Internally displaced persons in Iraq: a potential crisis?

Gil Loescher Arthur C. Helton
9 April 2003


- The Iraq war has generated no significant refugee flows as yet, but large numbers of Kurds (in the north) and Shi’a (in the south) were already displaced before the war

- The possibility of extensive internal displacement in the post-war flux remains, especially in situations where people engage in political reprisals or seek to reclaim their former homes

- Current UN plans assume up to 3 million new internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Iraq

- UN contingency plans anticipated that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) would be the lead agency for IDPs, but in the event two other agencies – the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS) and the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) will have specific responsibilities. There are severe doubts among non-governmental organisations (NGOs) about whether they are qualified for the task.

- There is no established protection agency for IDPs at the international level, and neither UNOPS nor the IOM has a legal protection mandate for IDPs.

- NGO and UN officials would prefer other agencies – like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef) – to lead the international response to IDPs in Iraq

Since the war in Iraq started, the media has highlighted the fact that, despite predictions to the contrary, there have so far been virtually no refugees. It seems that the early allied military strategy of bypassing major cities, selective bombing of military targets, and warnings to civilians to stay at home and off the main roads, have limited the numbers of civilians on the move.

However, it is not unusual in the early stages of any conflict to see a relatively small number of refugees flee their homeland. In Geneva at the end of March, Jean-Marie Fakhouri, the head of UNHCR’s Iraq response team, told Gil Loescher that during the 1991 Gulf war it was only on the thirty-ninth day that large numbers of Iraqis started to move. Sometimes, refugees only flee after the end of combat, even while passing returnees head home in the opposite direction.

The condition of internal displacement

Although there have as yet been no significant refugee flows in Iraq, there have been internal displacements, especially in the north where in the first weeks of the campaign hundreds of thousands of Kurds moved away from cities close to Iraqi-controlled territory to seek safety with relatives in the mountains and countryside.

These flows come on top of several thousand Iraqis who fled government controlled areas and crossed over to the Kurdish-controlled region in the days preceding the outbreak of war. In recent weeks, some 22,000 Kurds moved close to the Iranian border, mainly as a precautionary measure.

Before the conflict, there were also an estimated 1.1 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) both in the north of Iraq (800,000) as a consequence of the regime’s campaign to “Arabise” oil-rich Kirkuk and other cities, and in the south (100,000 to 300,000) where the Baghdad regime long suppressed Shi’a populations and depopulated areas occupied by the Marsh Arabs. Some of these people found shelter within their extended family structures while others were housed in temporary and often inadequate shelter.

By late March, newly-arriving displaced people in the north stretched the capacities of local Kurdish authorities who were unable to provide adequate housing, food, and medical and sanitary facilities for them. Human Rights Watch researchers in the area reported that any further influx of IDPs would create a humanitarian disaster.

Given the perilous state of the Iraqi population after years of sanctions and repression, the possibility of massive internal displacement as a result of the war is still great. On the one hand, such displacements could occur if continuing military combat around Baghdad or other densely-populated cities entail shortages of food and water. On the other hand, the use of chemical weapons by desperate remnants of the collapsed Iraqi regime would not only kill large numbers of civilians, but also create widespread panic, causing mass flight from urban areas.

Similarly, the post-war situation in Iraq is as likely to create forcible displacement as the war itself. Iraq may break down into rival regions, resulting in civil war, resistance to external rule and mass population movements. Ba’athist oppressors are well-known to local populations and reprisals and score-settling are likely. During recent years, forced displacement and relocations have been a political tool of the Iraqi regime. Conflict may break out when those who have been displaced attempt to reclaim their homes.

UN arrangements for IDPs

Current UN planning assumes up to 3 million new IDPs, of which 2 million are anticipated in the central and southern regions of Iraq. The UN is only now making preparations for dealing with these populations, mainly through an assistance strategy.

The original UN contingency plans anticipated that UNHCR would be the lead agency for IDPs. However, according to Jean-Marie Fakhouri, UNHCR did not have the capacity or experience in Iraq to take on that role in addition to refugees in the region. Unlike some other UN agencies, UNHCR had only a small presence in Iraq before the outbreak of conflict. Given its limited human and financial resources, coupled with the need to respond to other pressing refugee operations in Afghanistan and West Africa, Fakhouri believes that UNHCR should continue to prioritise emergency preparedness for Iraqi refugees only.

In an interview with staff from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Geneva (OCHA), Gil Loescher was told that - at a meeting at the UN operational centre in Larnaca in early March - the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq (HC), Lopes de Silva, had delegated specific tasks to assist IDPs in Iraq to two other agencies.

While the overall responsibility for IDPs lies with the HC, the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS) will provide assistance to IDPs in the three northern governorates of Iraq. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) will register and manage camps and distribute non-food items to IDPs in the centre and south of the country.

This decision has caused consternation among NGOs and some governments who are concerned that neither UNOPS nor IOM have extensive experience working with IDPs. UNOPS, which was spun out of UNDP in 1995, provides contract services to other entities in the UN system. It has an existing presence in northern Iraq (26 international staff now withdrawn, and 263 national staff still present) and has been involved in activities such as mine clearance and providing materials for camps for IDPs there.

IOM has no prior experience with IDPs in Iraq. Several NGOs and government agencies expressed their concerns about IOM’s inexperience in this area to Gil Loescher. They are particularly critical of IOM’s recent experience with registration and camp management for IDPs near Herat in western Afghanistan, where it ran out of funding, resulting in a precipitous withdrawal. Reportedly, IOM did not even carry out a detailed evaluation of its operation there, causing some NGOs to worry that IOM has learned too few lessons from earlier mistakes in the country.

While UNOPS will continue to provide assistance to IDPs in northern Iraq, IOM is undertaking a series of meetings with NGOs and UN agencies in order to select NGO partners to operate in the fifteen governorates in central and southern Iraq for which IOM is responsible. In a meeting in Geneva with Gil Loescher, the IOM’s Director of Programme Support, Jan de Wilde, stated that IOM has already strengthened its missions in the region by 30 new staff and has 100 staff on standby to go to Iraq “as soon as UNSECOORD [the UN security coordinator] gives them a green light”.

Who will protect Iraq’s IDPs?

At the international level, there is no established protection agency for the internally displaced. In Iraq, the concern most frequently voiced by NGOs is that neither UNOPS nor IOM has a legal protection mandate for IDPs. In reply to a letter written to Kofi Annan in late March on behalf of the three NGO international networks, Kenzo Oshima (the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs) responded that the responsibility for the protection of IDPs rests and will continue to rest with the HC – supported by the relevant UN country team, a senior staff member from OCHA’s IDP unit in Geneva, and a person from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. At the beginning of April, OCHA and IOM co-sponsored a two day workshop in Amman on protection of IDPs for NGOs and UN agencies who are awaiting relocation into Iraq once basic security has been imposed.

Numerous NGO and UN officials told Gil Loescher that other agencies would be better suited to lead the international response to IDPs in Iraq. They pointed to Unicef, for example, which has long experience in Iraq and has up-to-date information on the population and their needs. It also is reputed to be the best prepared of all the UN agencies for the Iraqi emergency and has warm relations with local authorities. There is also the International Committee for the Red Cross, which has a mandate under international humanitarian law to protect civilians in armed conflicts.

Experience teaches that protection may be as crucial as assistance in IDP emergencies. As US forces occupy central Baghdad, and the prospect of a military occupation looms, the precise nature of the protection problems faced by Iraq’s displaced remains to be seen. But it is clear that specific measures will be needed to ensure that the basic human rights of the displaced are respected.

Urgent: help us expose dark money in politics

Cambridge Analytica was the tip of the iceberg. openDemocracy is investigating how dark money is influencing what we see, hear and think across the world. We have many fresh leads to chase down, but need your support to keep going. Please give what you can today – it makes a difference.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram