4.6 million Iraqis still longing for a durable solution, Church World Service says December 11, 2007
Initial media reports that Iraqi refugees are beginning to return home in large numbers due to improved security in some parts of the country are now being tempered with a more complex, and more realistic, assessment of the conditions they are finding there, the relatively small number of returnees, and their reasons for returning.
Even the most optimistic estimates of returnees' numbers leaves unchanged a sobering fact: 4.6 million Iraqis are displaced within Iraq or to neighboring countries, and are in desperate need of protection and durable solutions. Church World Service is pressing the U.S. government to increase humanitarian aid to Iraq's displaced, and to keep its commitment to resettle 12,000 Iraqis to the United States during FY2008.
Background on Iraqi displacement
Some 4.6 million Iraqis -- one-sixth of the total population of Iraq -- are displaced, either within Iraq or to neighboring countries, according to the United Nations' refugee agency UNHCR. About 2.2 million of them have fled to Syria and Jordan. The remaining 2.4 million are internally displaced, a million of those having fled their homes under Saddam Hussein, another 200,000 between 2003-2005, and close to 1.2 million more by soaring sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing since the first Samarra bombing in 2006. The numbers include the just over 28,000 Iraqis internally displaced in October 2007.
Estimates of returnees' numbers in October-November 2007 range from 25,000 (Iraqi Red Crescent) to between 46,000 and 60,000 (Iraqi government officials). Even the most optimistic estimates leave unchanged the reality that Iraq currently is among the world?s principal sources of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), along with such countries as Afghanistan, the occupied Palestinian territories, Burma, Colombia, Sudan, Congo-Kinshasa, and Somalia.
Iraq's refugees and IDPs include many who worked for the U.S. government or its subcontractors or were employed by a U.S. media or nongovernmental organization in Iraq as translators, drivers, mechanics, cooks, and in other roles, and are thus now targeted for persecution for helping U.S. efforts. Others are fleeing persecution based on their religion, ethnicity, or profession.
Global refugee context
Every refugee situation in the world is different. Sometimes home country conditions improve so that most refugees can return, the first of three "durable solutions" available. Other refugees are able to integrate permanently into their country of first asylum. For others, neither of these options is viable, leaving only third-country resettlement as a "durable solution."
Around the world, nearly nine million refugees have been "warehoused" in camps or segregated settlements for five years or more, unable to return home, integrate locally, or resettle to a third country.
What durable solutions each of Iraq's refugees and IDPs will be able to access remains to be resolved. The UNHCR, in briefing notes dated Nov. 23, said it "does not believe that the time has come to promote, organize or encourage returns. This would be possible only when proper return conditions are in place ? including material and legal support and physical safety. Presently, there is no sign of any large-scale return to Iraq as the security situation in many parts of the country remains volatile and unpredictable."
Why Iraqi refugees returned home in October-November
A UNHCR survey in Syria found that while some Iraqi families cite improved security, especially around Anbar and in some districts of Baghdad, as their reason for returning to Iraq, more said they were returning because they were running out of money and/or resources, faced difficult living conditions in their host country, or because their visas had expired. Iraq's neighbors have become reluctant to accept more refugees due to the economic burden as the influx strains host countries' education, health and housing systems. In October, Syria introduced more restrictive visa requirements for Iraqis.
Incentives offered by the Iraqi government of some $700 to $800 (enough for four months' rent in a middle class Baghdad neighborhood) plus free transportation home also have played a role in returns.
UNHCR staff also spoke with returnees in Baghdad, who cited economic difficulties caused by their long displacement as a major reason for going home. Many had run out of or nearly depleted their savings. Some returned as it was the last chance to get their children back into Iraqi schools before the end of the first term. Some were encouraged by reports of improved security, but many expressed concern about longer-term security, citing the fact that militias are still around and many areas remain insecure.
Conditions returnees are finding
Many families have returned to destroyed or damaged property or to find their homes occupied by members of another sectarian group. Most formerly-mixed Baghdad neighborhoods are now sectarian enclaves, one group having driven the other out in deliberate ethnic cleansing. Returnees also find an unemployment rate of about 40 percent, and rampant corruption, according to The New York Times.
The Iraqi government acknowledged on Dec. 4 that it cannot handle a massive return of refugees, and the U.S. military has warned that the Iraqi government is ill prepared to handle the myriad issues faced by returning refugees, including their need for shelter, food, water, sanitation and legal aid (for example, to resolve property disputes). Furthermore, the U.S. military said it worries a massive return of refugees could rekindle sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites.
The plight of Iraq's internally displaced
Iraq's internally displaced often live in desperate circumstances. Many are in makeshift camps with terrible sanitation and water supply, little or no health care, and no schools, according to the United Nations, which adds that 23 percent of children in southern Iraq are chronically malnourished.
The following story was shared with Church World Service by the International Organization for Migration and is used with permission:
A mother and four of her sons fled Baghdad for Anbar after militants attacked the family home, killing her husband and abducting a fifth son. Despite the local authorities? claims that the security situation in Baghdad has been improved, the family remains sure that they can't return home.
The mother said she is ready to return as soon as she becomes certain this return will not cost her the life of another of her sons. "Despite all the claims of the security improvement, still the militias are controlling many areas inside Baghdad and they have the power to arrest and kidnap anybody they want during the daytime and in front of all the security forces," she said.
The mother and her four sons are surviving thanks to assistance from relatives in Anbar, the local mosque, and from the humanitarian community. They still need job opportunities and educational support. The IDPs are putting a strain on the host community as it contributes food and cash to the IDPs.
The U.S. resettlement option
In FY 2007 (Oct. 1, 2006-Sept. 30, 2007), the U.S. Refugee Program admitted about 1,600 Iraqi refugees for permanent resettlement in the United States.
The U.S. Government has committed to resettle 12,000 Iraqis to the United States during FY 2008 (October 1, 2007-September 30, 2008). In October and November, a total of 812 arrived.
Church World Service is pressing the U.S. government to fulfill its 12,000 commitment, and calling on the United States to increase humanitarian aid in the entire Middle Eastern region and to the United Nations in order to help Iraq's nearly 4.6 million displaced.
Church World Service also is advocating for passage of the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act, currently in conference as an amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill. The amendment would help Iraqi refugees by prioritizing vulnerable individuals, include Iraqis who are members of a religious or minority community and have close family members in the United States. Final Congressional action ? by the joint conference of the House and Senate Armed Services committees ? is expected in late December or early January.
Church World Service is urging its constituents to advocate with their Senators and Representatives for all these measures to protect displaced Iraqis.
As an organization with more than 60 years of experience in refugee resettlement and protection, Church World Service is helping to welcome Iraqi refugees to U.S. communities, and is engaged in several projects of assistance to displaced Iraqis, both inside Iraq and in neighboring countries.
Lesley Crosson, CWS/New York, 212-870-2676; firstname.lastname@example.org Jan Dragin, 781-925-1526; email@example.com