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The Return and Resettlement of Displaced Iraqis

Testimony of Kenneth H. Bacon, President, and Kristele Younes, Senior Advocate
March 31, 2009
Committee on Foreign Relations, US Senate

Thank you, Senator Casey, for holding this hearing today.  As President Obama noted in his February 27 speech on responsibly ending the war in Iraq, "millions of displaced Iraqis…are a living consequence of this war and a challenge to stability in the region, and they must become part of Iraq’s reconciliation and recovery." This hearing and legislation such as the Casey-Cardin "Support for Vulnerable Iraqis Act" will play an important role in addressing the security and stability challenges presented by Iraqi displacement. 

Refugees International has been working on the plight of displaced Iraqis for three years. In 2006 and 2007, we called the Iraqi displacement crisis "the fastest growing" in the world. Although the rates of displacement have since slowed, about  20% of the Iraqi population remains displaced. The Governments of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and other host countries say that they are sheltering almost 2 million Iraqi refugees, while the International Organization for Migration notes that another 2.6 million are internally displaced in Iraq. The latter are known as IDPs.

Throughout the past three years, Refugees International has advocated increased assistance to displaced Iraqis, as well as increased resettlement of Iraqi refugees in the US and other countries. Our efforts have led the United Nations to significantly increase their presence and work in the region and the US Government to step up efforts to respond to the crisis. In 2008, the US Government provided $400 million in assistance to displaced Iraqis. To date, in 2009, the US has contributed $150 million and expects to contribute more. As for resettlement, the US welcomed more than 13,000 Iraqis in 2008 and plans to resettle at least 17,000 in the current fiscal year. More needs to be done, but these improvements in the humanitarian response are encouraging and demonstrate the willingness of the US government to address some of the humanitarian consequences of the war in Iraq.

Assistance by the international community and the resettlement of vulnerable Iraqis to the US and elsewhere remain critical components of a comprehensive response to the Iraqi displacement crisis. However, with such a large segment of the population displaced, the solution for most displaced Iraqis will be to return home.

As security in Iraq seems to be improving, it is essential that the Government of Iraq, the US and the United Nations (UN) work together to create conditions suitable for returns.

Earlier this month, we conducted a mission to Iraq to survey work in the main areas of displacement and return in the center of the country. We visited several areas of Baghdad, as well as Eskanderia, in the former “Sunni triangle of death”, Fallujah in the Anbar Governorate, Karbala and Hilla in the Babel Governorate.

I very much appreciate your invitation to brief you on our findings.  Unfortunately, a medical emergency has forced us to present our testimony in writing.  I hope you will make this entire statement part of the hearing record and that you will not hesitate to submit questions in writing.

Here are our major findings:

• As security in Iraq improves, refugees and internally displaced Iraqis are starting to return home, but the returns are slow and tentative.
• While security remains the major factor in a family’s decision to return home, other factors play a role—infrastructure, particularly water and electricity, employment opportunities and health care.  The government of Iraq (GOI), the U.S. and the United Nations have to do a better job of working together provide the services necessary to support returning Iraqis.
• The capacity of the GOI to provide protection and services to returning Iraqis is weak.  A vibrant civil society sector, including increasingly competent local non-government organizations, is beginning to develop in Iraq, but the government often sees the civil society movement as a threat rather than a potential partner.  The U.S. and the UN should concentrate on helping to develop a better partnership between the GOI and civil society organizations.
• Returns tend to ratify the ethnic cleansing that took place during the worst years of sectarian violence, when many mixed neighborhoods became all Shi’a or all Sunni.  The GOI needs to do a better job of convincing Iraqis that rule of law applies equally to all Iraqis and that the government is nonsectarian.

The state of returns

Since November 2007, the Government of Iraq has been trying to encourage the return of displaced Iraqis. In Syria, Jordan, and Egypt the GOI has made buses and planes available to help refugees return to their country and has provided them with a small sum upon their return home. As for the internally displaced, they too can receive assistance to vacate the homes they sometimes occupy illegally and to return to their homes. Iraq went as far as violating international refugee law by asking Syria to close its borders to refugees at the end of 2007, when the number of people fleeing was still significant, because of fears that the large number of refugees gave a bad image of the security situation inside the country.

In its strategy to encourage returns, the Government of Iraq has failed to take political, social and economic reality into consideration and examine the country’s capacity to absorb large numbers of returns. Instead, it has made the return of displaced Iraqis a component, as opposed to a consequence, of its security strategy. Large returns, the Government reasoned in 2007, would create the impression that security in Iraq was better and would win popular and international support for the Government’s military and political actions. 

Pressure on the displaced to return to their homes continues today. Refugees International met with Government officials who all expressed the desire to see the “IDP file” closed in 2009, as there are "no longer reasons to be displaced" in Iraq. As a result, IDPs are no longer being registered, as the government hurries to make the displacement problem disappear. Moreover, Prime Minister Al Maliki’s Shi’a Government has little sympathy for the largely Sunni refugees in neighboring countries. Syria and Jordan state that almost 2 million such refugees are still in their countries, but the Government of Iraq states that there are no more than 400,000, and fewer have registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. According to a UN diplomat in Baghdad, the Prime Minister sees all refugees as "traitors" or "baathists" who prefer "getting money without working" rather than helping rebuilding their country.

Displacement from Iraq has slowed but hasn’t stopped yet; the UN continues to register new arrivals in Syria and Jordan for instance. A small percentage of the internally displaced are returning, in part because of the ceasefires imposed by Sunni and Shiite militias and the security those militias have established in their fiefdoms for members of the same sect. Also, many formerly mixed communities are no longer mixed and there is essentially no one left to force out.  In addition, the conditions for displaced families both within Iraq and in neighboring countries are extremely difficult and continue to deteriorate. Thus, some Iraqis are returning to "safe" neighborhoods in Baghdad.

Returns remain a trickle, however, rather than the solution of choice for most displaced. According to the IOM, around 50,000 families (250,000 persons) have returned, mostly to Baghdad, and mostly from within the country. Only 8% of these returnees were refugees from neighboring countries. As for the rest of the IDPs, a survey by IOM shows that 61% of those still displaced would eventually like to return, but don’t feel ready to do it now. The remaining 39% would either like to integrate in their current communities, or resettle somewhere else. Obviously, if the post 2006 population movements aren’t reversed, there will be serious consequences for the political future of Iraq, as entire neighborhoods and cities will remain homogenous.

Returns are the most effective way to gauge lasting improvements in Iraq, as refugees and IDPs are often the best informed about the conditions in their places of origin. The low numbers demonstrate that major obstacles and challenges need to be addressed before mass returns can take place. According to UNHCR and the US embassy in Baghdad, many who have returned to Iraq from neighboring countries have now become internally displaced, unable to go back to their homes. They seek shelter in neighborhoods reflecting their religious sect, not neighborhoods where they are the minority and might feel threatened. As for IDPs, many fear returning because returnees have been killed. Local security officials and Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) confirmed that there have been incidents of intimidation or murder in many areas, and these stories spread quickly throughout the population. Refugees International visited the Sunni area of Amriya, where a Shi’a family was killed when it tried to return. We heard of similar incidents happening to Sunni families in Shi’a neighborhoods.

Besides the fragility of the security situation, there are many other obstacles to return. According to assessments conducted by international and national aid agencies, refugees and IDPs who have returned need shelter, electricity, water, employment and non-food items. Healthcare is also a major issue: there are 18,000 healthcare workers in Iraq today, versus 36,000 in 2000. Humanitarian organizations have designed programs to target some of these needs. For instance, IOM designed a returnee food and non-food basket, and seeks to assist returning families by including them in its community assistance, water/sanitation, health and education programs. Similarly, UNHCR included assistance to returnees in its 2008 and 2009 programs, while both international and local NGOs stand ready to assist in many areas of Iraq. As for the GOI, it announced assistance to returnees-around $800 per family-that is neither sufficient nor efficiently distributed.

Despite these initiatives in assisting returnees, the systems are currently not in place to handle a large number of returnees as it is the overall infrastructure of the country that needs to be revived. Moreover, there is no unified process to deal with returning internally displaced persons or refugees. As in the post-conflict Balkans, property disputes are a key issue in Iraq, as many returnees are unable to go home since their houses are occupied by others. Property disputes will linger for many years to come and are likely to spark renewed violence. For now, they are being handled by the Iraqi army on orders from the Prime Minister’s cabinet dealing with the eviction of "squatters", many of them IDPs themselves.

Creating conditions for returns: the role of the Government of Iraq

Despite improvements in security, many Iraqis believe large-scale violence might resume, as internal struggles for power emerge and are no longer limited to the Sunni-Shi’a divide. In particular, many fear the consequences of the US-planned withdrawal, and the effect it will have on the different factions. The fear is compounded by the current lack of capacity of the Iraqi Government, which is reflected by its inability to deal effectively with displacement.

Inside the Government, sectarian bias remains strong. According to senior US officials in Baghdad, "there isn’t one Government in Iraq", but a regroupment of factions, each pursuing their own agenda. Sunni still largely feel disenfranchised and under-represented, and mistrust towards the Shi’a-dominated Government is largely present at all levels of society. The Ministry of Displacement and Migration (MoDM) is run by Shi’a Kurds, whose first priority has been the resettlement of refugees coming back from Iran. Most advisors to the Prime Minister are Shi’a. IDPs feel it is much easier for displaced Shias than for displaced Sunnis to gain assistance. Similarly, many Iraqi NGOs working in Sunni areas report having trouble registering with the Government of Iraq. One NGO representative told us that when she went to the government NGO office to register her organization, she was asked "why she works in these areas", meaning Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad.

Sectarianism is not the only problem with the government of Iraq. Corruption is rampant, and makes it extremely difficult for the Government to effectively deliver assistance and for international and national NGOs to operate. The World Food Programme (WFP), which delivers food assistance to hundreds of thousands of displaced Iraqis, had its cargo seized by Iraqi police who alleged that the food was rotten. Refugees International met with many local and international groups operating in the city of Hilla, in Babel, who complained that the local head of MoDM was an incompetent 26-year-old, who was appointed because of his links to the Governor and who constantly tried to intimidate agencies into distributing assistance to his friends and family.

The improvements in security have not translated into improvements in the provision of services. This situation is unlikely to improve in the near future, given the financial difficulties that the Government of Iraq is currently experiencing. The fall in oil prices has had a severe impact on the Iraqi national budget, which went from a planned $82 billion to less than $60 billion for 2009, with further cuts planned. Moreover, the government has also made cuts in the public distribution system of food (PDS) which cost $5.9 billion last year.

The Government has nevertheless tried to take a few steps to address displacement. The creation of returnee assistance centers in Baghdad provides legal and financial assistance to returnees. Unfortunately, the government interrupted the payment of $800 to returnee families in October, and it is unclear when assistance will resume. To address property disputes, the Prime Minister’s office issued two orders for the Iraqi army (through the Baghdad Operations Center, or BOC) to evict squatters when returnees can show documents establishing their property rights. Those evicted are entitled to some assistance. This system is, however, flawed, as many squatters are IDPs themselves who cannot return home. As for homeowners, getting their property back does not mean they can return, since they often fear for their safety.

Assistance to returnees, property restitution, and the provision of basic services are essential for Iraqis to return home. But many will still not return until they feel the root causes of the conflict have been addressed. They need to feel accepted by the community and provided with security guarantees. Baghdad, and indeed the rest of Iraq, resembles a large military base today - with each neighborhood sealed off by walls, and populations unable to move freely when they choose. Areas are currently protected by the army or by "awakening groups", Sunni militias created by the US army, who were eventually supposed to be integrated into the Iraqi armed forces and police. Save a few exceptions, it hasn’t really happened yet, making the situation unsustainable. Refugees International and others worry that absent a real political reconciliation process and an efficient disarmament, demobilization and reintegration program, these groups will remain as armed militias with the same political agenda and strong grievances. The possibility for resumed violence is also present along the disputed boundaries between the Kurds and the central Iraqi Government. A political solution is vital to ensure there won’t be large-scale confrontations.

The US, the international community, and the UN need to provide financial and technical assistance to the government of Iraq to address the needs of the displaced, the returnees and the root causes of displacement. In addition, political pressure on the government of Iraq to address its own sectarianism and rampant corruption must be maintained. A comprehensive, inter-ministerial system is needed to establish the rule of law, which is essential for Iraqis to feel safe and return to their homes. Finally, the international community must work with the Government of Iraq to create jobs. With 30% unemployment rate, Iraq’s economic future is compromised. So is its security, as most of the unemployed are young men who are vulnerable to recruitment by militias and other armed groups.

The way forward

Humanitarian needs remain a priority in Iraq. The UN assistance mission to Iraq is currently trying to build the government of Iraq’s capacity to respond to humanitarian emergencies and should be supported in this work. Many populations in Iraq live in vulnerable conditions, unknown to the aid community which, because of security restrictions, has been unable to get a comprehensive picture of conditions in the country. Refugees International visited groups of displaced Iraqis in Baghdad and elsewhere who lived in unsanitary conditions, were not registered with the MoDM, and had never received any assistance from any UN agency or NGO. Aid organizations must work together and establish better coordination and reporting mechanisms to ensure that vulnerable Iraqis stop falling through the cracks.

NGOs and UN agencies have started addressing these problems by designing several types of programs: some targeting basic needs and others looking at longer-term development, such as job training for widows. UNHCR is working with local NGOs to provide protection and assistance to the most vulnerable, while UNICEF is launching its IMPACT program, addressing the needs of some of the poorest communities in Iraq. These organizations and others who are working in Iraq need financial and political support. At the end of 2008, the UN launched an appeal for $547 million to meet the needs of Iraqis both in and outside of Iraq. Contributions to this appeal have been insufficient to date. Refugees International urges the US to lead by example and fund 50% of the overall appeal. The US plays a special role in the region, and this needs to be translated into the prioritizations of humanitarian assistance as well.

Civil society plays an essential role in Iraq. Both international and national NGOs have been at the forefront of providing assistance since the beginning of the war, often at great risks for their staff. Yet there seems to be great mistrust by the government of Iraq towards NGOs, especially Iraqi ones. The Government is currently discussing a law that if passed, would enable the State to exert a disproportionate level of control on NGOs, on their finances, and even on their lifespan. It is true that the Iraqi civil society is young, and that many NGOs exist only by name, or as a tool for political parties. Many others however, are legitimate and could become important actors if they were given the resources and the capacity building they need. Refugees International met with impressive local groups, who provide assistance to thousands of vulnerable Iraqis, without any support from the Iraqi government or the international community. The US and other donors must also work with the government to achieve a compromise that would ensure government oversight without impeding NGOs independence. Iraq today is struggling to replace sectarian violence with political discourse and reconciliation.  It has a long way to go, but more active civil society organizations would provide a good mediation channel.

Even if fully funded though, the UN and NGOs will not be able to address major problems, such as the establishment of basic services throughout the country. This task has been taken up by the government, and also by the US provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) which have a much larger budget that any UN agency. For example, UNICEF had $30 million budget in 2008, the PRTs had $862 million at their disposal to undertake projects such as the repair of power grids, the rebuilding of schools and bridges, or the construction of hospitals. Unfortunately the PRTs projects are often implemented without much coordination with the central authorities, the UN, or USAID. There needs to be much increased coordination with communities and all actors involved in the reconstruction of Iraq to ensure ownership and sustainability. Furthermore, as the US troops draw down, thought has to be given to the handing over of PRT projects to the government of Iraq or the UN. The US has a responsibility to ensure that these projects don’t fall through, and that whomever they are handed to has the capacity and the resources to maintain and complete them.

As efforts continue to stabilize and rebuild Iraq, special attention needs to be given to the most vulnerable, and durable solutions need to be found. The stateless Palestinians of Iraq remain one of the most vulnerable groups, the subjects of discrimination and attacks by many factions. The hundreds who sought shelter in the camps of Al-Tanf and Al-Waleed at the Syrian border with Iraq must be resettled immediately and the criteria applied should be the same as for Iraqis. According to the UN, there are 10 -12,000 left in Iraq. For this population, resettlement to a third country is likely to be the only durable solution.

The US and the international community must also turn their attention to Iraqis who will not be able to return home, whether they are refugees or internally displaced. They may be too vulnerable to return, or have reasons to fear for their safety. Either way, there are currently no plans to address their needs and plan for their future. The US must engage Syria, Jordan and other host countries on finding durable solutions for these particularly vulnerable groups. As for the 39% of internally displaced Iraqis who don’t plan to return home, they will need assistance to either integrate in their new communities or resettle elsewhere. The political implications for the future of Iraq must be carefully considered, while respecting the will of the displaced.

We can avoid repeating past mistakes.  The US must consider the humanitarian implications of its engagement in Iraq, and ensure that measures are taken to mitigate the effects the conflict continues to have on civilians. Working with the government of Iraq and the UN, the US must stand ready to assist vulnerable Iraqis, including the displaced and the returnees. This is not only a humanitarian imperative, but a security one as well.

Refugees International is an independent, non-profit humanitarian advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. Refugees International generates lifesaving humanitarian assistance and protection for displaced people around the world and works to end the conditions that create displacement.  We do not accept government or United Nations funding, relying instead on contributions from individuals, foundations and corporations.