Seven years of conflict, not to mention decades of violence under Saddam Hussein, have left more than 2.8 million Iraqis displaced inside Iraq but far from home. Like refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs) have lost their homes, property, and livelihoods. They’re often separated from their families and they may face violence in their host communities. Unlike refugees, however, they are not formally protected under international law, and post-conflict governments often lack the capacity to protect them.
Recently, the Brookings Institution released a report called Improving the US Response to Internal Displacement. In a panel discussion on June 30, the reports' authors, Department of State and USAID administrators, and leading experts came together to discuss the need for a more comprehensive response to the needs of internally displaced persons around the globe. IDPs need assistance not just at the emergency stage, but also when dealing with protracted displacement, said report co-author Dawn Calabia. Calabia further stressed that no IDP situation has ever been solved by humanitarian assistance alone; we also need hard political solutions.
Nowhere is the need for a comprehensive strategy more evident than in Iraq. With the international response to IDPs replete with "gaps rather than overlaps," as Calabia said, a decisive solution to the Iraqi internal displacement crisis has long eluded Iraqi, American, and international actors alike. The panelists emphasized that Iraqi government policy has inadequately addressed the reintegration and return of IDPs. Many Iraqi IDPs are stuck in informal squatter settlements and can't access services from their government because they lack proper documentation.
On the American side, the huge disparity in funding between U.S. military and civilian efforts in Iraq hasn't helped. While the Defense Department requested $533.7 billion for fiscal year 2010, the State Department, USAID, and other civilian agencies requested only $51.7 billion. According to Allison Stanger's One Nation under Contract, the fact that the Pentagon has shouldered so much of the physical reconstruction of Iraq has hindered development – as has the top-down manner in which it disbursed funds to American contractors instead of Iraqis. As a result, civilian efforts through agencies like USAID are chronically understaffed and underfunded.
As President Obama has said, the United States has a "moral responsibility" to assist Iraq's displaced. Like he acknowledged, displaced Iraqis are "a living consequence of this war" and "they must become a part of Iraq's reconciliation and recovery." Part of this means supporting the Iraqi government with reintegrating those displaced who wish to return to their homes. One step the Iraqi government has taken is the establishment of the Commission for the Resolution of Real Property Disputes (CRRPD), which is tasked with settling land and property disputes for people displaced during Saddam Hussein's regime.
In an earlier report called Resolving Iraqi Displacement, Brookings noted that long-term development is key to solving the IDP crisis because it will create the housing, jobs, and security necessary to rebuild communities and make return realistic and appealing. Iraq must integrate internally displaced persons into its plans for national reconciliation and economic development if return is to ever be a viable option.
What is the United States' role? The Brookings reports suggest that the United States can be most effective by providing development assistance and by working with the Iraqi government to create political solutions. The latter approach has already met with some success. In 2009, the State Department and the NSC negotiated the US-Iraq Joint Statement on Iraqi Refugees in which the Iraqi government promised a 250 percent budget increase for the Ministry of Displacement and Migration. Further, the administration has tasked two senior officials to work with the Iraqi government on implementing strategies that would assist and protect displaced persons.
What lessons can we learn from internal displacement in Iraq? First of all, more robust funding for civilian efforts will be critical to the recovery of IDPs in Iraq and elsewhere. When fully funded, American development assistance has the capacity to do immense good in the world. Iraq, for its part, can make important progress in national reconciliation and peacebuilding by creating a long-term strategy for reintegrating IDPs into their communities. IDPs are Iraqis too, after all, and their future will be critical to the future of the country.