In early April 2009, Refugees International released its latest position paper on Iraq’s refugees and internally displaced entitled, “Iraq: Preventing the Point of No Return.” There are still several million Iraqis that have lost their homes. Many do not want to go back yet because they have concerns about security, and the lack of services provided by the government. Most will have to return at some point so the government, the U.S., and the U.N. need to work together to ensure that they can, and will want to come back. That means Baghdad needs to improve health care, education, and jobs. The U.S., U.N., and international community also need to step up their assistance and funding for humanitarian programs to help out this population. Overall, Refugees International does not believe that the time is right for Iraqis to return since there is little aid to accommodate them, and that Baghdad is doing a disservice by asking them to come back.
Since late 2007, Baghdad has been encouraging refugees to return. This came in two waves. First, in November 2007 the government set up special buses from Syria for Iraqis to come back, and offered each family $800 if they did. Then in the summer of 2008 Iraq began offering plane rides to refugees in Egypt. Baghdad didn’t consider the conditions in Iraq when they began asking Iraqis to come back. It even went as far as to ask Syria to close its borders to Iraqis in late 2007. Instead, Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki’s government felt that large numbers of returns would make Baghdad look better and increase international and domestic support. Refugees International believes that this policy was a political move meant to improve the image of the government, rather than actually help people.
In fact, Baghdad has shown little sympathy for Iraq’s refugees. Syria and Jordan claim that they are home to almost 2 million Iraqis, but Baghdad says there are only 400,000 there. A U.N. diplomat told Refugees International that Maliki thinks the refugees are traitors, filled with Baathists, who don’t want to help Iraq. Refugee International believes that this bias is largely due to the fact that most of the refugees are Sunnis.
The government has also been offering cash rewards to internally displaced families that return. Refugees International found fault with this program as well. First the payment was only offered to those that lost their homes between January 2006 and December 2007. That favors Shiites who were mostly displaced during the sectarian war. According to the International Organization for Migration’s April 2009 report, 56.8% of Iraq’s displaced are Shiites, compared to 30.8% who are Sunnis. Refugees International ignores the fact that more than 50% of Iraq’s displacement occurred after the February 2006 bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra, which set off the civil war.
Refugees International also talked with Iraqi officials who say they want the whole issue of refugees and the displaced to be over with by the end of 2009. The government officers claimed that there are no more reasons for Iraqis to be displaced. The February 2009 U.N. Humanitarian Report even said that some officials claimed that most of the displaced had gone home. Because of this, the government has stopped registering internal refugees, which is a prerequisite to receive assistance. Refugees International believes that the combination of encouraging refugees and the displaced to come back without providing adequate support for them will only lead to more problems. In fact, the government is making things worse because they are more concerned about making themselves look better than actually dealing with the causes and consequences of the country’s refugee crisis.
The fact that the majority of Iraq’s displaced have not gone back puts the lie to the officials’ claims. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), only around 50,000 families, approximately 250,000 individuals, have gone back. Most are internal refugees. Only 8% have been refugees from other countries. According to IOM surveys, 61% of Iraq’s displaced want to return, but don’t think they can yet. 39% said they want to stay where they are or be resettled somewhere else. Refugees International is concerned that if these families don’t return, it will solidify the ethnic cleansing that occurred from 2006-2007.
Baghdad needs to improve services, aid, and rule of law before there is a safe and stable environment for Iraq’s refugees and displaced to come back according to Refugees International. The improved security situation has not led to better services. The government needs to provide health care, education, and jobs, as well as offer more aid to those that are coming back. Right now Baghdad doesn’t have this capacity, nor any laws or regulations to deal with property disputes, which could take years to resolve. There is still the issue of sectarian biases within the administration. The government has set up assistance centers in the capital, and Maliki has ordered the security forces to deal with squatters, but the amount of money offered isn’t large enough, and the expulsion of squatters has just added more displaced. Iraq’s budget problems probably mean that these aid programs are in jeopardy. There are also stories of returnees being attacked and intimidated, and many have not been able to go back to their original homes. Refugees International warns that the potential for renewed violence still exists.
Refugees International has four recommendations on how to move forward on Iraq’s refugee crisis. First the U.N. should provide more aid to Iraq to help the displaced and its causes. The U.N. has had a limited presence in Iraq since its compound was bombed in 2003. Refugees International believes that improved security should allow the U.N. to create offices in each of Iraq’s eighteen provinces. Right now few displaced in Iraq receive any aid from the government or non-governmental organizations. Second, the U.S. should pay for 50% of the U.N.’s programs. Third, the government, with the assistance of the U.S. and U.N., needs to improve services and provide jobs. That is something that may prove impossible however as American and international reconstruction aid is coming to an end. Iraq has already received $125 billion, and services are still largely below pre-invasion levels. Fourth the U.S. should work with countries where Iraqi refugees are residing. That includes providing money, and helping those Iraqis that don’t wish to return.
This report by Refugee International is an important advocacy paper for Iraq’s refugees. They provide a good overview of some of the problems facing the country’s displaced, and why it’s still not the right time for them to return. The major issue now is that international assistance to Iraq is winding down, and Baghdad is facing a budget crisis so there is little hope that more money will be spent on Iraq’s refugees. That will probably mean that Iraq’s displaced will have to exist off of the meager help provided by non-government organizations and the U.N., and act on their own. Ironically, that may mean that Baghdad’s wish to put the refugee crisis behind them may come true as no new effort on their behalf can be expected in the immediate future.
International Organization for Migration, “IOM Emergency Needs Assessments; Post February 2006 Displacement In Iraq, Monthly Report,” 4/1/09
Kaplow, Larry, Nordland, Rod, and Spring, Silvia, “There’s No Place Like … Iraq?” Newsweek, 11/24/07
Refugees International, “Iraq: Preventing the Point of No Return,” 4/9/09
Special Inspector General For Iraq Reconstruction, “Quarterly Report and Semiannual Report to the United States Congress,” 1/30/09
United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Humanitarian Update Iraq February 2009,” 2/28/09