Time for the United States to Recognize Iraq’s Humanitarian Crisis

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

January 4, 2007

The State Department’s weekly report on how the United States government is meeting its goals in Iraq omits an important category — emergency aid for the millions of people forcibly uprooted inside the country, or who have fled across borders, to escape sectarian violence and Coalition military operations.

Since Shi’a restraint ended in February following the bombing of the holy Shi’a shrine in Samarra, Shi’a and Sunni armed groups have been driving 50,000 people from their homes each month. To date, more than a half a million have been forced out, with Sunni and Shi’a as well as Christians, Kurds and other religious and ethnic groups fleeing to areas where their own group is in the majority. Not only is this changing the social and demographic makeup of many Iraqi cities and undermining any potential for a multiethnic/religious democratic state. It is also causing a grave humanitarian crisis. Tens of thousands now living in public buildings, parks, cemeteries, and soccer fields are in urgent need of shelter, food, medicine and clean water. While the majority stays with families and friends, they too face extreme hardship because they are without homes and jobs, and their hosts are running out of resources.

Billions in international funds have been allocated for recovery and development projects in Iraq, most of which cannot be implemented because of the violence. Yet humanitarian programs have been largely neglected. The assumption that the domestic situation would stabilize and that the displaced of Iraq would return home has been proved terribly wrong. A reassessment of donor priorities is urgently needed.

The newest and fastest growing number of displaced people is from sectarian violence. Hundreds of thousands more Iraqis are teetering on the brink of displacement, sleeping in different homes at night, and fearing to go to work or to school during the day.

Both the Sunni and Shi’a armed groups regularly use threats and intimidation followed by kidnappings and murders to force people out. To make sure they do not return, they frequently rely on brutality, including the beheading of children and the use of electric drills to kill people. They have two goals – to consolidate their territory and to serve as provider and protector, thereby usurping the government’s authority. Indeed, people are increasingly turning to armed groups for security rather than the government because they are the ones that protect neighborhoods and provide relief. Moqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi army at present is driving most Sunni families out of eastern Baghdad. In the Hurriyeh district, which is only about 3 miles from the Green Zone, the government is doing little to protect the Sunnis from expulsion. The armed groups are connected to political parties, which use them to maximize their own power. Members of government security forces and police often assist the Mahdi army, while Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki must rely on Al Sadr who controls 30 seats in the parliament.

The Iraqi government does not have the resources, will or competence to adequately aid the displaced. A November Pentagon report points to a social safety net program being developed by the government, but then points out that the “legislation required for this initiative has not yet been introduced.” While local authorities, the Iraqi Red Crescent and mosques are reported to be more effective, it is the sectarian radical agencies that are filling the void left by the government. International aid does not yet reflect the seriousness of the situation. The Iraq budget of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the lead UN agency in Iraq, has in fact been reduced from $150 million in 2003 to $29 million in 2006. The agency reports being “sorely lacking in funds” to cope with the growing number of displaced Iraqis.

Aid is also urgently needed for the more than 1.8 million Iraqis who have fled across the border, among them 700,000 to Jordan and 600,000 to Syria. Although initially welcomed by these countries as “Arab brothers,” they are becoming burdensome as their numbers increase. Jordan’s government calls them “illegal immigrants” rather than refugees from violence and persecution, has returned some to Iraq, and has not asked other governments to help share the burden. Syria considers them “tourists” and “guests” and most cannot work. In Lebanon, they are under threat of deportation. The United States must encourage countries of refuge to recognize those fleeing Iraq as refugees, mobilize the international support needed to help them, and itself consider bringing increased number of Iraqis in under its refugee resettlement program.

It is time for the Bush Administration to recognize and address the serious humanitarian crisis that its actions in Iraq have spawned. The most immediate need is to assure that the UN refugee agency and the other international agencies involved in helping Iraq’s displaced, such as the International Organization for Migration, have the funds and access they need to do the job.