Arab and International

Failed Responsibility: Iraqi Refugees in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon

A refugee crisis was feared before the coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003, but it came later than anticipated, and on a greater scale. It started not because of the military action, but two years later, when American efforts to rebuild the country faltered, violence escalated, and civilians became the targets of insurgent groups and sectarian militias. And while exact numbers are uncertain, the scale of the problem is not in dispute: today, Iraq’s refugee crisis – with some two and a half million outside the country and the same number internally displaced – ranks as the world’s second in terms of numbers, preceded only by Afghanistan and ahead of Sudan. While the security situation in Iraq shows progress, the refugee crisis will endure for some time and could worsen if that progress proves fleeting.

In managing the problem of the refugee wave that has washed over Jordan, Syria and (to a far lesser extent) Lebanon, and severely strained these resource-poor states, the international community and the Iraq government have failed in their responsibilities. The refugees have confronted distressing conditions, as savings dwindled, and hosts toughened policies. Host countries must provide adequate services and protection. But donor countries and Iraq bear the greater responsibility, to assist both the refugees and the host countries.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis became displaced since 2005, with a significant spike after the Samarra shrine bombing in February 2006. Up to five million Iraqis – nearly one in five – are believed to have deserted their homes in a bid to find safety and security. About half took refuge as internally displaced persons (IDPs), either in the Kurdistan region, which has remained peaceful, or in any other place within the country that was relatively sheltered from violence. The other half – those who could afford both the journey and upfront costs – fled as refugees to neighbouring countries, especially Jordan and Syria.

While initially welcoming of their Iraqi brethren, Syria and Jordan soon began placing tough restrictions on refugee entry. Moreover, by either design or default, they provided few basic services and opportunities for employment, adequate health care or children’s education. Despite some overt signs of refugee opulence, notably in Amman – stirring envy and resentment among the local population – the result has been growing pauperisation of Iraqis, whose savings are being depleted, while alternative sources of income, whether from local employment or family remittances, are likely to dry up. With little to lose and nothing to look forward to, refugees could become radicalised and more violent; crime, which already has reached worrying levels in host countries, could rise. The principal host countries, whose socio-economic capacities are being stretched, will bear an increasingly costly burden; this, in turn, could exacerbate tensions between host and refugee populations.

If Jordan, Syria and Lebanon can be faulted for unfriendly treatment of refugees at border crossings and lukewarm assistance once they have entered, they should, nonetheless, be credited for having agreed to receive so many Iraqis in the first place and allowing them to stay at great cost to their own societies. By contrast, it is difficult to give the Iraqi government any credit at all. Flush with oil money, it has been conspicuously ungenerous toward its citizens stranded abroad. No doubt there are senior former regime figures among the refugees, but this does not excuse callous neglect of overwhelmingly non-political people who loyally served Iraq rather than any particular regime.

The approach of the international community, especially states that have participated in Iraq’s occupation, has been equally troubling. Western nations have been happy to let host countries cope with the refugee challenge, less than generous in their financial support, and outright resistant to the notion of resettlement in their midst. Although it has contributed more than most, the U.S., whose policies unleashed the chaos that spawned the outflow, has clearly failed in its own responsibilities: downplaying the issue, providing far less assistance to host countries than needed and admitting to its own shores merely a trickle of refugees and only after unprecedented security checks to which asylum seekers from other nations are not subjected.

Recent improvements in Iraq’s security situation could lead some to lower their interest in the refugee question on the assumption that massive returns are imminent. This would be wrong. Even under today’s circumstances, returning can be extremely perilous: safety remains uncertain, public services inadequate, and many houses have been seized by others, destroyed or are located in neighbourhoods or villages now dominated by militias of a different sect. There is no indication that large numbers of refugees have returned because of a positive reassessment of security conditions. Far more than improved conditions at home, it is unbearable conditions in exile that appear to have been the determining factor in most returns.

It would be reckless to encourage Iraqis to return before genuine and sustained improvement takes place. For the vast majority of refugees, returning home is the only viable solution, but that will not happen soon. In the meantime, the international community – especially countries that bear responsibility for the war and the post-war chaos – has an obligation to do more both to assist refugees in host countries and to welcome additional Iraqis on their own soil.

This is a humanitarian tragedy, but it is more than that. Rich in oil, Iraq today is bankrupt in terms of human resources. It will take decades to recover and rebuild. Because most refugees come from what used to be the (largely secular) middle class, their flight has further impoverished Iraq and potentially deprived it of its professional stratum for a decade or more. The period of exile should be used to teach refugees new skills to facilitate their eventual social reintegration and contribution. There is every reason to assist host countries in that endeavour.


To the Iraqi Government:

1.  Assume its responsibilities toward citizens turned refugees by assisting them through direct or indirect (via UN mechanisms or host countries) financial support; cooperation with UN agencies providing food and health assistance; and aid to host countries and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in providing school uniforms and basic school materials.

2.  Increase dramatically its pledged support to neighbouring host countries, including by reallocating funds from past budget surpluses.

3.  Design a mechanism to support refugees willing to return by:

(a)   ensuring that Iraqi embassies provide up-to-date and objective security assessments on specific areas, along with advice as to whether conditions are favourable for return;

(b)   establishing local committees to which returning refugees can turn for state support and arbitrage (on issues such as property claims or employment); and

(c)   dedicating a portion of positions within the state administration to refugees willing to return and advertising these through Iraqi embassies.

4.  Refrain from encouraging large-scale return before security conditions permit and the afore-mentioned mechanism is functioning.

5.  Allow and facilitate refugee participation in provincial council elections.

6.  Allow and facilitate the transfer of funds derived from pensions and other allowances accruing to (former) state employees residing abroad.

7.  Monetise the Public Distribution System, facilitating access to resultant entitlements within Iraq and to Iraqis abroad in cooperation with UNHCR and the World Food Programme (WFP).

To the U.S. Government:

8.  Assume its responsibilities toward Iraqi citizens turned refugees as a result of the conflict by:

(a)   disconnecting the refugee issue from other political considerations and making financial support to refugees in Syria consistent with the level of support extended to those in Jordan;

(b)   exerting pressure on and providing assistance to the Iraqi government to assume its responsibilities as described above;

(c)   stepping up the resettlement of Iraqis interviewed successfully by the Department of Homeland Security, starting with those found especially vulnerable under UNHCR criteria and those who worked for the U.S. military or companies, such as translators;

(d)   removing security checks and requirements for Iraqi asylum seekers that exceed existing standard procedures and making available more and better functioning U.S. contact offices to process asylum claims throughout Iraq, where possible; and

(e)   initiating cooperation programs with host countries regarding civil service training, scholarships and exchange agreements with foreign universities.

To Other Members of the International Community, including the European Union (EU) and wealthy Arab States:

9.  Offer financial support to host countries and UNHCR, make such assistance transparent and monitor program implementation, express readiness to accept resettlement of significant numbers of Iraqis found by UNHCR to be especially vulnerable, refrain from returning refugees to unsafe areas in Iraq and conform repatriation advice to that issued by UNHCR.

To the Syrian, Jordanian and Lebanese Governments:

10.  End forcible deportations and announce that Iraqis not found guilty of criminal offences other than visa irregularities will not be forcefully repatriated.

11.  Assume a more tolerant attitude toward Iraqis entering the job market, including those seeking white-collar jobs.

12.  Take steps to prevent exploitation of women and children, particularly involving prostitution.

13.  Enhance efforts to ensure that Iraqi children attend school by:

(a)   making clear and repeated statements that this is a state priority;

(b)   initiating an information campaign on refugees’ rights to, and opportunities for, education and medical care;

(c)   operating dedicated places for Iraqis to access relevant information and from where local authorities manage the registration and transport of children attending school outside the areas where the existing educational infrastructure is most congested; and

(d)   refraining from any measure ending parental residency during the summer break.

14.  Expand health-care services to Iraqis, especially the most vulnerable and the chronically ill.

To the Syrian Government:

15.  Design a refugee policy consistent with the need to protect and offer legal status to the most vulnerable and threatened by:

(a)   creating a specific category of Iraqis eligible for a visa based on an assessment of the threats to which they are exposed and setting up adequate structures at its Baghdad embassy and border points to examine such cases, at a minimum delivering visas of restricted validity pending further checks; and

(b)   legalising the status of those already in Syria and genuinely threatened in Iraq.

16.  Facilitate access and accelerate procedures for international NGOs with proven expertise working either on local capacity building or turn-key projects in coordination with the local Red Crescent Society.

To the Jordanian Government:

17.  Legalise the status of Iraqi refugees already in Jordan who are genuinely threatened in Iraq.

18.  Institute proper screening procedures at the borders for Iraqi asylum seekers, regardless of their confessional background, and protect their right to due process.

19.  Allow Iraqis to establish charity organisations, especially organisations that serve fellow Iraqis, perhaps modelled on the Lebanese experience.

To UNHCR, WFP, the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) and International Organization for Migration (IOM):

20.  Earmark UN Trust Fund for Iraq monies to UNHCR for aid to Iraqi refugees.

21.  Facilitate the monetisation of Iraq’s Public Distribution System, providing Iraqis with ATM cards or, when not feasible, establishing cash-disbursement offices in Iraq and abroad.

22.  Provide up-to-date security assessments to Iraqis abroad on specific areas in Iraq, along with advice as to whether conditions favour return.

source: crisis group

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