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Failed Responsibility: Iraqi Refugees in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon
Failed Responsibility: Iraqi Refugees in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
European Challenges in Confronting the Fate of ISIS Returnees
European Challenges in Confronting the Fate of ISIS Returnees

Failed Responsibility: Iraqi Refugees in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon

A refugee crisis was feared before the coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003, but it came later than anticipated, and on a greater scale.

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Executive Summary

A refugee crisis was feared before the coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003, but it came later than anticipated, and on a greater scale. It started not because of the military action, but two years later, when American efforts to rebuild the country faltered, violence escalated, and civilians became the targets of insurgent groups and sectarian militias. And while exact numbers are uncertain, the scale of the problem is not in dispute: today, Iraq’s refugee crisis – with some two and a half million outside the country and the same number internally displaced – ranks as the world’s second in terms of numbers, preceded only by Afghanistan and ahead of Sudan. While the security situation in Iraq shows progress, the refugee crisis will endure for some time and could worsen if that progress proves fleeting.

In managing the problem of the refugee wave that has washed over Jordan, Syria and (to a far lesser extent) Lebanon, and severely strained these resource-poor states, the international community and the Iraq government have failed in their responsibilities. The refugees have confronted distressing conditions, as savings dwindled, and hosts toughened policies. Host countries must provide adequate services and protection. But donor countries and Iraq bear the greater responsibility, to assist both the refugees and the host countries.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis became displaced since 2005, with a significant spike after the Samarra shrine bombing in February 2006. Up to five million Iraqis – nearly one in five – are believed to have deserted their homes in a bid to find safety and security. About half took refuge as internally displaced persons (IDPs), either in the Kurdistan region, which has remained peaceful, or in any other place within the country that was relatively sheltered from violence. The other half – those who could afford both the journey and upfront costs – fled as refugees to neighbouring countries, especially Jordan and Syria.

While initially welcoming of their Iraqi brethren, Syria and Jordan soon began placing tough restrictions on refugee entry. Moreover, by either design or default, they provided few basic services and opportunities for employment, adequate health care or children’s education. Despite some overt signs of refugee opulence, notably in Amman – stirring envy and resentment among the local population – the result has been growing pauperisation of Iraqis, whose savings are being depleted, while alternative sources of income, whether from local employment or family remittances, are likely to dry up. With little to lose and nothing to look forward to, refugees could become radicalised and more violent; crime, which already has reached worrying levels in host countries, could rise. The principal host countries, whose socio-economic capacities are being stretched, will bear an increasingly costly burden; this, in turn, could exacerbate tensions between host and refugee populations.

If Jordan, Syria and Lebanon can be faulted for unfriendly treatment of refugees at border crossings and lukewarm assistance once they have entered, they should, nonetheless, be credited for having agreed to receive so many Iraqis in the first place and allowing them to stay at great cost to their own societies. By contrast, it is difficult to give the Iraqi government any credit at all. Flush with oil money, it has been conspicuously ungenerous toward its citizens stranded abroad. No doubt there are senior former regime figures among the refugees, but this does not excuse callous neglect of overwhelmingly non-political people who loyally served Iraq rather than any particular regime.

The approach of the international community, especially states that have participated in Iraq’s occupation, has been equally troubling. Western nations have been happy to let host countries cope with the refugee challenge, less than generous in their financial support, and outright resistant to the notion of resettlement in their midst. Although it has contributed more than most, the U.S., whose policies unleashed the chaos that spawned the outflow, has clearly failed in its own responsibilities: downplaying the issue, providing far less assistance to host countries than needed and admitting to its own shores merely a trickle of refugees and only after unprecedented security checks to which asylum seekers from other nations are not subjected.

Recent improvements in Iraq’s security situation could lead some to lower their interest in the refugee question on the assumption that massive returns are imminent. This would be wrong. Even under today’s circumstances, returning can be extremely perilous: safety remains uncertain, public services inadequate, and many houses have been seized by others, destroyed or are located in neighbourhoods or villages now dominated by militias of a different sect. There is no indication that large numbers of refugees have returned because of a positive reassessment of security conditions. Far more than improved conditions at home, it is unbearable conditions in exile that appear to have been the determining factor in most returns.

It would be reckless to encourage Iraqis to return before genuine and sustained improvement takes place. For the vast majority of refugees, returning home is the only viable solution, but that will not happen soon. In the meantime, the international community – especially countries that bear responsibility for the war and the post-war chaos – has an obligation to do more both to assist refugees in host countries and to welcome additional Iraqis on their own soil.

This is a humanitarian tragedy, but it is more than that. Rich in oil, Iraq today is bankrupt in terms of human resources. It will take decades to recover and rebuild. Because most refugees come from what used to be the (largely secular) middle class, their flight has further impoverished Iraq and potentially deprived it of its professional stratum for a decade or more. The period of exile should be used to teach refugees new skills to facilitate their eventual social reintegration and contribution. There is every reason to assist host countries in that endeavour.

Amman/Baghdad/Beirut/Damascus/Brussels, 10 July 2008

 

European Challenges in Confronting the Fate of ISIS Returnees

1,450 ISIS-affiliated European nationals are being held in camps in Syria, where they suffer from squalor and violence. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU member states to take responsibility for their nationals and bring them home – starting with children and women.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2020.

For nearly a year, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella force including Kurds, Arabs and Assyrians led by the Kurdish People’s Protections Units (YPG), have guarded roughly 13,500 detained foreign women affiliated with ISIS and children in makeshift camps in Syria’s north east. A smaller number of male foreign fighters – perhaps 2,000 – are held in a separate prison network. These individuals wound up in the camps and prisons of north east Syria in the aftermath of the battle of Baghouz in early 2019, when thousands of ISIS-affiliated families and fighters fled or were captured following the militant group’s defeat at the hands of the SDF and the U.S.-led counter-ISIS coalition. Nationals of EU member states account for roughly 1,450 men, women and children within this population, with the largest numbers from France, Germany, and the Netherlands. The majority resides in the squalid al-Hol camp, lacking basic health services and suffering sexual abuse and endemic violence.

Although Turkey’s incursion into north east Syria in October 2019 has not caused as much upheaval with respect to these camps and prisons as some feared, it demonstrated how precarious security is in the region. The SDF retains control of the facilities for now, but that could change. If renewed Turkish attacks compel the SDF to redeploy its forces, Damascus could press into SDF-held areas, including camps and prisons, seizing them or possibly agreeing to manage them jointly with the SDF. This could make conditions for camp residents yet worse; the regime is notorious for its abuse of prisoners

The squalid al-Hol camp [lacks] basic health services and [the inhabitants suffer] sexual abuse and endemic violence.

Notwithstanding humanitarian and security concerns, European governments have tended to deal with their nationals detained in north east Syria by looking away. Given the potential implications of allowing the situation to fester, EU member states should shift their approach, take responsibility for their nationals, and begin bringing them home, with support and encouragement from EU leaders and institutions as appropriate. Rather than allowing the political sensitivities surrounding repatriations to keep them from moving forward:

  • Member states that are politically hamstrung when it comes to bringing home nationals who are male fighters should start instead with women and children, whose repatriation is likely to be less controversial. Women form a diverse group of detainees – some have renounced militancy and are far from being high threat individuals – and children appropriately benefit from a presumption of innocence. Both groups are also highly vulnerable to abuse while they remain in detention.
  • Until they are ready and able to bring their nationals home, member states should take all feasible steps to provide for them to be housed in humane and secure conditions in the region, a task that has only become more difficult with the Turkish incursion and a new UN resolution restricting aid delivery.
  • With the long view in mind, member states and the European Commission should also work with humanitarian agencies, the UN and the SDF to facilitate eventual repatriation and, in the meantime, protect vulnerable detainee women and children from trafficking, including by preserving relevant documentation proving identity and family relations.

Squalor, Risk and Repatriation

As Crisis Group has separately reported, conditions at al-Hol camp – by far the largest of the holding facilities for women and children in the north eastare abysmal. Violence is rife, with regular breakout attempts and confrontations among women living in the camp, and between women, camp officials and aid staff. Women who now reject militancy are forced to live intermingled with committed jihadists in conditions that enable abuse and intimidation. Accounts of disappeared and detained male children taken away to separate “deradicalisation” facilities persist, and aid groups have documented sexual abuse of women and sexual violence against children. The situation, if anything, has become worse since the Turkish incursion, which saw a pullout of cross-border aid groups operating there and a steep decline in already limited services. Some of these groups are now exploring the return of their expatriate staff to the area, as most will be making up for lost time and major gaps in service provision to a vulnerable population whose needs have grown more acute in the interim.

Aid groups have documented sexual abuse of women and sexual violence against children.

Proponents of repatriation argue that, beyond the humanitarian responsibility that European governments bear for removing their nationals from the squalor and dangers of north east Syria’s camps and prisons, there is a security rationale for doing so. French judge David De Pas, who works on antiterrorism cases, has argued that it would be safer for France to bring French national fighters home where Paris would have them “on hand” rather than leave them in the field – where presumably they could escape or be freed and pursue their designs outside government control.

On the whole, however, European governments are much less sanguine. Among other things, they are concerned about the challenges of prosecuting foreign fighters who return – including the difficulty of gathering the evidence required to win a conviction for crimes committed on a foreign battlefield. Moreover, even for those fighters who are convicted, European sentencing regimes may deliver prison terms of seven years or less. Officials worry about a scenario in which returned fighters first head for short stints to prisons where they can propagate jihadist ideology and network with other inmates, and then are released, unreformed, into the general public – creating a major burden for overtaxed security services.

Linked to these security concerns are political ones. Some European officials fear that allowing returns would galvanise far-right and populist groups, which are likely to exaggerate both the threat posed by returnees and the burden they impose on state resources. Additionally, on the international front, many European states are reluctant to deal with the SDF or its political wing, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC). In exchange for facilitating returns, the SDF and SDC have pushed for meetings and photo opportunities with visiting foreign officials to intimate a degree of European political recognition of SDC-led autonomy. Europeans are wary of according them legitimacy that outstrips their status as a non-state actor and alienating Turkey – which regards the SDF’s leading Kurdish faction as an extension of its nemesis, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Against this backdrop, member states have resisted pressures, including from families and sometimes from within their governments, to accept even the lowest risk returnees. Although some courts (in the UK, Germany and Belgium) have weighed in to require governments to repatriate children, these narrow decisions have not changed overall policy.

Taking Responsibility

Notwithstanding the formidable challenges involved with repatriation, EU member states cannot responsibly wash their hands of their nationals in north east Syria. They should start the process of repatriating their nationals in earnest, communicating to their publics the combination of humanitarian and security considerations that underlie their actions, and starting with the most vulnerable. They should emphasise that turning away from the situation gives short shrift to governments’ obligations toward their citizens – including innocent children held in horrific conditions at al-Hol – while also deflecting the burden of protecting, providing for, and securing their nationals onto others. To do so would be irresponsible under any circumstances, but particularly in a region that is already bowed under the costs of a long-running war.

[The] governments should start by focusing on repatriating women and children.

In cases where member states consider it politically impossible to agree on the return of individuals who have a violent or militant past, that should not become a pretext for inaction. For purposes of making quick progress, governments should start by focusing on repatriating women and children, who are likely to be less controversial than male fighters. Taking into account the political tumult in Norway that accompanied the recent repatriation of an ISIS-affiliated mother and her children, they should make clear to their publics that they are focusing on highly vulnerable children and women who pose the least security risk, working to identify this subset based on their own often considerable information about their nationals, and cooperating with others to close gaps in their intelligence.

What to do about the remaining group of women with operational experience and male combatants is a more vexing problem. Governments that refuse to repatriate these individuals – so far, nearly all of them – will need to develop other options to provide for both the short- and longer-term needs of these individuals. The longer-term options that European authorities seem to prefer do not appear promising. A nascent deal some European officials have discussed with Baghdad, under which Iraqi courts with European assistance would try foreign fighters, appears to have stalled. Prospects for overcoming European legal and policy requirements relating to the non-application of the death penalty, humane treatment of detainees, and fair trial safeguards do not seem high, and the chaos that has unfolded in Iraq since October 2019 cannot have helped. Another idea that has been discussed – supporting the construction of new or improved facilities inside Syria – also seems fraught, including that it would likely encounter obstacles tied to Western governments’ refusal to undertake new construction in Syria absent a political solution to the wider conflict. It would also require faith that the territory on which any new facility sits will not change hands as dynamics among the SDF, Ankara and Damascus ebb and flow.

Against this backdrop, it will be important for European governments, supported by EU humanitarian institutions, to find ways to assure that their nationals are being held in safe, humane conditions while they develop a longer-term solution. They will in particular need to focus on ensuring the flow of resources to UN and humanitarian groups, whose aid provision has already been severely disrupted by Turkey’s incursion, and will be further hampered by the UN’s updated resolution on cross-border aid delivery to the north east, which carries new restrictions that will impact delivering crucial medical services. They should also support steps that will facilitate repatriation if and when other options prove unworkable, including family tracing and genetic testing for children, and the orderly preservation at the camps of European nationals’ civil documentation (identity cards and passports). The latter is also important for the protection of women, who are at particular risk of human trafficking, and who may gain a measure of protection through access to copies of their documentation.