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War in Iraq: is UNHCR up to it?

Gil Loescher Arthur C. Helton
6 February 2003

KEY POINTS

- UN estimates warn of up to 1.45 million refugees fleeing from Iraq and 900,000 internationally displaced in the event of military attack.

- The UNHCR was widely criticised for not anticipating the mass outflow of Albanians from Kosovo in 1999. It is working hard to avoid similar charges this time.

- A major problem for UNHCR is the relatively limited resources at its disposal to respond to a new massive displacement.

- A protracted war could cause the food distribution mechanisms currently in place to collapse entirely, which would lead to a crisis affecting almost the entire Iraqi population.

- UNHCR lacks resources, experienced managers and personnel in the region. It is already stretched by major refugee and repatriation challenges in Afghanistan and West Africa. A new crisis in Iraq will drain resources and personnel from these and other urgent programmes.

- National Red Crescent Societies in neighbouring countries and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies will bear the brunt of the first waves of Iraqi refugees.

The world is waking up to the fact that the humanitarian consequences of a war on Iraq are likely to be horrific. In recent days, much attention has been given in the media to the draft UN humanitarian contingency plan for Iraq that warns of up to 1.45 million refugees, who might seek to flee Iraq in the event of a military attack, and up to 900,000 internally displaced (see, for example, an article in the Guardian). The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has been assigned the UN lead role for responding to any refugee crisis as well as for providing protection for the 100,000 internally displaced along Iraq’s borders.

How likely is it that UNHCR will be able to manage a major refugee crisis? In a letter on 24 January to his 5,000 staff around the globe, Ruud Lubbers, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, stated that his agency was planning for a potential displacement of 600,000 refugees and asylum seekers. He admitted, however, that this was only a rough planning figure and that the conflict could evolve in ways that would generate even greater numbers of refugees.

Many people inside and outside UNHCR still remember the widespread criticism the agency received for not anticipating the mass outflow of Albanians from Kosovo in 1999. At the time, no one, including UNHCR, had predicted a deliberate, well-planned policy to virtually cleanse the entire province of Albanian Kosovars in several weeks’ time. In addition to not forecasting the mass exodus, the UNHCR was also widely criticised for not being well prepared once the outflow began and being unable to deliver emergency supplies or to build camps quickly enough.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the UNHCR has been careful this time round to try to make adequate preparations for an Iraqi crisis. During recent months, it has constituted seven Emergency Response Teams, comprising some 140 international staff on standby for deployment within 72 hours. UNHCR has also organised emergency management training in the Middle East for government officials and the staff of national humanitarian agencies.

While these preparations and contingency planning are noteworthy, UNHCR faces considerable problems and obstacles in responding effectively to a new refugee crisis in Iraq. As noted in our earlier monitor articles on 17 December 2002 and 15 January 2002, uncertainty about the nature, intensity and duration of the conflict makes UNHCR planning for future refugee flows extremely difficult. For example, if there is a protracted war, it is possible that the food distribution mechanisms currently in place would collapse entirely, which in turn would mean a catastrophic crisis affecting almost the entire Iraqi population.

A major problem for UNHCR is the relatively limited resources at its disposal to respond to a new massive displacement. With a $130 million shortfall in its overall budget for this year, UNHCR does not have enough funds to even carry out its normal functions. Continuing financial difficulties have also caused the UNHCR to cut its emergency fund and have seriously affected the agency’s ability to mobilise resources for new unanticipated humanitarian emergencies.

On 13 December, UN agencies formally approached the major donor governments in Geneva with an initial request for funding of $37.4 million to support a minimum level of preparedness (including winterisation, water and tents) for a humanitarian emergency in Iraq. However, no new funds have yet been made available to any of the UN agencies, and governments seem unlikely to commit such funding before an actual outbreak of hostilities. The only resources that have been made available to date have been internal agency funds borrowed from other operations or operational reserves, which are extremely limited, and advances provided to UNHCR and other agencies amounting to a total of $14.5 million.

Lack of surplus capacity and tight staffing will make it difficult for UNHCR to respond quickly and effectively to a refugee crisis in Iraq. At present, the UNHCR not only does not have enough personnel and resources in the region but also lacks sufficient numbers of senior and middle-ranking professionals to lead emergency responses for a prolonged length of time. The agency is currently facing major refugee and repatriation challenges in Afghanistan and West Africa. A new crisis in Iraq will drain resources and personnel from these and other urgent programmes.

In a recent meeting with donor states and states neighbouring Iraq, Lubbers also made it clear that, because of limited resources, receiving states – and not UNHCR – would be principally responsible for assisting newly-arriving Iraqi refugees. It will be the national Red Crescent Societies in the region and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies that will bear the brunt of the first waves of Iraqi refugees. At the same time, UNHCR has reminded all governments in the region of their international responsibilities to keep their borders open and ensure that the rights of refugees are respected.

Given the possible numbers of arriving refugees, however, it seems likely that the UNHCR will be hard pressed to convince already over-burdened neighbouring countries to keep their borders open during a military campaign against Saddam Hussein. Turkey plans to establish control over a zone of undetermined width inside northern Iraq where it will set up camps and provide assistance in cooperation with the Turkish Red Crescent Society. While Iran has indicated a willingness to involve UNHCR, the government has declared that it would prefer to contain prospective refugees inside Iraq and encourage cross border operations.

The UN, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the US military are beginning to organise management and coordination structures in the region. The UN is establishing a Joint Logistics Centre in Nicosia, Cyprus and is in the process of appointing a regional humanitarian coordinator. NGOs and the US military are setting up separate coordination centres in Amman, Jordan and in Kuwait. Moreover, there continues to be a wide gulf between the humanitarian agencies and the military. While the US military tends to view these agencies as subordinate partners in an effort to liberate Iraq, the NGOs and the UN will resist being too closely identified with the US military effort, in order to preserve their independence and impartiality. Thus, so far in planning for a humanitarian crisis in Iraq, the UN, NGOs and the US military have worked on parallel, but largely separate, tracks that haven’t allowed adequate coordination.

The UN Contingency Plan for Iraq has drawn our attention to the potential humanitarian consequences of a war. The real challenge confronting the UNHCR and other agencies will be to operationalise preparedness, while at the same time maintaining the independence of the civilian humanitarian community. A US government review in 2000 of humanitarian programmes drew indicative lessons from the Kosovo emergency:

‘Our frustration in shaping UNHCR’s response to US interests resulted in part from inherent limits to US power; we did not have much choice but to rely heavily upon UNHCR, given our limited direct operational capacities…. Consequently, insufficient attention was paid to the erosion of UNHCR headquarters and field capacities and to preparing US contingency plans, should UNHCR have been incapable of fulfilling our expectations.’

How UNHCR and the US military cooperate and coordinate their activities, and how logistics are handled, will be essential to the success of any refugee programme.

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