IDP and refugee return to northern Iraq: sustainable returns or demographic bombs?

Author:Romano, David
Position:Internally displaced persons
 
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Abstract

Regime change in Iraq has opened the door to the return of hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), the majority of whom were expelled from Kirkuk and other areas in northern Iraq. The Iraqi case presents three broad, readily identifiable categories of displaced persons: refugees in Iraq's neighbouring states, internally displaced persons, and refugees and migrants in third countries further afield. The first two categories include the largest numbers of displaced people as well as the majority of those with a great desire or pressing need to return to their homelands in Iraq. Although some of those displaced have succeeded in making a good life for themselves in their new new homes, those who did not manage well after their displacement generally long to return to their original towns and homes. However, the following general problems, in order of gravity, impede the success and sustainability of returns to northern Iraq: (i) sectarian competition over political structures and power distributions in post-Saddam Iraq; (ii) increasing lack of security in Iraq; (iii) insufficient preparations and slow policy implementation by the former CPA and Coalition Forces; (iv) insufficient financial resources to deal with the full magnitude of the displacement problem in Iraq; and (v) high expectations of returnees vis-a-vis continuing lack of opportunities and the slow rate of positive developments in the social, economic and political situation in Iraq. However, the emerging political contests over the future of the new Iraq greatly complicate effective and comprehensive return programs; the ultimate test of success and sustainability of return to Iraq will depend on the future of post-Saddam Iraq itself.

Resume

Le changement de regime en Irak a ouvert la porte au retour de centaines de milliers de refugies et de personnes deplacees a l'inteieur de leur propre pays (PDIP), dont la majorite avaient ete expulses de Kirkuk et d'autres regions dans le nord de l'Irak.

Le cas irakien presente trois grandes categories de personnes deplacees facilement identifiables : les refugies vivant dans les etats voisins de l'Irak, les personnes deplacees a l'inteieur, et les refugies et migrants se trouvant dans des pays tiers plus eloignes. Les deux premiees categories englobent le plus grand nombre de personnes deplacees, aussi bien que la majorite de ceux ayant un grand desir ou un besoin impeieux de retourner dans leurs territoires d'origine en Irak.

Bien que certains des deplaces aient reussi a refaire leur vie de fafon satisfaisante dans leurs nouveaux terres d'accueil, ceux qui ne se sont pas bien tires d'affaire apres leur deplacement eprouvent genealement le desir de retourner dans leurs villes et leurs foyers d'origines. Cependant, les problemes generaux suivants, pris en ordre d'importance, entravent la reussite et la viabilite a long terme d'un retour vers le nord de l'Irak : (i) les rivalites sectaires pour le controle des structures politiques et la repartition du pouvoir dans l'Irak post-Saddam; (ii) le manque croissant de securite en Irak; (iii) les preparatifs insuffisants et la lenteur dans l'implementation des politiques par l'ex APC (Autorite Provisoire de la Coalition) et les Forces de la coalition; (iv) des ressources financieres insuffisantes pour traiter le probleme de deplacement en Irak dans route son ampleur; et (v) les attentes elevees des refugies par rapport au manque incessant d'opportunites et a la lenteur de deeloppements positifs quant a la situation sociale, economique et politique en Irak. Cependant, les rivalites politiques emergeantes pour decider de l'avenir du nouvel Irak compliquent enormement les programmes de retour efficaces et globaux ; le test ultime de la reussite et de la viabilite a long terme du retour en Irak dependra en fin de compte du sort meme de l'Irak post-Saddam.

Introduction

Regime change in Iraq has opened the door to the return of hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), the majority of whom were expelled from Kirkuk and other areas in northern Iraq. The international community, the (potential) returnees, and most political parties in Iraq all support the principle of return of people forcibly displaced by Saddam's regime. Continuing uncertainty regarding Iraq's future poses serious problems, however: although a post-war country since May of 2003, Iraq can not yet accurately be described as in a post-conflict situation. The sustainability of returns very much depends on how incipient sectarian competition for power in the new Iraq plays out, especially since IDPs and refugees have emerged as one of the weapons available in the emerging contest. In trying to address the return issue in an extremely fair, legal, and regulated manner, Coalition Forces have also succumbed to near paralysis regarding the problem, exacerbating the risk of civil conflict centred around returning IDPs and refugees in northern Iraq. The oil-rich, multi-ethnic, strategic and contested region of Kirkuk in particular may be the lynchpin for either "getting it right" in Iraq, or igniting a civil conflict that not only makes returns unsustainable, but also creates large numbers of new displaced people.

Potential Returnees to Iraq

Although reliable estimates remain difficult to obtain, prior to the 2003 war Iraq had roughly 800,000 refugees residing in neighbouring countries--Iran (202,000 registered by the UNHCR), Jordan (around 300,000, mostly unregistered), Saudi Arabia (5,100 in the Rafha camp near the Iraqi border), and Syria (40,000, unregistered). (1) These refugees came from failed Kurdish uprisings in the 1960s, 1975, 1980s, and 1991, ethnic cleansing campaigns undertaken against Kurdish, Turkomen, and Christian villages in the north since the 1960s, the failed Shiite uprising of 1991, the draining of the southern marshlands in the early 1990s, Iraq's expulsion of so-called "Persians" in 1974 (hundreds of thousands of Iraqis listed as Persian subjects in the Ottoman-era archives), and individual cases of persecution committed by a paranoid, brutal regime. Many of the Iraqi refugees who remained in neighbouring countries for many years lived in poverty and never successfully integrated into their host countries. In Saudi Arabia in particular, refugees from the 1991 Gulf War were still in bleak, desolate camps by the time of the 2003 Iraq war.

In 2003, some 800,000 internally displaced persons also resided in Iraqi Kurdistan's Autonomous Zone, mostly victims of the Arabization ethnic cleansing campaigns conducted since the 1960s (100,000 were expelled from mostly the Kirkuk region as recently as the 1990s). A further estimated 100,000 IDPs could be found in central Iraq, most of whom had been either internally exiled from the north by Saddam's regime or pushed out of the Kurdistan Autonomous Zone by the new Kurdish authorities there (typically due to past allegiance with Saddam's regime, but also sometimes because of tribal rivalries or other reasons). (2) Some 100,000 to 300,000 IDPs also existed on meagre means in southern Iraq, mostly victims of the suppression of the 1991 uprising there, a counter-insurgency campaign that included draining the marshlands of southern Iraq and thereby destroying the ecosystem on which the Shiite Marsh Arab population depended.

In addition to these groups of refugees and IDPs, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis received asylum in third countries (mostly Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia) or migrated there through underground people-smuggling networks. Many of these included educated, trained professionals whose departure from Iraq represented a significant "brain drain" for the country. Although "economic migrants" from Iraq may not technically fit into the category of forced displacement, they are in practice difficult to distinguish from displaced persons because of the multiplicity of factors that led to their departure from their homeland and a paucity of reliable data about them.

All told, there may be up to three million Iraqi exiles abroad, 500,000 of whom may ask the UNHCR for assistance to return home. (3)

Hence the Iraqi case presents three broad, readily identifiable categories of displaced persons: refugees in Iraq's neighbouring states, internally displaced persons, and refugees and migrants in third countries further afield. The first two categories include the largest numbers of displaced people as well as the majority of those with a great desire or pressing need to return to their homelands in Iraq. Although some refugees succeeded in making a good life for themselves in places such as Tehran or Amman, very large numbers continue to exist on the margins of the economic and social spheres of their host countries. The same holds true for Iraqi IDPs--while many individuals and families successfully found careers and new homes in places such as Erbil, Suleimaniya, Duhok, and Zakho (the major towns of Iraqi Kurdistan), those who did not manage well after their displacement generally long to return to their original towns and homes. Of those Iraqis who moved on to third countries such as Germany or Britain, fewer are likely to express an immediate desire or pressing need to resettle to Iraq, although some have already returned (those whom the author met in Iraq in 2003-2004 all explained their decision to return in ideological terms--the wish to rebuild and participate in the renewal of their homeland).

Positive Factors Influencing the Return Process in Northern Iraq

Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime, and to a lesser extent previous Arab nationalist authoritarian governments in Baghdad, were responsible for the overwhelming majority of displacement in Iraq. With the toppling of the regime, the door opened for the return of the more than 1.5 million people who lost their homes and lands. Especially Iraqi Kurds and Shiites expressed heartfelt joy at the ousting of Saddam's...

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