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Iraqis in Exile

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/iraqirefugees1crop.jpgIraqi refugees living in Syria (Flickr: James Gordon)

Even with the Iraq war yielding reduced levels of violence, a new Brookings Institution report details what could be the next Iraq-related security crisis in the Middle East: the millions of Iraqi refugees.

Years of turmoil have created an acute Iraqi refugee crisis. Early on in the war, thousands of educated and wealthy Iraqis — the backbone of a middle class — fled the chaos of their country for the relative stability of neighboring Jordan and Syria. The deterioration into marked sectarian violence led to another wave, sending anyone who could afford to leave Iraq outward. As the volume of refugees mounted, both Jordan and Syria have largely stopped admitting Iraqi refugees in order not to exacerbate domestic social problems. Current estimates hold that there are one million Iraqis living in Syria; 500,000 in Jordan, and another 500,000 spread throughout the Middle East. In addition, 2.7 million Iraqis have been displaced internally due to sectarian violence, as Shiites moved into Shiite areas and Sunnis moved to Sunni enclaves in search of security.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/nationalsecurity1.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

This refugee crisis poses a serious challenge to security in the Middle East. “The implications of the refugee crisis that is the result of our ill-conceived Iraq misadventure should not be understated,” said Rand Beers, a former senior counterterrorism official in both the Clinton and Bush administrations. “The displacement of millions—both internally and to neighboring nations—only increases the potential for regional volatility and radicalization.”

Elizabeth Ferris, a senior foreign-policy fellow at the moderate think tank, writes in “The Looming Crisis: Displacement and Security in Iraq” that the millions of refugees generated by the war — most estimates place the total of internal and externally displaced Iraqis at more than 4 million, or approximately 15 percent of Iraq’s entire population — will influence Middle Eastern security in unexpected ways for decades to come.

“If the refugees do not receive sufficient support from the host governments and the international community,” Ferris writes, “there is a very real danger that political actors will seek to fill the gap as they reportedly now do inside Iraq. It is important to remember that both Hezbollah and Hamas derive much of their popular legitimacy from the fact that they created effective social support systems to help needy people when governments were unable to do so.”

Iraqis in exile are traumatized people. A March 2008 finding by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, found that 80 percent of Iraqi refugees “reported being witness to a shooting”; nearly 70 percent reported “interrogation or harassment by militias or other groups with threats to life”; 23 percent had been kidnapped; and 75 percent “knew someone close to them who had been killed or murdered.” Host governments in the region, Ferris writes, often do not provide adequate social services, treating Iraqi refugees as “guests” rather than citizens, in order to preserve the appearance that the refugees will return to Iraq. “But,” Ferris writes, “guests — unlike recognized refugees — do not have rights.” Repeated efforts to interview Ferris were unsuccessful.

The decision to treat Iraqi refugees as temporary instead of resettling them has everything to do with the Palestinian experience, according to Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at George Washington University. The U.N.’s Palestinian relief agency, known as UNRWA, created sprawling refugee camps for millions of displaced Palestinians. But “UNHCR has not done anything like that” for Iraqis, Lynch said. “It’s been a very important thing for the Jordanian government especially, and for other governments, not to want create a refugee situation like the Palestinians.”

But the Palestinian refugee experience demonstrates how volatile a protracted refugee situation is. On Wednesday morning, for example, a bomb left on a bus in the Lebanese city of Tripoli killed 18 people. The bombers are believed to have come from the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, a haven for Palestinians in northern Lebanon that has grown increasingly radical.

“A large number of [Iraqis] are dispossessed, with no chance of coming back, and that’s a fairly fertile ground for recruiting” for terrorism, Lynch said. “Iraqi networks, it’s claimed, bring money and guns from Syria, and a lot of that is rooted in the refugee population. The leaders of various insurgency factions live in Syria and Jordan, and direct the insurgency from there.”

Yet the problem doesn’t end with the region, Ferris writes.

Iraq has more than 2.7 million people internally displaced. Owing to intimidation and violence, the once-mixed capitol of Baghdad became a substantially Shiite city in 2006. Most Iraqi governorates, already beleaguered by chaos and insurgency, have not been able to provide basic social services to internally-displaced people. Ferris cites a U.N. study showing nearly one in four internally displaced Iraqis “live in abandoned public buildings, former military barracks or other collective settlements” that frequently “lack basic utilities and are vulnerable to violent attacks.” Only 22 percent of internally-displaced Iraqis have access to national food rations. “Any [security] gains achieved by the surge,” she writes, “can quickly be erased by inadequate policies toward the displaced.”

While there has been a recent push by the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to resettle some refugees and internally-displaced people, much of it has been for show. An earlier study by Refugees International found that resettlement is, in fact, often a tactic of continued sectarian conflict, with various militia groups placing Shiite in formerly-Sunni homes and vice versa. Maliki, Ferris writes, “lacks political will to recognize either the magnitude or the potential consequences of the displacement. To do so would be an indication of the government’s failure to protect its people.”

The U.S.’s response to the refugee crisis has been vexed by similar political concerns. Fewer than 6,000 Iraqis have been cleared for resettlement in the U.S., meaning many Iraqis who collaborated with U.S. efforts in the occupation have been abandoned — a situation literally dramatized in New Yorker writer George Packer’s acclaimed play “Betrayed.” U.S. policy to refugees and internally displaced Iraqis largely consists of “funding multilateral aid organizations,” Ferris writes. The Bush administration plans on spending $281 million on humanitarian assistance to Iraq this fiscal year — about 11 percent of what the U.S. spends each week on the Iraq war. The primary reason for such parsimony, Ferris writes, is “an aversion to admitting that the safest option for hundreds of thousands of Iraqis is to flee the country.”

All this leads to a substantial pool of recruits for terrorists; for increased instability in Iraq’s neighbors, and for continuing to fuel the Iraqi insurgency, said Beers, now the head of the liberal National Security Network. “We’ve seen elsewhere in the world the devastating effect forced mass migration can have,” Beers said. “At this dangerous time for America’s national security both in the region and beyond, we need a much stronger effort to address the vulnerability of the millions who have fled their homes in Iraq. The alternative is a cauldron of unrest and instability boiling over into violence, extremism, and chaos.”

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