Five years after the US -led invasion, Iraq remains a deeply violent and divided society. Faced with one of the largest displacement and humanitarian crises in the world, Iraqi civilians are in urgent need of assistance. Particularly vulnerable are the 2.7 million internally displaced Iraqis who have fled their homes for safer locations inside Iraq. Unable to access their food rations and often unemployed, they live in squalid conditions, have run out of resources and find it extremely difficult to access essential services. The US, the government of Iraq and the international community must begin to address the consequences of leaving Iraqis’ humanitarian needs unmet.
As a result of the vacuum created by the failure of both the Iraqi Government and the international community to act in a timely and adequate manner, non-state actors play a major role in providing assistance to vulnerable Iraqis. Militias of all denominations are improving their local base of support by providing social services in the neighborhoods and towns they control. Through a “Hezbollah-like” scheme, the Shiite Sadrist movement has established itself as the main service provider in the country. Similarly, other Shiite and Sunni groups are gaining ground and support through the delivery of food, oil, electricity, clothes and money to the civilians living in their fiefdoms. Not only do these militias now have a quasi-monopoly in the large-scale provision of assistance in Iraq, they are also recruiting an increasing number of civilians to their militias - including displaced Iraqis.
Since the beginning of the crisis, the Government of Iraq has proven to be unwilling and unable to respond to the needs of vulnerable Iraqis. Although it has access to large sums of money, it is divided along sectarian lines, lacking both the capacity and the political will to use its important resources to address humanitarian needs. As a result, the government does not have any credibility left with Iraqis. The little assistance provided by the government is perceived by most as being biased in favor of the Shiite population, especially when it comes to the delivery of government services such as electricity or food ration cards from the Public Distribution System.
The international community has been largely in denial over the disastrous humanitarian situation in Iraq, and has until recently seen Iraq through the prism of reconstruction and development, and failed to address urgent needs. Only recently has the United Nations issued a common humanitarian appeal for Iraq, recognizing the nature of the situation and the need for all agencies to step up and address humanitarian needs.
Hindered by its political mandate in Iraq, and its lack of access to most of the country, the UN has no other choice than to rely on local partners to reach out to the communities most in need. By taking advantage of the “balkanization” of Iraq to identify interlocutors who can facilitate access throughout the country, the UN can create a larger space to meet humanitarian needs. Identifying and supporting local, non-governmental organizations that are known and trusted by the communities they serve will also be essential if the UN is to take a more important role in humanitarian assistance inside Iraq.
Ongoing violence in Diyala and Mosul, as well as recent events in Basra and Baghdad, have proven that the situation in Iraq is still too unstable and violent for people to return home. Of those Iraqis who have returned from Syria, most were unable to go back to their homes, as they would likely be attacked again, and had to move into homogenous, sectarian areas. Others found their homes occupied, and were unable to recover them.
While everyone hopes that Iraqi refugees and internally displaced people will be able to return to their homes in the future, the necessary conditions for returns to take place in safety and in dignity do not exist. All relevant actors should discourage returns until the violence subsides and people can receive adequate assistance and protection. In particular, the Government of Iraq should no longer use returns as an indicator of success in stabilizing the country. Returns — like the rest of the humanitarian situation — should not be used as a political tool by any of the parties to the conflict.
It is also difficult for people to return home because they have minimal access to basic services and the Government of Iraq does not have a clear strategy to handle returns. Moreover, property disputes are already emerging, as many houses of people who previously fled are now occupied by others who will be reluctant to give them up. Disputes are currently settled in an ad hoc manner, by a variety of actors such as the Iraqi army, the Iraqi police, or the militia in control of the neighborhood. For any return movement to be sustainable, the Iraqi Government, with the support and expertise of the international community, must devise a strategy to deal with property disputes, in a larger transitional justice framework. In the meantime, the Iraqi Government must ensure that property rights — and their violations — are documented.
Current Iraqi and American strategies for responding to Iraqi displacement assume that security will improve steadily over the next two years. However, the situation in Iraq remains volatile, and the Government of Iraq, the UN , the US government and other members of the international community must develop plans for Iraq based on all possible scenarios, including a deterioration of the security situation. Negotiations must begin with regional and local governments to ensure that people will be allowed to seek asylum in both Iraq and in the region in case violence increases and displacement resumes in large numbers. For Iraq to have any future, international donors must ensure that resources are allocated to the humanitarian response, and that all appeals are fully funded. As for the UN , it needs to develop its network of local actors, and reach out to all vulnerable Iraqis - whether or not they are displaced.
Failure to address the needs of Iraqis will have dramatic impacts on security inside Iraq. The hope that does exist lies in the efforts of Iraq’s citizens. Iraqi organizations are providing lifesaving assistance throughout the country and the international community must increase efforts to reach out to these groups and provide them with the funds to continue their work. Ultimately, only Iraqis can save Iraq.