Iraq’s Displaced Need More than Talk

Elizabeth Ferris

Some two million Iraqi women, men, and children have sought safety in Jordan and Syria while another two million have been displaced inside Iraq. They have left their homes and their communities because of fear – fear of being targeted by sectarian violence and fear of being caught in the crossfire. Next week a ministerial-level conference on Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), organized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, will be convened to respond to these issues. I hope that the conference does more than just talk about the problems.

Specifically, the international community should respond creatively and generously to the needs of Iraq’s two million IDPs. People who are internally displaced are even more vulnerable than refugees because they are closer to the conflict and because the provision of humanitarian assistance inside Iraq is fraught with difficulties. Moreover, when Iraqis are forced to leave their communities and are unable to find safety and support within their country’s borders, they are more likely to seek protection in neighboring countries. The international community thus has a responsibility – and a vested interest — to help displaced Iraqis stay close to their homes.

The Geneva conference should come up with more effective ways of supporting the Iraqi government to carry out its primary responsibility to protect and assist IDPs, a responsibility which is mandated in the internationally-accepted Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. The Ministry of Displacement and Migration, the Iraqi Red Crescent and Iraqi NGOs have worked hard to assist IDPs, but there are still many unmet needs. For example, IDPs have difficulties accessing the Public Distribution System which provides daily food rations. Sometimes they are asked to return to their communities of origin in order to register their change of address and there are often long delays in processing their requests. At a minimum, the Iraqi government should ensure that those who are displaced have access to food.

The Geneva conference should urge local Iraqi government authorities to stop restricting the entry of IDPs into their communities. While the arrival of large numbers of IDPs puts pressure on services and resources and can create tension with host communities, people have a fundamental right to seek to escape violence by moving elsewhere within their country. Local authorities, with the support of the Iraqi government and the international community, need to find ways to increase public services for their citizens, not to turn desperate people away.

Finally, the Geneva conference should come up with more creative ways of meeting the urgent shelter needs for Iraqi IDPs. Presently most of the IDPs are renting homes, living with family or friends, or living in abandoned buildings of one kind or another. While there are some camps for IDPs, they house less than 1 percent of the country’s IDPs. Some argue for the establishment of large IDP camps where public services may be easier to provide. However, I urge the authorities to consider the use of camps as a last resort. IDP camps could become easy targets for sectarian violence and security would be difficult to provide. Camps are also not only expensive to build and maintain, but they may create a dependency syndrome which can be difficult to overcome even when conditions change. Camps can also sometimes act as a “pull factor” in encouraging people to leave their homes because of a perception that they will receive more assistance in camps. Furthermore, the experience to date with IDP camps in Iraq indicates that camps are not culturally acceptable to most Iraqis and I suggest that alternative possibilities be supported. Rather than devoting resources to camps, resources could be given to families and host communities to allow them to provide additional shelter and to expand public services for displaced people. UNHCR has developed some interesting ideas for providing shelter in communities and these should be supported.

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There are no easy answers to the humanitarian dilemmas facing Iraq’s internally displaced people. At best, humanitarian action keeps people alive and relieves the suffering of victims of the conflict. Political solutions are needed to bring an end to the violence. Yet while these political solutions seem very distant, the immediate needs of the displaced are urgent. The US government has an opportunity next week to play a leadership role in the Geneva conference in demonstrating its commitment to Iraq’s displaced people and in pressing the international community to work together to ensure that humanitarian needs are met. But the conference in Geneva will need to do more than talk about the problems. It will need to mobilize resources for action.