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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
Riots in Lebanon’s Tripoli are Harbingers of Collapse
Riots in Lebanon’s Tripoli are Harbingers of Collapse

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

 

Security forces push anti-government protesters away from al-Nour square in the centre of Lebanon's impoverished northern port city of Tripoli on 31 January 2021 amid clashes. Fathi AL-MASRI / AFP

Riots in Lebanon’s Tripoli are Harbingers of Collapse

Four days of violent unrest in Tripoli on Lebanon’s northern coast could presage more to come, as a new coronavirus outbreak deepens the country’s severe socio-economic crisis. Humanitarian aid is urgently needed to keep the worst-case scenarios at bay.

Starting on 25 January, residents of the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli took to the streets over four consecutive days. Many protested peacefully, but some attacked government buildings and clashed with security personnel, who fired upon them with tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition. Rioters torched the historic municipality headquarters, vandalised the Sunni religious court and government administration building, and hurled Molotov cocktails and, according to authorities, hand grenades at the security forces. By 31 January, the toll was one protester dead and more than 400 injured, along with at least 40 soldiers and police. Lebanese army and military intelligence units detained at least 25 men for their roles in the events. Lebanon’s international partners should continue pressing its elites to chart a viable path forward, while redoubling humanitarian assistance to an increasingly desperate population.

The immediate trigger for the protests in Tripoli was the social impact of a hard lockdown imposed by Lebanon’s caretaker cabinet in response to a new surge in COVID-19 infections.

The immediate trigger for the protests in Tripoli was the social impact of a hard lockdown imposed by Lebanon’s caretaker cabinet in response to a new surge in COVID-19 infections. The restrictions have left many unable to sustain themselves, mainly because the lockdown is only the latest in a series of calamities that have hit the majority of Lebanese since 2019. In that period, at least 500,000 have lost their businesses and jobs. The local currency’s value has dropped by more than 80 per cent in the black market, fuelling inflation. People have lost billions in savings and, according to the World Bank, more than half of Lebanese had fallen below the poverty line already in May 2020. Government officials estimate that some 75 per cent of Lebanese nationals need aid. Among the more than one million Syrian refugees living in the country, as many as 90 per cent require humanitarian and cash assistance, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. 

Tripoli and its surroundings are among the poorest areas of Lebanon, but hardship is worsening across the country. In their actions and responses, protesters, rioters and security forces in the city may have provided a preview of what awaits most of Lebanon in the months to come. During interviews conducted by Crisis Group over the past three months, Lebanese officials, political party operatives, political activists, security officers and NGO representatives across Lebanon all expressed similar fears: if the downward economic slide continues, or austerity measures such as subsidy cuts cause a sudden increase in social pressures, the country may become dangerously unstable.

Foremost among the challenges Lebanon faces are the stress on and erosion of state institutions, as inflation devalues public-sector salaries and already perfunctory services disappear altogether. Over the past months, tensions triggered or amplified by the crisis have repeatedly erupted in security incidents that appear isolated but, taken together, seem to indicate a worrying trend. Security forces, which number more than 130,000 with an additional hundreds of thousands of dependents, may increasingly struggle to preserve order, prevent violence and protect property. They may find themselves becoming the face of state failure, as they compensate for the absence of policy and governance by policing people whose grievances they share. As security deteriorates, political parties, local strongmen and business tycoons will step into the gap. 

Even the army has been under stress and may soon lose its lustre as one of Lebanon’s most capable and least partisan public institutions. Like civil servants, teachers and police, soldiers today earn a fraction of what they did a year ago, many as little as the equivalent of $150 per month. Even senior officers are expressing concern about their personal and institutional futures. As one told Crisis Group: “[The army] will abide by its mission, but at the end of the day, these soldiers are children of their society and environment. [Officers’] own sons and daughters are studying abroad and [we] can’t pay tuition anymore”.

No relief should be expected from politicians. Six months after the catastrophic blast in the Beirut port that brought down the previous government, they have yet to form a new one, much less engage in fundamental reforms required to unlock international assistance or explore long-range initiatives to create opportunities for development and investment. Political elites will more likely behave as they have in the past: buying time with money that is not theirs; distributing benefits narrowly and burdens broadly; and working to salvage the system that keeps them in power. In the improbable event that some Lebanese leaders come to their senses or that a future cabinet moves to act, vested interests and a low capacity for governance will stand in their way. Meanwhile, external partners such as the U.S., European states and Arab countries remain determined to withhold non-humanitarian assistance unless Lebanese leaders shape up. They are right to do so. Lebanon will escape its predicament only if and when its political elites change their behaviour, which has created the crisis.

Lebanon’s external partners must redouble their efforts to prevent state collapse and the onset of a severe humanitarian emergency.

Until such time, however, Lebanon’s external partners must redouble their efforts to prevent state collapse and the onset of a severe humanitarian emergency. On 30 January, the World Bank signed an agreement with the caretaker government for a loan of $246 million to provide cash assistance to some 800,000 of the poorest Lebanese. International donors should increase funding for humanitarian purposes and aim to reach as many beneficiaries as possible directly. Lebanon’s external partners should also consider deepening their cooperation with different security agencieswhile taking steps to minimise any danger that protests prompt unnecessarily tough policing. Outside cooperation would allow those agencies to help preserve order and avoid the proliferation of protests and local tensions into widespread unrest and violence. Lebanon’s international partners can help stop the country’s crisis from getting worse, but to do so, they must act now.