The long-term consequences of the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 are still being felt at every level of the society. Many of its critics continue to focus on the cost to the invaders (the United States and Britain especially) in money and lives, as well as on basic questions of the war’s illegality under international law. This is understandable, but an unfortunate by-product is that less attention has been paid to the many destructive impacts of the war among the Iraqi people themselves - not least the plight of Iraq's 4 million refugees.
The western powers which launched Operation Iraqi Freedom to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein expected that in the aftermath around one million Iraqi refugees would flee their country. The openDemocracy columnists Gil Loescher and Arthur Helton were among those warning of the possible humanitarian catastrophe that might ensue unless proper preparations were made. An effort was made to set up emergency camps to receive those fleeing the conflict. In the event, they were not needed; six months after the fall of the Iraqi regime in April 2003, few Iraqis had fled their country. At the end of the year, the empty camps were dismantled; food supplies and other items were removed.
The assessment of the international-aid community turned out to be a tragedy of mistiming. When, three years later, Iraq’s deadly sectarian violence escalated with the bombing of the al-Askari mosque in Samarra on 22 February 2006, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in vulnerable neighbourhoods fled their homes in search of security. In 2006-07, perhaps 2 million Iraqis found refuge in other part of Iraq, while another 1 million-1.5 million travelled to Jordan and Syria (settling largely in the cities of Damascus, Aleppo and Amman).
In response, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and affiliated NGOs raced to set up reception-centres and provide temporary protection. Iraqis are not regarded as refugees by either the Syrian or Jordanian governments. But both countries are signatories to the United Nations convention of 1951 relating to the status of refugees (and the subsequent protocol of 1967), and have reached memorandums of agreement with the UNHCR. In light of this, their formal government policy is to regard Iraqis who have fled their country as “temporary guests”.
Many of the Iraqis seeking asylum in Damascus, Aleppo and Amman were from the educated and professional middle class. Some had managed to bring savings which helped to ease their transition. In addition, local communities provided sanctuary, shelter and food in the early days after arrival.
This hospitality and tolerance, a response to immediate and pressing circumstances, also drew on surviving cultural memories of movement for trade and general migration during the Ottoman empire, and of the millet system which gave minority/religious communities a limited amount of power to regulate their own affairs. In addition, the pan-Arab underpinnings of the Syrian socialist state at least have meant that Iraqis are seen not just as temporary guests but as “Arab brothers”.
The host communities’ reaction thus greatly lightened the Iraqis’ suffering at a crucial time; but in a longer perspective the sanctuary the latter have found is but a temporary reprieve. After four or five years in Syria and Jordan (and, in many cases, Lebanon) their emplacement of is taking on the character of a protracted crisis. The Iraqi refugees, unwilling to return and unable to emigrate further west or north, are in a perilous situation that needs to be recognised and addressed by the western powers who created this humanitarian crisis.
A precarious state
The United States has argued that its military “surge” of 2007 has greatly improved security in Iraq and allowed the process of its withdrawal to commence. The international-aid regime has supported this view, to the extent that in April 2009 the UNHCR declared that security in Iraq had so improved that people displaced from most regions of the country should no longer be viewed as refugees.
The facts on the ground suggest otherwise. The International Crisis Group observed in mid-2008 that massive returns cannot be considered imminent. Amnesty International also warned then that behind media coverage of increased “voluntary returns” and improved security the true picture was a worsening refugee crisis exacerbated by a failed response from the international community. Indeed, a closer look at events in Iraq - such as in the columns of openDemocracy’s Paul Rogers - confirms that recurrent tensions and violence have affected Baghdad and other cities in 2009-10. This means that the crisis for Iraq’s refugees is worsening, not improving.
Now, almost five years after the biggest exodus, many Iraqi refugees are maintaining a distance from the official agencies mandated to assist them. The UNHCR in Syria, after a concerted registration drive since 2006, has registered only around 200,000 Iraqis out of 1 million-1.5 million arrivals. The reasons are mixed, but clearly include the deep reluctance of refugees to envisage returning to a society profoundly marked by war, insecurity, civil conflict and economic uncertainty.
Some Iraqis say they fear involuntary repatriation to Iraq if they formally register with the UN agency (while only 273 Iraqi families returned to Iraqi in 2010 under the UNHCR’s voluntary-repatriation programme).
Many, with greater reason, are reluctant to go back to a country no longer characterised by mixed religious and ethnic communities and the legacy of Ottoman tolerance for ethno-religious differences. The emergent Iraqi state is clearly an “unmixed” one under which many Sunni Muslims are uncomfortable and Christian communities endangered and in flight.
It is most unlikely that mass return will occur, and probable that very large numbers of Iraqis will continue to live under increasingly difficult circumstances across the middle east. In some cases this will mean moving into and out of Iraq to sell possessions or take on short-term employment, part of a pattern of irregular and long-distance migrations. Their endemic precariousness is a severe challenge to governments and humanitarian-aid organisations.
The third-country option
Most Iraqi refugees do not have the option of settlement in other Arab states. Most refugees in Arab host countries feel psychologically as well as physically displaced, facing the prospect of long-term exile and declining interest from governments and support-networks. In this situation, third-country resettlement can appear a durable solution.
In 2008, some 17,800 Iraqis were settled in third countries on programmes supported by the UNHCR. The pace of resettlement accelerated in 2009, with significant numbers of Iraqis admitted to the United States. However, in the current climate of opinion vis-à-vis Iraq and its refugees, resettlement options are most likely to diminish without a change of stance from the international humanitarian-aid regime.
In this situation, western states should recognise formally the scale and seriousness of displacement within and from Iraq, and indeed (in light of attacks on Christian communities) the possibility of further mass movements related to profound insecurity. In addition, they should understand that the government of Iraq led by Nouri al-Maliki has made no sustained efforts to support displaced people (for example, by tackling problems of access to land and property, employment, income and general welfare).
Iraqi refugees will continue to find ways to sustain themselves in the impermanent pockets of tolerance and sanctuary across the region. But their future well-being primarily depends on the powers responsible for the breakdown of the former Iraqi state. A display from them of greater hospitality and generosity - in terms of third-country resettlement, both short- and medium-term - would begin to match the residual traditions of late-Ottoman tolerance, and to repair the terrible damage of years of war and violence.
Get our weekly email