West's finger is on trigger, but will it help Iraqi victims?

November 22, 2002

War in Iraq would spark an exodus of refugees, but the West is unlikely to welcome the displaced with open arms. Gil Loescher reports

If, as many predict, the United Nations inspection of Iraqi weapons triggers war, it is likely that it will also spark a mass exodus of Iraqi refugees. Yet there has been little public discussion of this possibility or of the implications of a refugee crisis for the security and stability of Iraq's neighbours in the Middle East.

This is surprising because, for the past decade or more, there have been huge flows of Iraqi refugees into neighbouring states, creating regional instability and imposing social and economic strains on host countries.

There have also been substantial numbers of Iraqi nationals seeking asylum in the UK and the rest of Europe. But western governments and international aid agencies are reluctant to talk publicly about the situation for fear that it would be interpreted as a signal that war was inevitable. Yet it is essential that western policy-makers do not ignore the potential problems associated with such an influx of refugees.

Experience suggests that the numbers of refugees generated by a large-scale military attack and by the regional upheaval that would likely follow the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would be very large. During the 1991 Gulf war, Iraq's immediate neighbours experienced a huge refugee fallout from the conflict. About 700,000 crossed into Iran, and about 350,000 massed on Iraq's border with Turkey. In defiance of the 1951 Refugee Convention, Turkey closed its border to them, causing Nato member states to push through a UN Security Council resolution that approved military intervention aimed at restoring stability in northern Iraq.

Since the early 1990s, Iraqi government persecution of its opponents, both real and imagined, large-scale relocations of Kurds, Shia Muslims and other groups, and UN sanctions against the country have led to more internal displacement. There are more than 1 million internally displaced persons in Iraq, with an estimated 750,000 in northern Iraq alone.

In addition, over the past decade, between 1 million and 2 million Iraqis are estimated to have fled Iraq. Most live in Jordan (250,000), Iran (200,000) and Syria (40,000). There are also tens of thousands in Lebanon and Turkey. Assistance to refugees in these countries does not meet minimum international standards. Many live in limbo, subject to severe restrictions on movement with the constant threat of harassment, arrest and possible deportation.

The number of Iraqis seeking asylum in the West has also risen steadily in recent years. Between 1989 and the end of 2001, 7,500 Iraqis applied for asylum in western countries, mostly in Europe. Of these, the largest numbers went to Germany (84,500), followed by the Netherlands (40,900), Sweden (36,800) and the UK (23,800).

The numbers are likely to increase dramatically in the event of another war. In Iraq, general living conditions have deteriorated over the past decade. The collapse of the country's health services and water system has led to illness and death - hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, especially children, are estimated to have died of malnutrition and illness. War is likely to further destroy the country's infrastructure and interrupt vital supplies of food, fuel and medicines.

The overthrow of Saddam and subsequent instability could also cause internal displacements and external refugee outflows. Refugee movements might also result from chemical or biological attacks or the rise of fundamentalist regimes in neighbouring countries as a result of a US-led attack and unrest throughout the Middle East.

However, the UK and other western governments are unlikely to rescue or resettle large numbers of people in the event of a new Iraqi crisis. And a war against Iraq may also make life difficult for all Middle Eastern asylum seekers and migrants already in the West - particularly given new anti-terrorist measures.

Past experience suggests that the initial response of the international community will be to insist that refugees remain in neighbouring countries in the region so as to facilitate their early repatriation after the Iraqi regime falls. But Iraq's neighbours have limited capacity and inadequate infrastructure to absorb or to host large numbers of refugees. It is unrealistic to expect these governments to provide refugees with essential goods and services not even available to their own citizens.

They are likely to try to close their long, porous borders and tighten their entry policies. Iran recently announced that it would bar Iraqis from entering its territory and that camps would be set up inside the Iraqi border, parts of which are heavily mined because of previous conflicts. Turkey, which has described the threat of a US attack as "a sword dangling over our heads", is likely to resist any build-up of refugees in the mountains or on its borders. Jordan has hinted at a similar stance.

But most regional governments would be unable to turn back the masses of refugees that might turn up at their borders. So new inflows of people would join the large numbers already stranded outside Iraq. While some of these will be anxious to return home after a change of regime, others will not be eager to do so because of instability and fears of recriminations.

In the aftermath of military action, the international community will have a responsibility to help the Iraqi people. However, the recent experience in Afghanistan is not encouraging. It is questionable whether the US and the international community will commit themselves long enough in Iraq to ensure a functioning democracy that can guarantee security and human rights. Moreover, with so many other issues at stake, such as access to Iraq's oil, it seems likely that the fate of Iraqi refugees will get pushed far down the list of priorities of the US, the UK and other external players with a stake in Iraq.

Strategic planners for western governments and UN agencies would be wise to take the possibility of Iraqi refugee movements seriously and to plan accordingly. Refugees have constituted one of the central strategic and political challenges of nearly all western military interventions in recent years. Policy-makers were ill-prepared to deal with the causes and consequences of mass population displacements after the 1991 Gulf war and the conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo and, most recently, Afghanistan. Will they be better prepared this time round?

Gil Loescher is senior fellow for migration, forced displacement and international security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London and author of T he UNHCR and World Politics: A Perilous Path , Oxford University Press.


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