Originally posted July 2008

Until late 2006, the US Government refused to recognize the dramatic humanitarian consequences of the war in Iraq. The millions of Iraqis displaced in and out of their country received only basic assistance from a few humanitarian agencies, and were left without any protection. Most of the countries where Iraqi refugees have sought asylum are not signatories to the Refugee Convention and consider these refugees as “guests,” creating a constant fear of deportation. Inside Iraq, access to displaced persons is severely limited, and until recently, the focus was only on security and the political situation, not on the massive human tragedy.

Thankfully, since 2007 the situation has changed. Faced with increased levels of displacement, confronted to the reality of Iraqi asylum seekers in Europe and elsewhere, and urged by the United Nations and humanitarian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to step up to the plate, international donors have started addressing the crisis. Still, much more needs to be done to ensure that the basic needs of those displaced are met, that they can continue to benefit from safe asylum, and that the displacement crisis does not further destabilize the region.

In the region, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) took the lead in addressing the needs of Iraqi refugees and displaced persons. While the agency’s budget to address the Iraqi crisis was almost non-existent in 2006, it increased substantially in the past two years, reaching a level of $261 million for the region in 2008. This allowed UNHCR to start cash assistance programs for the most vulnerable and to help provide healthcare and education. UNHCR was also able to increase its capacity to register refugees and refer the most vulnerable to resettlement countries. Initially slower to react, other UN agencies are now addressing the needs in the region; coordination between actors has also improved.

In an effort to mobilize and engage donors, UNHCR organized an international conference in Geneva in April 2007. As a result, the United States increased its humanitarian budgets both in and outside Iraq. In 2008, for the first time, the United States contributed over 30% to a UN appeal, signaling awareness of its special role in leading other donors in responding appropriately. Resettlement numbers increased as well. In 2006, the United States resettled just 202 Iraqis. In 2008, it has committed to resettle 12,000. Other donors have also increased their contributions to the Iraqi crisis. Initially reluctant to address what many saw as a “US problem,” European and others now consider the Iraqi crisis a priority for them as well.

There have also been positive steps taken inside Iraq. In 2007, the United Nations finally referred to Iraq as a “humanitarian emergency,” and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) was set up to improve humanitarian activities in the country. Despite the UN’s primary political mandate in Iraq, more space was carved to address humanitarian needs both by the Security Council in its resolutions, and by agencies on the ground. The appointment of a humanitarian expert as Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary General in Iraq was also a positive sign that the UN was making humanitarian needs a priority. In February 2008, the United Nations issued its first common humanitarian appeal for Iraq, forcing donors and the Government of Iraq to acknowledge that Iraq is unable to meet the needs of its people and that the international community needs to step in.

Despite these positive steps, the situation in and outside the country remains dire. All of Iraq’s neighbors have closed their borders to Iraqis, making it virtually impossible for anyone to flee the country. Syria and Jordan, which host the majority of the refugees, are growing increasingly impatient, fearing they might face a protracted crisis, similar to that of the Palestinians. As most refugees live in ‘Amman, Damascus, Beirut, and Cairo, these cities’ infrastructures are unable to accommodate such large populations. Hospitals and schools are overburdened, and many Iraqis feel the pressure to return to Iraq. Inside Iraq, humanitarian access is extremely limited, and the lack of response by the central Government and the international community has reinforced the position of non-State actors, who now use humanitarian assistance as a political tool.

UNHCR has been clear: The conditions in Iraq do not warrant returns. Yet the Iraqi Government, instead of spending its billions of humanitarian assistance, persists in encouraging returns, by providing financial and other incentives, and without consideration for the need for a larger plan to tackle such issues as restitution or compensation for lost properties. The US Government, instead of firmly condemning this behavior, has sent mixed messages — expressing concern for returns one day, encouraging them the next. Instead, it is essential that the United Nations continue to regularly assess the conditions for returns throughout the country, and for Iraq and the United States to respect these assessments. Iraq, with the help of the United States and the UN, should also work to address the needs of the displaced now and work towards developing a comprehensive plan for future returns. Only then will returns be voluntary, safe, and sustainable.

Meanwhile, donors, especially the United States and Iraq, must fund all outstanding UN and NGO appeals, which total between $800 and $900 million in 2008. The United States should lead the effort by funding at least 50% of all appeals. Donors must also provide significant bilateral assistance to host countries to help build the governments’ capacity to handle the situation, improve the state of the infrastructure, and keep asylum space open. According to Ambassador James Foley, the cost of offsetting increased spending on social services for Iraqis in host countries currently comes to $900 million, maybe more.

It is also essential that the United States engage Syria, which hosts the most Iraqi refugees, on this issue. Indeed, the lack of an ambassa­dor-level US diplomat assigned to manage the refugees/IDPs crisis has impeded the ability of the US government to coordinate with the United Nations, NGOs, and Syrian ministries. Furthermore, resettlement numbers must increase, with priority given to the most vulnerable as determined by UNHCR. These would include women at risk, victims of torture, and stateless Palestinian refugees from Iraq. The US goal of 12,000 is an improvement over the past, but falls very short of the need.

Addressing the humanitarian needs of displaced Iraqis is not only a moral imperative, but is also essential to the stability of Iraq and the rest of the region. Stability is jeopardized by large refugee flows and increased resentment of the refugees and their host communities. Finally, the rebuilding of Iraq hinges on its educated, middle class maintaining their skills and returning when conditions enable them to do so. The international community must mobilize to ensure that Iraqi refugees can remain in their host countries and have access to local markets until such time as the conditions in Iraq are conducive to their safe return.