian and development staff from the country.

Q: Given the current situation, what do you think needs to be done immediately to address some of the IDP issues mentioned?

A: To begin with, security must be restored throughout the country. Neither return, resettlement, reconstruction nor development can take place without security and stability. A countrywide evaluation should be made of the numbers and needs of IDPs with priorities identified according to vulnerability and a national policy should be developed, in consultation with IDPs, to address the displacement problem.

The Ministry of Displacement and Migration should be provided with the staff, authority and resources to implement the policy throughout the country as should the Property Claims Commission which will need to resolve disputes and compensate displaced Iraqis for loss of land and property. The Ministry of Housing should be tasked with the rapid building of houses for the tens of thousands of persons in tents, warehouses and abandoned buildings throughout the country. For the Iraqi government to succeed in these efforts, international support will be essential, in particular resumed international staff presence on the ground in safe areas. The UN should also clarify its institutional arrangements for IDPs so as to assure a predictable, accountable and rational division of labour among agencies.

Q: What is the solution for Iraqi IDPs? Resettlement or let them go back home?

A: IDPs should enjoy the right to decide whether or not they want to return to their original villages, or resettle in another part of the country. Not all will want to return to their homes. For example, not all Marsh Arabs will wish to return to the marshlands; nor will all displaced Kurds want to return to their original villages. What is important is that their freedom of choice be respected and that reintegration and development assistance be provided whichever decision they make.