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No place to go: Iraq and the search for safety

The number of refugees in the world has increased for the first time since 2002, largely as a result of the crisis in Iraq. Wednesday 20 June marks World Refugee Day - a chance to reflect on this trend.


The current mass flight of Iraqis from their homes shows the extent to which the country is failing as a state. After the fall of Saddam, over 300,000 Iraqi refugees had returned home in the hope of rebuilding their lives. But all that has changed: in the face of escalating violence, one in six Iraqis is now displaced. According to UNHCR, over two million have now fled the country – most to Jordan and Syria – and another two million are thought to be internally displaced. The rate of new displacements is reported to be running at around 100,000 per month, mainly from Baghdad and surrounding districts. With growing sectarian violence, a general breakdown of security and rapidly deteriorating living conditions, the exodus feared at the time of the invasion in 2003 is now a reality.

For the families concerned, abandoning their homes and communities is a desperate response to a desperate situation. Of those displaced internally, most are staying with relatives, friends or members of their own community. Others are squatting in public buildings, some are in camps, and there is an urgent need to help provide for their basic subsistence. Beyond the tragedy of the families involved, the result of these movements is a dramatic loss of civil cohesion. As Ashraf al-Khalidi and Victor Tanner point out in a recent article[1], people naturally tend towards areas where they feel safe – Sunnis to Sunni areas, Shi’a to Shi’a areas, Kurds to the north, and so on – the result of which is an effective ‘cleansing’ of areas and consolidation of power by radical religious groups. As in Bosnia over a decade ago, a formerly cosmopolitan, secular state in which inter-marriage across religious and ethnic divides was common is apparently in the process of disintegration.

People’s search for safety through flight reflects a complete loss of trust in the ability of the government to protect. The core function of the state – to provide security – is the one in which it is most obviously failing, with disastrous consequences both for people’s welfare and the prospects for reconstructing a politically viable state. People are voting with their feet, but they are finding it increasingly difficult to reach a place of safety. Within Iraq, many governorates are struggling to cope with the numbers and are trying to prevent displaced people crossing into them. Beyond Iraq’s borders, even those countries (Jordan, Syria) which have been most generous in allowing Iraqi refugees to find sanctuary and now imposing increasingly restrictive border controls, effectively closing off the option of asylum. This should not surprise us: Jordan is hosting the largest per capita refugee population in the world, while in Syria, besides the billions of dollars required to support the refugees, the impact is being felt less directly in escalating market prices and unemployment levels.

In some ways this situation reflects a wider global trend. Asylum policies have become increasingly restrictive, with the ‘containment’ of refugee flows justified in part on regional security grounds. Such fears may be real, and there is no doubting the strain that a mass influx of refugees can place on the receiving country. But the right to seek asylum is fundamental to the protection of civilians caught up in violent conflict. The prospect of international protection for people trapped in their own country – like those in Darfur – is generally a remote one. Effective protection by national authorities will always remain the central goal; but where this breaks down, the safe flight option must be kept open. This means respecting the core principles of asylum, and particularly the principle of non-refoulement which forbids not just returning refugees to danger, but denying them access to safety by rejecting them at a border. It also means taking seriously the option of third-country resettlement.

Containment of refugee flows and restrictive asylum policy sits oddly with the commitment to international protection. At the 2005 World Summit, the UN Member States formally endorsed the doctrine of the ‘responsibility to protect’. The debate about how to implement this doctrine is dominated by arguments about the use of armed force, much less about diplomatic means. Almost nothing is said about the single most effective protective institution of the past 50 years – that of asylum. For this institution to be maintained requires that support is given to receiving states in shouldering the burden. Far greater support is required to Iraq’s neighbours if they are to keep their borders open. The US, UK and their allies surely bear a particular responsibility in this respect. So do other countries in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia, which itself denies access to Iraqi refugees.

We must all hope for the time when those now fleeing their homes in Iraq – including the educated elite who are leaving in such numbers – feel able to return. Meanwhile, we must concern ourselves with their immediate safety and well-being. In countries racked by conflict, helping those in danger to flee to safety may be the best thing we can do for them.


[1] June 2007 edition of Forced Migration Review (www.fmreview.org/iraq.htm)