E.g., 12/10/2023
E.g., 12/10/2023
Where to Now? Decreasing Options for Displaced Iraqis

Where to Now? Decreasing Options for Displaced Iraqis

No one knows the exact number of Iraqis who were displaced either before or after the March 2003 invasion. However, the most accepted estimate is that over 4 million, or just over one in six, are either displaced within Iraq or have fled abroad.

Of these 4 million Iraqis, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that some 2.2 million are internally displaced: 1,021,962 were displaced prior to 2003; 190,146 were registered as displaced between 2003 and 2005; and another 1,043,886, (as of July 31, 2007) were displaced following the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, north of Baghdad, in February 2006.

Shiites from western Baghdad are replacing Sunni families in eastern Baghdad. Sunnis from the south are moving to the north or are fleeing Iraq altogether. Shiites from Sunni strongholds are moving to the southern regions. Kurds and Christians are fleeing to the north.

The predominant trend in displacement is, and is likely to remain, movement from highly insecure areas in Baghdad to neighborhoods with improved services and security, as well as to locations with family, ethnoreligious, or tribal links outside the city. However, movements are not purely toward homogeneous areas, due to mixed marriages and increasing formal and informal restrictions on movement that limits the options available.

As for Iraqis abroad, UNHCR estimates that Syria is currently hosting some 1.2 to 1.4 million, with another 500,000 to 600,000 in Jordan, 20,000 to 30,000 in Lebanon, and some 20,000 to 40,000 in Egypt. Large numbers of Iraqis also reside in the Gulf states as well as in Turkey and Iran.

Syria's decision in mid-September 2007 to introduce a visa requirement for Iraqis, which has been temporarily suspended until the end of Ramadan (mid-October), will likely alter the plans of many Iraqis who were intending to flee to Syria. Tens of thousands of Iraqis will probably seek safety within a diminishing protection space in Iraq.

While Jordan is also poised to impose additional visa requirements, this move will largely regularize the existing restrictive entry procedures introduced in late 2006, which resulted in Syria being the only remaining escape route for Iraqis.

The options available to Iraqis seeking protection and assistance, either inside Iraq or abroad, are becoming increasingly narrow. After examining the situation of internally displaced Iraqis, we will look at Iraqis in the region, Iraqi asylum seekers, and Iraqis seeking resettlement to third countries.

Internally Displaced Iraqis

Internal displacement is taking on a more permanent and increasingly desperate character. Iraqis are fleeing violence as well as increasing poverty. The sale or abandonment of property and the departure of entire families, and in some cases communities, indicate that this population movement is likely to be long term, rather than temporary.

Humanitarian agencies reported an increase of over 220,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) from mid-May to late-July 2007. Some 60,000 Iraqis per month, or just over 80 per hour (day and night), are becoming IDPs. The Iraqi Red Crescent Organization (IRCO) puts the monthly displacement figure at closer to 100,000. Both the United Nations and IRCO place the total number of Iraqi IDPs at over 1 million since February 2006.

Of particular concern is the increasing vulnerability of the displaced, especially women who have either been widowed or who have been abandoned. Although the number of vulnerable women and children is unknown, reports of exploitation of the most vulnerable have increased. Unfortunately, as the social and cultural safety nets break down in many areas, the level of vulnerability and exploitation will increase.

In a number of areas, the increase in IDPs is largely due to improved registration of the previously displaced; in Baghdad and in certain parts of Ninewa and Diyala provinces, ongoing displacement (at the time of data collection) and enhanced access to IDPs explain the increase.

In Anbar province, some 2,000 IDPs were reported to have returned, mainly to Ramadi, following the end of military operations and improved security arrangements with local tribal leaders. However, recent inter-Shiite fighting in Karbala and other parts of southern Iraq are likely to have led to even further displacement. The three northern governorates are receiving, and no longer generating, IDPs, with the exception of an estimated 2,500 people fleeing cross-border shelling into Erbil and Sulaymaniyah.

As the level of displacement has increased, authorities in the majority of Iraq's 18 governorates have imposed various restrictions on IDP entry and residence. Although the central authorities in Baghdad condemn these restrictions, provincial governments have proceeded with them for a number of reasons, including security concerns, political considerations, health precautions, and the saturation of basic social services.

Unfortunately, as Iraq's neighbors impose more restrictive entry requirements, there is likely to be more pressure on internal displacement toward the North and those governorates offering better security and basic services.

Local authorities or, in some cases, nonstate actors are applying these movement restrictions, and they deny many new IDPs access to subsidized food assistance, fuel, and basic protection.

In contested areas, such as Kirkuk, competing interests put restrictions in place to limit the number of Kurds and/or Arabs who may wish to depart because doing so would upset the ethnic balance established prior to implementation of Article 140 of Iraq's Constitution, which mandates resolution of the administrative status of disputed territories.

Most IDPs reside with family and friends, but, due to the increased restrictions on IDP movement and growing social and economic vulnerability, tens of IDP camps and self-built shelters have appeared. According to reports from UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), some 1 to 2 percent of IDPs are now in tented camps while an additional 20 percent are estimated to be living in other types of collective settlements ranging from disused army barracks and warehouses to slum-like spontaneous dwellings.

IRCO is currently providing food rations to some 150,000 families when the needs are for at least 250,000 to 300,000 — and growing. In a recent survey, the International Medical Corps of IDPs in Diyala governorate found that only a few percent of IDPS receive humanitarian or government assistance.

Often, IDPs are forced to move multiple times as they again become caught up in the cycle of violence or local authorities force them to move out of public buildings or away from urban areas. The increasing number of IDPs who reside in tented or squalid settings remain most at risk.

Recent reports that the Iraqi government will impose travel restrictions following the confirmation of cholera in Tikrit, Mosul, Basra, Baghdad, and Dohuk — in addition to previous cases in Sulaymaniyah and Kirkuk — provide another reason for local authorities to restrict the movement of "outsiders."

Added to the figure of those displaced are Iraqis who stay due to circumstances or choice. Many Iraqis no longer have the means to obtain a passport or to travel. Others do not have families or friends who could support them, or they have extended family relying on them for the meager assistance and protection they can still provide.

Among those with few options are the 11,000 to 12,000 Palestinian refugees in Baghdad. Since they are not welcome anywhere else in Iraq or in neighboring countries, they are trapped in their compounds, increasingly encircled by uncompromising militias. Almost 2,000 others have chosen to flee to Iraq's desolate borders with Syria and Jordan.

Iraqis in Neighboring Countries

In Syria, UNHCR has now interviewed over 125,000 Iraqis. Despite having more than 30 registration staff members. Iraqis wishing to be interviewed still face a five-month wait. Including those waiting to be interviewed, UNHCR Damascus has registered over 200,000 Iraqis.

In Jordan, following the introduction of entry restrictions in late 2006, the waiting period has been reduced to three weeks from three-to-four months. The number of Iraqis registered is close to 50,000.

In Egypt and Lebanon, which also have strict entry requirements, UNHCR offices have registered 10,000 and 8,000 Iraqis, respectively.

Some of the main characteristics of the refugee population in 2007:

  • Over 80 percent originate from Baghdad, with less than 5 percent fleeing from each of the following provinces: Ninewa, Diyala, Kerbala, Basrah, and Anbar.
  • Over half of those registered are Sunnis, with Shiites representing less than 25 percent of the total in each country. The exception is Lebanon, where close to 60 percent of those registered are Shiites.
  • The proportions of Christians (20 percent) and Mandeans (3 percent) registered are much higher than their relative proportions in Iraq, where their combined totals are less than 5 percent.
  • The average case size has increased in recent months as entire families, rather than individuals, have fled.
  • The number of vulnerable people has increased. UNHCR is identifying larger numbers of severe medical cases, survivors of torture and trauma, and women at risk. In Damascus, 36 percent of those registered are identified as having specific needs.

The effect of these arrivals on regional economies, societies, and already overstretched infrastructures has been overwhelming. Iraqis now represent almost 10 percent of the populations in Syria and Jordan. As a consequence of this surge in populations, the prices of basic commodities that the state often subsidizes, such as food, fuel, and water, have increased significantly, with no comparable increase in salaries.

Power supplies in certain parts of Damascus have been unable to cope with the demand. Schools that were already crowded now have up to 60 students per class. Many Jordanians and Syrians can no longer rent or buy apartments due to price increases. Medical and health care facilities in a number of areas in Damascus are routinely catering to more Iraqis than Syrian nationals.

In addition, the host communities and state security agencies are aware that Iraqis are changing the character of their societies. They also fear Iraqis will bring with them sectarian and ethnic conflict.

Both Syria and Jordan have estimated the costs of hosting the Iraqi refugees at some US$1 billion respectively per year. Despite the lack of substantive assistance, Jordan, for the first time, opened up its public schools to Iraqi children in September 2007. Syria continues to allow Iraqis to access its education system. It is hoped that, by the end of the school year, some 100,000 Iraqi children in Syria and another 50,000 in Jordan will be enrolled.

To support these gestures of good faith, UNHCR and UNICEF launched a US$129 million appeal in July 2007 to support Iraqis' education needs in the region. While the United States immediately contributed US$39 million, other contributions have been disappointing.

In September, UNHCR joined the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, the World Food Program (WFP), and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in a US$84 million health appeal to address the health needs of Iraqi refugees; however, the response has been poor so far.

Clearly, with an overwhelmed social infrastructure and a lack of international solidarity, a general feeling of resentment is developing in Syria and Jordan. Syria's recent decision to impose a visa requirement on a fellow Arab state — a first for Syria — underlines its significance. It is not certain whether those Iraqis already in Syria will be required to return to Baghdad to apply for a visa. Already, many Iraqis believe it is too dangerous to visit the Syrian Embassy in Mansour or the Jordanian Embassy in Yarmouk in the Iraqi capital.

Also unknown is how Syrian authorities will treat those whose three-month visas have expired. UNHCR has requested that Syria give special consideration to Iraqis fleeing life-threatening situations.

Iraqi Asylum Seekers

Asylum applications by Iraqis in industrialized countries rose 45 percent in the first half of 2007 compared to the previous six months. This follows a 77 percent increase in applications in 2006.

Iraqi citizens lodged some 19,800 asylum claims in the 36 industrialized countries that provide data to UNHCR, compared to the 13,600 applications received in the last six months of 2006.

Almost half of all Iraqi applications during the first half of this year were submitted in Sweden. The large Iraqi community in that country and its strong social network may account for the high number of Iraqi asylum seekers there.

Greece registered some 3,500 Iraqi asylum claims between January and June 2007, compared to 1,400 during the whole of 2006, while Spain and Germany recorded 1,500 and 820 applications, respectively, during the first half of 2007. It should be noted that almost all Iraqi claims recorded in Spain were submitted through the Spanish embassy in Cairo.

Resettlement to Third Countries

UNHCR has referred over 15,000 Iraqis for resettlement to 14 resettlement countries, including 11,000 to the United States. At least 15 percent of those cases referred for resettlement are women at risk, with another 10 percent being survivors of torture and trauma.

Although the resettlement response is speeding up as more Iraqis complete the process, the numbers who have actually departed is still low.

The United States, which is by far the largest resettlement country, will have received some 1,500 Iraqis by the end of September. Having faced criticism at home for not processing Iraqi refugees (particularly those who worked for the U.S. military) more quickly, the U.S. government now expects to increase its capacity so it can resettle 1,000 per month going forward. The challenge is that Syria, while its borders remain open, receives at least 2,000 increasingly vulnerable Iraqis per day.

Looking Ahead

While UNHCR is well on track to meet its target of registering some 200,000 Iraqis and referring 20,000 Iraqis for resettlement by the end of 2007, these numbers only represent a small fraction of the estimated Iraqi population in the region.

The number who will actually depart for resettlement is likely to be far less than 10,000, since fewer than 2,000 Iraqis had moved by late September. This means that the ongoing assistance and protection needs of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis will need to be immediate and massive. Given the lack of durable solutions, it may also have to be long term.

Syria's decision to impose visa requirements may cause the remaining Iraqi regions and governorates still open to IDPs to become even more saturated, which would increase pressure on them to impose additional restrictions. If the new requirements are strictly implemented, Iraqis currently in Syria may be forced to return to Baghdad to apply for a new visa, or lose legal status, which means they will likely face increasing levels of marginalization that could ultimately induce movement back to Iraq or to another country.

A lack of internal and external flight options will inevitably lead to the increasing vulnerability and exploitation of those most at risk. Trafficking, despite its dangers, probably will become an increasing characteristic of Iraqi displacement.

Ensuring that Iraqis seeking safety are not forced back into danger and are given access to protection and humane living conditions are the international community's responsibilities, not just the responsibilities of countries in the region.

If the displacement situation in Iraq and the strain on neighboring states is to be stabilized, and possibly reversed, it is critical that the international community give the same level of attention as it afforded the post-2003 invasion reconstruction and development phases.

Andrew Harper is the head of UNHCR's Iraq Support Unit. However, this article has been provided in a personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the views of the organization.