On a recent visit to Germany, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said he wanted to "encourage the thousands of Iraqis who fled the spiraling violence in their country in recent years to return home." At an international conference on Iraq in Stockholm, Prime Minister Maliki stated, “We have statistics that say that tens of thousands of refugees wish to return. We welcome them, we will give them privileges.” He is even going so far as to try and entice refugees to return to Iraq with promises of money when they return.
These statements by the Prime Minister are interesting for two reasons. First, Maliki's assessment that there are "thousands" of Iraqis who fled the country is a drastic understatement. According to recent estimates, there are as many as 2 million Iraqi refugees, roughly 750,000 in Jordan alone. But more importantly, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) recommends that Iraqi refugees not return home yet because security conditions are not stable enough to support returns. In addition, a report recently published by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) states that “safe repatriation cannot be undertaken now or in the foreseeable future.”
Why is Maliki urging Iraqis to do specifically what the UNHCR and ground-based aid organizations say not to do?
One reason is politics. A large-scale return of Iraqi refugees back into Iraq would serve as a clear indication that Maliki’s security plan is succeeding and surely bolsters perceptions about his performance. There is a national election in Iraq in 2009 and, just like in the United States, public opinion matters even more around election time. Maliki wants to reinforce the notion that he is the right man to lead Iraq.
Another factor contributing to Maliki’s recent drive to encourage refugees to return to Iraq is the need for human capital. Many of the individuals who fled Iraq to escape violence were the professionals and educated middle-class Iraqis who had the resources and means to do so. As a result, Iraq lost a vast amount of human capital; its doctors, professors, and various experts. The process of rebuilding Iraq and creating a stable atmosphere will take two things: money and educated professionals. Iraq has no shortage of money; its estimated oil revenue for the 2008 fiscal year is 32 billion dollars; however it lacks the community-building experts who know how to effectively and efficiently allocate the money to produce the best results needed for structure. Maliki is attempting to regain some of the human capital that Iraq needs to rebuild and ensure that the recent improvements endure the test of time.
Despite Maliki’s assurances that Iraq is now safe for refugees to return home, some Iraqis are hesitant to trust him. In a report on Iraqi refugees in Jordan, Anna Badkhen, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, quotes Raad Desher, a former goldsmith from Baghdad: “We don't believe Maliki…Militias are still killing people. Every day we hear news about new bombs in Iraq. We have no choice but to stay here.”
Clearly refugees must be encouraged to return only when security conditions allow for it. The the IRC report states: “We believe it is both dangerous and irresponsible to lure desperate refugees home with misleading statements about improved safety and security. Refugees should be discouraged from returning home to communities where they will not be safe.” So is Maliki just looking out for his own political interest, or does he truly believe that the security conditions permit a large-scale return of Iraqi refugees and the UNHCR is wrong?
Photo Caption: Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki delivers a speech