Worse than Darfur?

by matttbastard

One element of the chaos in Iraq not fully addressed in the ISG report is the ongoing displacement of its citizenry, especially religious minorities and the professional classes. Perhaps this is because there’s so little that can be done. Sectarian violence, abductions, and continuing problems with basic civil infrastructure contribute to the ever-increasing flow of refugees. The complete collapse of Iraq society, which at times seems like it could occur at any moment, would likely open the flood gates.

With a Maliki-led government seen by many (both inside and outside Iraq) as largely ineffectual, and the virtual neutering of the US as a legitimate power broker in the region, the factors provoking the exodus appear unlikely to mitigate any time soon (barring a coerced change in government and the abandonment of democracy, of course).

The threat posed by the ongoing mass migration goes beyond humanitarian concerns. This past October, Ken Pollack and Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institution published a sobering analysis in The Atlantic Monthly about the burgeoning Iraq refugee crisis. The report warned that the growing numbers of refugees driven out of Iraq by continued instability and sectarian conflict could pose a security threat in surrounding regions such as Jordan and Syria, both of which host sizable numbers of displaced Iraqis:

The iconic image of the refugee is a bedraggled woman clutching her child as she stumbles into a blighted aid camp. But this picture is incomplete. Refugee camps, which are often under international protection but do not have international policing, can become sanctuaries for militia groups. Host governments often find it hard to stop these militias, even when they want to, either because they lack the military strength to do so or because fighters hide among innocent civilians. In fact, militia leaders sometimes become the leaders of the refugee community, offering protection, imposing their will on any rivals, and recruiting new fighters from among the camp’s many traumatized, jobless young men. Tribal elders and other leaders who might oppose violence may find themselves enfeebled by both the trauma of flight and the loss of their traditional basis of power (typically, control of land). As a result, refugee camps can become deeply radicalized communities, dangerous to their host countries in several ways. The mere presence of militias among the refugees tends to embroil the host country in war by making it a target.

The UN recently validated Pollack and Byman’s prediction that the pace of migration was increasing when it released a report claiming refugees are leaving Iraq at a rate of 1000 per day. Thus far, over 1.8 million people in total are estimated to have left. According to a just-published report by Refugees International, the crisis is quickly ‘spiralling’ out of control:

The surging violence in Iraq has created what is becoming the biggest refugee crisis in the world, a humanitarian group said today.


Refugees International said the acceleration in the numbers fleeing Iraq meant it could soon overtake the refugee crisis in Darfur.

“We’re not saying it’s the largest [refugee crisis], but it’s quickly becoming the largest,” spokeswoman Kristele Younes said. “The numbers are very, very scary.”


The report revealed Iraqi refugees were facing tough restrictions in other Arab countries, preventing them from finding work or gaining access to healthcare and other public services.

Jordan has all but closed the door to Iraqis, and has stopped renewing residency permits for the approximately 500,000 already there.

The kingdom’s restrictions have made Syria – which does not require entry visas from Arabs – the leading destination for refugees from Iraq, with around 2,000 entering the country each day, the UN said.

Jordanian officials have warned of Iraq provoking a crisis of stability throughout the Middle East unless the situation in Iraq, including the displacement of its citizenry, is somehow immediately corrected. Judging by how well the US and the rest of the international community have handled the soon-to-be-second-worst global refugee crisis, there’s little hope of a solution in the near future. As it stands now, Iraq is, as Kofi Annan recently observed, “worse than a civil war“.

related: recommendations from the Refugees International report, Iraq Refugee Crisis: International Response Urgently Needed:

  • The US and international community acknowledge the scope of the crisis and provide assistance directly or indirectly to regional governments to help them absorb refugees and keep their borders open;
  • Nations hosting Iraqi refugees recognize their needs, and work proactively with UNHCR and others to provide necessary services to Iraqi refugees;
  • The UN help create a regional burden-sharing plan that includes all countries neighboring Iraq and obtains commitments from donors to provide resources to these countries;
  • International donors increase substantially their support to UNHCR and fully meet their appeal for 2007;
  • UNHCR and national governments devise alternatives to the temporary protection regime;
  • Host countries work with the UN to increase the capacity of national health, education, and housing systems to provide adequate services for Iraqi refugees, including plans for international support for these services;
  • Other UN agencies participate in relief efforts for Iraqis. The UN country teams need to make humanitarian response for Iraqis a priority in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

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