Millions of Iraqis Uprooted—Media Give Little Coverage of Major Crisis
WASHINGTON, D.C.-In the mainstream public debates on the merits of the military “surge,” troop withdrawal timetables, and the Iraqi political process, little is said of the 2.7 million Iraqis who fled their homes but remained in Iraq and 2.2 million Iraqi’s refugees living in neighboring countries, Syria and Jordan. These numbers represent one out of six Iraqis.
Not only the huge number of “internally displaced people” (IDP) and refugees goes largely unreported, but little is said of the tremendous loss of Iraq’s professional people, including a large loss of doctors. These are humanitarian concerns of huge proportions.
Also, very important are how these millions of displaced Iraqis will be affecting the future security of Iraq and the Middle East, according to a recently published Brookings report, “The Looming Crisis: Displacement and Security in Iraq.”
The author, Dr. Elizabeth G. Ferris, is a Senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., and spoke at Brookings, Aug. 22, on “Iraqi Displacement: Prospects for Returns and Resettlement.” The Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement hosted the discussion.
“If solutions aren’t found for Iraqi’s refugees and internally displaced, there can be no peace in Iraq,” warned Dr. Ferris in her report.
She is particularly concerned about the long-term effects of the “ethnic cleansing,” which is making difficult the return of Iraqis to areas where they are a minority—Shi’i to a Sunni area or Sunni to a Shi’i area, or the return of displaced minority groups: Christians, Sabean-Mandeans, Jews, Baha’is, Yazidis, Turmen, Kurds, Shabaks, and Palestinians.
Dr. Ferris also deplores the lack of media coverage on “…the massive brain drain that has taken place in Iraq, the staggeringly high unemployment rates, [and] the growing destitution of Iraqi refugees in Syria.”
Why They Left
In the planning for the U.S. led invasion, there was no serious consideration for a refugee exodus or large numbers of internally displaced. “The U.S. government has been slow to acknowledge and respond to the current crisis,” writes Dr. Ferris. However, the U.S. government has been the single biggest contributor of humanitarian assistance to displaced Iraqis—more than $500 million since 2003, according to the Department of State cited by Ferris.
The invasion itself did not result in many IDPs. An estimated 190,000 Iraqis were displaced between 2003 and 2005, according to the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), cited in the report. The event that triggered the mass exodus of IDPs and refugees was the bombing of the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra in Feb. 2006.
“At the height of the crisis, over 60,000 Iraqis fled their homes every month and remained internally displaced in the country. Another 2,000 per day…were fleeing across the Syrian border,” writes Dr. Ferris, who cited various sources for the period from February 2006 to August 2007.
“About 90 percent of displaced Iraqis received direct threats to their life rather than generalized violence,” said Dr. Ferris.
“Those who had the means and those who had the connections went first and the furthest,” said Dr. Ferris. Later, the pattern of displacement changed to those more poor with limited resources and fewer connections, said Dr. Ferris. She declared the Iraqi displacements as one of the world’s most urgent crisis.
“The doctors, lawyers, computer specialists—a large proportion of the trained middle class—have gone into exile,” mainly Syria and Jordan. “[The] 2.2 million Iraqi’s best and brightest hold implications for the future of Iraq,” said Dr. Ferris.
The exact number of millions of Iraqis displaced is hard to know. The displaced Iraqis are not residing in the proverbial overcrowded refugee camps where they would be visible and could easily be counted, but are living in urban population centers.
“Some estimates find that between 20 and 40 percent of all doctors have fled the country,” said Dr. Ferris. “The Iraqi government has offered incentives, particularly to the medical establishment, but so far, indications are that not many have taken them up on this,” said Dr. Ferris.
The dire difficulties facing the displaced—particularly the lack of employment—don’t
make the headline news, nor is the gradual impoverishment in foreign countries much noticed by the media. But this part of the story may well determine the future of Iraq and whether it becomes stable when and if these Iraqis return.
Today, the borders of Iraq’s neighbors are much less permeable than they once were. With the exception of skilled professionals and business people, Iraqi’s neighbors are not permitting more refugees to enter.
The nearly 70,000 Iraqis who worked alongside U.S. forces are directly targeted for violence. For these Iraqis, the only safe solution is to leave Iraq.
In 2005, an Iraqi translator found his dog beheaded and a letter that threatened the same for him. The man and his wife fled the Gulf and asked Johnson for help in getting admitted to the U.S. In the course of helping this translator, many other Iraqis contacted him who were in the same boat. Even the Iraqi government doesn’t want to hire these people because they helped us, said Johnson.
He made a list of names of 1500 of former colleagues to the Americans, complete with documentation, and provided this information to the Department of State.
“Iraqi’s who have helped us merit or warrant our help,” said Johnson. Last year, only 150 have made it into the U.S. and prospects are not any better this year—a disappointment to Johnson and his team of nearly 200 attorneys working bro bono. The U.S. can admit 5,000 displaced Iraqis through the Special Immigrant Visa act, which streamline the bureaucratic process, but last year and this year, we are not even close to that, said Johnson. The DOS tries to justify the delays by saying that they cannot admit these individuals swiftly because they may be terrorists, according to Johnson, who is quick to counter how especially well documented they are.
This is “[o]ne of the fastest growing displacement crisis in the world, and the President of the United States has not so much as uttered a syllable,” said a frustrated Johnson. He would like to see these Iraqis airlifted out and sent to a base where they could be processed expeditiously. There is precedent for this when in 1996, President Clinton airlifted out Iraqis, and processed them on average in 90 days.
Returning Iraqis and Humanitarian Assistance
Most agencies moved their international staff out of Iraq after the 2003 bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad that resulted in the death of 22 U.N. staffers. The UN subsequently adopted strict internal security measures which limit travel to dangerous areas. Moreover, after years of U.N. sanctions during Saddam’s reign, with the reportedly many civilian deaths, its reputation in most places as a neutral, idealistic organization is not the case in Iraq.
The amount of humanitarian assistance from international NGOs has been getting to only a fraction of the IDPs. And the Iraq government is not devoting sufficient resources to Jordan and Syria and its own internally displaced. Not much can be expected from Iraq’s Ministry of Displacement and Migration (recently renamed Ministry of Migration). Apparently, after five years of war, it still “lacked basic procedures and has virtually no staff with any experience with displacement,” said Dr. Ferris.
“[The] al-Maliki government lacks the political will to recognize either the magnitude or the potential consequences of the displacement,” said Dr. Ferris. To do so would mean they would be forced to admit that over two million Iraqi refugees have left because their government cannot protect them.
A trickle of displaced Iraqis from neighboring countries began to return in 2007. It is hard to tell whether this was due to the success of the “surge.” The data based on UNHCR assessments indicate that the main reason they are returning is either because of not being able to afford staying in Syria or new visa rules. In Jordan and Syria there is growing resentment of the presence of Iraqis, the strain on public services, and increasing prostitution by desperate Iraqi women. Only a few were returning because of improved security.
But these assessments are based on only 110 returning families. By Jan. 2008, the situation even appeared to be reversing, with UNHCR reporting that more Iraqis leaving Iraq than were returning.
There is evidence that returnees from Syria are only going to areas where they feel safe, which may not be their homes and communities. Around 70 percent are returning to find that there homes have been destroyed or are occupied by other families, writes Dr. Ferris.
“There is a danger that the refugee problem will become an internal displacement problem,” writes Dr. Ferris.
IDPs and refugee families are returning primarily to neighborhoods of their own sect, ethnically/religiously homogeneous. Too many returning may act as a destabilizing force, said Dr. Ferris. When returnees find their homes occupied by others, new tensions and potential violence can occur.
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