In April 2009 the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report called “Iraqi Refugee Assistance Improvements Needed in Measuring Progress, Assessing Needs, Tracking Funds and Developing an International Strategic Plan.” The paper went through problems the State Department is facing in its efforts to aid Iraq’s refugees, but it really touched on issues the entire international community is having. These include, no reliable numbers for how many Iraqi refugees there are, what their needs are, unwillingness to help, lack of long-term planning, and duplication of effort.
The first major issue is accounting for how many Iraqi refugees actually exist. The number generally quoted is that Iraq has 4.8 million displaced, with 2 million having left the country. There are some disputes on that latter figure however. The GAO focused upon two countries as an example. Syria claims that it has 1.2-1.5 million Iraqis living there, while Jordan says 450,000-500,000 Iraqis have fled there. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees however, has only registered 221,506 Iraqis in Syria and 54,511 in Jordan. No one believes that all Iraqi refugees have signed up with the U.N., but the vast disparity in the figures brings into question what the real amounts might be. Neither country has allowed an accurate head count to occur. In 2007 a Norwegian institute known as Fafo was able to conduct a study of Iraqi refugees in Jordan. Their first estimate was 161,000 residing there. This upset the Jordanian government so the organization had a recount that was released in May 2007 repeating the official number of 450,000-500,000. Some non-government organizations (NGOs) believe that there are only 200,000 Iraqis in the kingdom.
Number of Iraqi Refugees Registered with the U.N. vs. Number of Iraqis Claimed by Host Countries
Syria: 221,506 vs 1.2-1.5 mil
Jordan: 54,411 vs 450,000-500,000
Lebanon: 10,764 vs 50,000
Egypt: 10,163 vs N/A
Turkey: 6,610 vs N/A
Iran: 4,861 vs 27,725
Gulf States: 2,112 vs 200,000
The lack of reliable numbers also complicates determining what the needs of Iraq’s refugees are. Jordan for example claims that there are 24,000 Iraqi children in their schools from 2007 to 2008 costing millions of dollars. NGOs say there are only about 9,000 actually in attendance. To add to the problem when Syria and Jordan ask for assistance, they also include the demands of their own populations, not just those of Iraqis. Without an accurate headcount, many countries are unsure of how much to give because they’re not clear on how many Iraqis refugees there really are. Others are reluctant to contribute because they don’t know how much of their money would be going to Iraqis, compared to Jordanians and Syrians.
To add to the difficulties host countries like Syria and Jordan along with the Iraqi government don’t want Iraqis to become permanent residents, and therefore are opposed to aid groups and other countries extending all the help possible. Syria, Jordan, and other Arab countries do not want Iraqis to become the next Palestinians, a permanent refugee class. For that reason, neither Syria nor Jordan officially register Iraqis as refugees, they are classified as guests. In many countries Iraqis are banned from working, attending schools, etc, fearing that this will make them less likely to go back home. Baghdad also wants to limit assistance to its refugees for the same reason. They want all Iraqis to come back to the country. In late 2007 they even asked Syria to close its border to new Iraqi arrivals. The government has been promoting returns by offering cash to those that do, and touting the improved security situation.
The process has actually begun with the Minister of Displacement and Migration claiming that 2,070 refugees families have returned since 2008. Overall, the Ministry has only recorded around 16,000 Iraqis, less than 1% of the total, coming back to Iraq so far. The country’s budget problems however have led the Ministry’s financing to be severely cut. This along with the continued instability in the country means that the vast majority of Iraqis do not feel safe enough to return yet.
With inadequate help from host countries, NGOs, Iraq, and the international community, another possible solution is for Iraqis to move to third countries. Very few refugees period are allowed to do this however. The U.S. is a case in point. In 2007 for example, the American government only admitted 1,608 Iraqis, below its own benchmark of 2,000-3,000. In 2008 they did much better allowing in 13,832, more than the 12,000 planned. Other countries have only accepted 21,022 from 2007-2008, despite Iraqis being the largest group asking for asylum in the world. This is obviously not a viable solution for Iraq’s refugee problem.
Finally, the most important finding of the GAO report was that there is no real plan to deal with Iraq’s refugees. All of the above issues have contributed to this dilemma. The international community doesn’t really know what their needs are or how many there are. The Iraqi government is also opposed to extending full aid because they want all their citizens to come back home. While the United Nations has tried to coordinate much of the relief effort, there is plenty of duplication of work. The U.N. also only has yearly budgets, which stresses short-term, rather than long-term strategizing. The crisis is also so large that many governments and organizations don’t have the means to deal with it. The State Department for example, doesn’t have enough staff, and hasn’t set up any ways to measure whether their programs are helping or not.
Iraq’s refugee situation is considered one of the worst in the world. The problems of headcounts, reluctant host nations, and Baghdad’s opposition to aid only makes the matter worse. There is a tendency to look to the United States to solve the problem, after all, they were the ones to invade Iraq in the first place, yet the GAO report points out that the American government doesn’t have the capacity to deal with such a large dilemma. Only a massive, coordinated international effort would seem to be the solution, but that’s out of the question in the current economic and political situation with a recession and the U.S. phasing out its mission. The result is that the United Nations and a few NGOs are doing all the heavy lifting, while being under funded, leaving many Iraqi refugees to fend for themselves. That’s likely to continue for the next several years as Iraqis are showing few signs of wanting to return to their country in large numbers.
Associated Press, “Iraqi refugees stay put despite relative calm,” 4/30/09
IRIN, “IRAQ: Minister upbeat about IDP returns,” 5/4/09
Refugees International, “Iraq: Preventing the Point of No Return,” 4/9/09
United States Government Accountability Office, “Iraqi Refugee Assistance Improvements Needed in Measuring Progress, Assessing Needs, Tracking Funds, and Developing an International Strategic Plan,” 4/21/09