Failed Responsibility: Iraqi Refugees in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon
Failed Responsibility: Iraqi Refugees in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
After Iraq: How the U.S. Failed to Fully Learn the Lessons of a Disastrous Intervention
After Iraq: How the U.S. Failed to Fully Learn the Lessons of a Disastrous Intervention
Report 77 / Middle East & North Africa 4 minutes

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


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