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Spotlight on Iraq

An Iraqi refugee in Amman, Jordan,. (Ken Gavin, S.J./JRS)
Sunday, June 07, 2009

By Mitzi Schroeder, JRS/USA Director for Policy

When President Obama visited the troops in Iraq in April 2009, he told them that the next eighteen months would be a "critical period" for the Iraqis, in which the Iraqi government would have to focus on actions that encourage confidence in their citizens. More than two million of these citizens who are most in need of reassurance are refugees, including both those who fled the country during the rule of Sadaam Hussein, and those who have fled as a result of the turmoil that has gripped the country since he was deposed.

The President emphasized that the building of public confidence in a secure and democratic Iraq is something that Iraqis would have to accomplish themselves, but not alone.  He has pledged that the U.S. would remain a "stalwart partner… to make sure that Iraq is stable, that it is not a safe haven for terrorists, that it is a good neighbor and a good ally, and we can start bringing our folks home."

Bringing the Iraqi refugees home must also be a mission in which the United States supports the Government of Iraq, by helping to create the conditions under which people can choose to return voluntarily, and in dignity to conditions that will allow them to rebuild their lives and contribute to the future of their homeland. This will require a sustained commitment, both to maintain the level of assistance that will encourage the governments of the region to continue patiently to bear the burden that Iraqi refugees place on their communities, and to make the logistical and legal arrangements and provide the level of aid needed to facilitate an orderly and sustainable return.

The enormity of the task ahead can be captured in a few statistics. At present, the United Nations estimates that approximately 2,000,000 Iraqis now reside as refugees in the region.  An estimated 23,000 to 24,000 persons returned to Iraq in 2008, and at the present rate between 35,000 and 38,000 can be expected to return this year. UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, is not yet encouraging refugees to return, but is providing assistance to many of those who do. In expectation of growing needs, this month, UNHCR plans to open six Return Assistance Centers in Baghdad. In addition to caring for the needs of refugees, UNHCR is engaged in extensive projects on behalf of internally displaced Iraqis, who are estimated to number nearly 3,000,000 persons.

No matter how quickly conditions in Iraq improve, the resolution of this vast displacement is bound to take years.  Meanwhile, the conditions of exile are often harsh. Many Iraqis fled their homes because of exposure to extreme violence or traumatic threats that have left lasting marks. For these people, the prospect of return is either unacceptable or will come too late. Such refugees, and others who are especially vulnerable in their host country, should continue to receive the opportunity of resettlement in the United States or another country willing to provide them with immediate protection.  Resettlement can only solve a small part of the problem, however. Likewise, the prospects for local integration are limited.

As time passes, most Iraqi refugees have used up whatever resources they brought with them from Iraq. Unlike refugees in many other situations, refugees in the Middle East are not cared for in refugee camps, but must fend for themselves. This situation has its advantages; many refugees prefer the freedom of movement provided by life in an urban setting.  However, it also means that these refugees are apt to sink into greater and greater poverty, and have difficulty in accessing basic services.

It is therefore necessary that the United States and the UN relief and assistance agencies must not prematurely interpret improving conditions in Iraq as a reason to decrease protection and assistance efforts supporting Iraqi refugees outside the country. On the contrary, the situation of Iraqi refugees remains a crisis, one that calls for redoubled efforts to identify and assist vulnerable families and individuals within the larger refugee community, until such time as a durable solution to their situation can be attained.

Within Iraq, immediate efforts must, of course, focus on assisting the increasing number of internally displaced Iraqis to return to their homes. This requires transitional living assistance, dispute resolution over rival property claims, community reconciliation efforts, and assistance with rebuilding shelters, physical infrastructure and re-establishing livelihoods.  In some cases, displaced people may be unwilling to return to areas where they suffered violence or the threat of violence by other ethnic factions. To the extent to which this is the case, the Iraqi government will need to help these people to establish themselves in new locations in a fashion that does not infringe upon the property rights of others trying to return home.

In the longer term, it is to be expected that returning IDPs will be joined by larger and larger numbers of returning refugees. Reintegration programs established now can equally well benefit those returning from overseas, as their basic needs for security, material assistance, legal help and community reconciliation will be similar. It is to the advantage of the U.S. government in resolving long term refugee situation to provide strong support including both technical guidance and resources to the Iraqi government in establishing robust structures that will respond to both IDP and refugee returnee needs. Toward this end, the U.S. government's refugee agency, the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, its short term relief agency, the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, and its development arm, USAID, must work seamlessly together over the coming transitional period to bring their different expertise and resources to bear in seamless support of the Iraqi government's return effort.

Iraqis abroad will be looking closely at the situation of their internally displaced brothers and sisters to decide whether and when it is time to return. While their confidence in their ability to do so is building, the U.S. must indeed be Iraq's most stalwart ally in bringing their people, as well as our own, home.