The Situation in Camp Ashraf, Iraq

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

December 7, 2011

Editor’s note: The webcast of the full hearing is available here.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman and members of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittees on Oversight and Investigations and on the Middle East and South Asia, for the opportunity to speak with you today.

I would like to stress at the outset that I am speaking from my 25 years of experience in international humanitarian issues and my perspective as an independent academic researcher. Although I have followed developments in Camp Ashraf for a long time, I have never been to the camp and I have never (to the best of my knowledge) spoken with anyone affiliated with the MEK/PMOI. I do not have knowledge or expertise about whether the MEK/PMOI should be de-classified as a foreign terrorist organization.

In many ways, the situation of Camp Ashraf is unique. In my many years of experience, it is certainly one of the most complex situations I’ve seen. Feelings and passions run high on this issue. What I would like to do is to step back from some of the details of this particular situation and put this in a broader context. In particular, I would like to focus on the question of solutions.

Although the residents of Camp Ashraf have not been determined to be refugees (and they may or may not be so under the terms of the 1951 Refugee Convention), I understand that many of them have filed applications for refugee status. Moreover, some of the issues surfacing around the residents of Camp Ashraf have much in common with some of the difficult refugee or refugee-like situations we have seen in the past. First, refugee situations are always political and it is usually the case that the way refugees are treated by a host government is significantly influenced by relationships between the governments of the country of origin and the country of refuge.  There are often vastly different understandings of why people left their country. There have been many situations where refugee leaders have been seen as manipulating their followers and cases where camp residents do not have freedom of movement or of expression. It is usually difficult for even knowledgeable outsiders to fully understand the dynamics within a camp. (I think for example of the camps in then-Zaire where Rwandan refugees were controlled by the Interhamwe in ways that were not understood by humanitarian actors assisting them until much later.) Particularly after the experience of Rwanda, the UN has devoted considerable energy to emphasizing the importance of maintaining the civilian nature of refugee camps. There are also many cases where diaspora groups have been important actors in the way a crisis has played out (e.g. Sri Lanka). And when situations drag on for years, the dynamics can become more complex and the process of finding solutions often becomes even more difficult.

In other highly politicized situations, the process of finding solutions has been helped by: 

a) applying international standards and processes which have been developed over many years by the international community,
b) looking at the interests of the various stakeholders and finding solutions which respond to these interests, and
c) recognizing that in order to find solutions, compromises may be necessary.

For example, we look back on the Vietnamese refugee crisis of the 1970s and 1980s as having been resolved successfully, but at the time finding a solution required endless rounds of difficult diplomatic negotiations, political commitment at the highest levels, and a willingness to compromise. Even so, the process took years and the decisions were agonizing.

Respect international principles

The basic international principles and standards at play are: international humanitarian law, international human rights law, and refugee law. “Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person” (art. 3, Universal Declaration of Human Rights). It is the responsibility of states to ensure that people living within their borders are protected. People have a right not to be returned (or refouled) to another state or authority where their life or freedom would be threatened. Although Iraq is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 protocol to the Convention, non-refoulement has acquired the status of customary international law (as well as being affirmed in international human rights instruments), meaning that it is binding on all states, regardless of whether or not they are signatories to the 1951 Convention. Until a claim for refugee status is examined fairly, the principle of non-refoulement applies, and asylum-seekers are entitled not to be returned and to benefit from humane standards of treatment. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms the right of every individual to seek asylum in another country, but it is the responsibility of states to determine whether or not an individual is granted asylum.

Recognize the interests of the stakeholders

Resolving the situation of the 3,200 inhabitants of Camp Ashraf is in everyone’s interests.

It is in the interest of the camp residents to move to a place where they can be safe and accepted and resume normal lives. 

It is in the interest of the Iraqi government to close the camp, to find a solution in which the residents leave the country, and to assert control over its territory. It is also in the Iraqi government’s interests to have the situation resolved peacefully and quickly and to be seen to be acting responsibly in accord with international standards.

It is in the interest of the US government to resolve the situation, to ensure that a group of people on which it conferred ‘protected status’ under the Geneva convention for five years are protected when US forces withdraw from Iraq, to ensure that the Iraqi government acts fairly toward this group, and to uphold international standards and principles. Given the significant political interest in the residents of Camp Ashraf, it is in the US government’s interest to support a rapid and fair resolution of this situation. It is in the interest of the United Nations to find a fair and rapid solution for the camp residents, to ensure that international standards are upheld, and to be seen as a useful and impartial actor by the Iraqi, US and Iranian governments.

Finally, it is in the interest of the Iranian government to find a resolution to Camp Ashraf. No government is comfortable with a group of dissidents close to its border and who in the past have launched military attacks across that border. Resolving the situation would remove this irritant and would perhaps open the doors to closer relations with Iraq.

While the desired solutions and particularly the means at arriving at these solutions are different, it is in everyone’s interests to resolve the situation.

Elements for a solution

So, what does it take to resolve the situation? Although the terminology differs, under the international refugee system, there are three possible durable solutions. These durable solutions, in refugee terminology, are: voluntary return (in safety and in dignity), local integration, or resettlement in a third country. (A fourth solution, keeping people alive in some kind of camps or legal uncertainty is unfortunately used in many refugee situations, but it is not a durable solution.) Different situations have been resolved through different combinations of solutions.

Our present refugee regime is based on the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol (which has been signed by Iran but not Iraq), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees which is mandated to protect and assist refugees and 60 years of policies and practices which have supported solutions. I suggest, Mr. Chairman, that given the extraordinary politicization of Camp Ashraf, if durable solutions are to be found, the situation needs to be de-politicized by relying on multilateral actors applying internationally-recognized standards and practices. The system is set up to be fair and impartial  

Regardless of the political views of a particular group of asylum-seekers, determination of refugee status is based on whether or not a person satisfies the criteria in the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol which is whether the person has a well-founded fear of persecution for one of five specified reasons: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a social group. If a person is found to be a refugee, then solutions need to be found which will protect him or her. If a person is found not to be a refugee, then the government of the state where he or she resides should respect the basic rights of the individual to life and security of person while in the country but has the right to deport that person to the country of origin. If a person is excluded from being considered as a refugee, under article 1F of the Refugee Convention, for having committed serious crimes, he or she should continue to be protected under international human rights law. (However, it should be noted that in article 33 [2], an exception is possible in the event that the individual is considered as a danger to the security of the country.) The present situation is complicated by the fact that the residents of Camp Ashraf have not been determined to be refugees. They have not gone through a process to determine whether they meet the definition of the Convention. Iraq is not a signatory to the Convention and although it has a responsibility not to refoule people from its territory to a country where their lives might be in danger, the Iraqi government is not legally bound to set up an asylum system or to allow the foreign residents of Camp Ashraf to remain on its territory. In situations where governments (whether signatories to the Convention or not) do not have asylum systems, UNHCR has often played the role in refugee status determination. And there are cases, such as Turkey, where UNHCR determines whether or not an individual is a refugee under the Convention, and the host government insists that people found to be refugees will not be allowed to remain in Turkey but must be resettled elsewhere. In other words, for a government which is not a party to the Refugee Convention, determination of refugee status does not mean that the government has a responsibility to allow people found to be refugees to remain in its territory.

In my opinion, the best solution is for UNHCR to be permitted to determine whether or not the residents of Camp Ashraf are refugees and to find solutions for them outside of Iraq. And it is absolutely essential that the Iraqi government take all necessary measures to ensure the safety of the camp residents while this process is being carried out. Several recommendations follow from this:

  • UNHCR must be given the time and conditions necessary to conduct fair status determination. That means that the deadline to close the camp by December 31st should be extended and that an appropriate site be found where the status determination process can be conducted in a safe and confidential manner with appropriate security guarantees for both the asylum-seekers and UN staff.
  • At the same time, UNHCR and the international community must take the steps necessary to ensure that solutions found for the residents of Camp Ashraf meet the concern of the Iraqi government that camp residents leave the country. I understand that some of the residents of Camp Ashraf are nationals of countries other than Iran or that they have close family relations where immigration might be an option. Those possibilities should be explored. Some of the residents in Camp Ashraf may want to return to Iran. For Iranians who voluntarily decide to return to their country, the Iranian government must offer guarantees of their safety and allow UNHCR to monitor their well-being and safety. This is standard operating procedure for repatriation operations. For those determined to be refugees who do not want to return to Iran, then the solution of resettlement in a third country must be found.
  • Resettlement slots are in short supply globally and in the region and the issue is complicated by the restrictions placed by the US government as a result of anti-terrorist legislation. But the US role is key. If the US is unwilling or unable to accept cases for resettlement, then other countries will find it difficult or impossible to accept them. Without the reassurance that people will be moved on, Iraq is understandably reluctant to go forward with a refugee determination process. If there is an assurance that people found to be refugees will be resettled elsewhere, then the Iraqi government should be more likely to allow the process to move forward.
  • This means that first, a way needs to be found for the US, either within the existing law or by changing the law, to accept a significant portion of the camp residents for resettlement. Given the designation of the MEK/PMOI as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, this is difficult under existing anti-terrorist legislation. But the US government has a track record of coming up with innovative ways of responding to complex displacement and resettlement situations. The Attorney General has the authority to parole people into the United States when it is in the interests of the government although parole has limitations in terms of adjustment of status and access to economic and social services. Or, perhaps there are ways of simply specifying that this particular group is an exception to the anti-terrorist legislation – for example, by defining those who lived in Camp Ashraf in a determined particular period of time, as tier III rather than tier I of the anti-terrorist laws.
  • At the same time, other countries should offer to make resettlement places available to the residents of Camp Ashraf. Obviously, it will be easier for other governments to make these commitments if the US government demonstrates its willingness to shoulder some of the responsibility.  In particular, some of the non-traditional resettlement countries – such as Brazil, Chile and Burkina Faso – may have a particular role to play in this politically delicate context.  Moreover, governments who are willing, for humanitarian reasons, to allow residents of Camp Ashraf to resettle in their countries should make their commitments public. This would reassure the Iraqi government of the international community’s commitment to finding solutions for the Camp Ashraf residents.

This is not a perfect solution and it will require a great deal of commitment and hard work to make it happen. 

I want to close by saying that the reason the international community has developed a system for dealing with asylum-seekers and refugees which is based on international law, on well-honed procedures, on respect for human rights and on an impartial humanitarian agency is precisely to be able to deal with highly politicized situations such as the present one in Camp Ashraf. UNHCR works with refugees from all political sides, for example with Iraqis fleeing the Saddam Hussein regime and those fearing persecution because of their association with Saddam Hussein.  The United Nations General Assembly has affirmed the humanitarian and non-political nature of UNHCR’s work. I suggest that it is in US interests to let UNHCR do its work in accord with international standards and humanitarian principles.