In 2006, 30,000 Iraqis arrived in Syria every month, seeking and receiving safe haven from US occupation and sectarian warfare as kidnappings, death threats, and bombings by air and land engulfed Baghdad and the southern governorates of Iraq. By 2011, an estimated 1-2 million Iraqis had fled to neighboring countries.
The refugees were the lucky ones. Those too poor to afford the treacherous jeep ride to Damascus, then costing $50 per person, and the set-up costs of a life abroad, entered Iraq’s sprawling camps for internally displaced people, in dismal conditions, without the few benefits that registering with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees can sometimes afford.
Since 2011, however, Iraq’s neighbors have either themselves collapsed into war or are experiencing severe housing shortages as a result of the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. Where, then, is the latest wave of Iraqi refugees to turn?
The May takeover by the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) of several cities in central and northern Iraq precipitated a huge upsurge in fighting between militias, Iraqi, Syrian and Iranian government forces, and Kurdish troops. It is primarily this increase in violence, including aerial bombing raids upon residential neighborhoods by Iraqi and Syrian warplanes, that has driven the exodus from Mosul, Tikrit, Tall ‘Afar and smaller communities. According to eyewitness accounts on Facebook, ISIS has begun to plant its flag atop residential buildings it does not use, in hopes of confusing pilots and drones looking for targets. The assaults by both the militias and the regimes have effectively destroyed the last remnants of public services available in the towns captured by ISIS, areas already suffering from chronic state refusal to supply basic goods.
Both Sunnis and Shi‘a are now attempting to cross from Iraq’s Nineveh governorate into territory controlled by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Fleeing along the 50-mile road connecting Mosul to Erbil, the majority stop in Erbil and wait, hoping to return once the fighting has subsided. Estimates by the UN and KRG state that, in the last two weeks, 300,000 people have been displaced in this way. New arrivals receive temporary shelter with friends or relatives, but many have to spend savings to rent hotel rooms and other short-term accommodation. Real estate prices in Erbil, already very high, are skyrocketing, as those who can are renting or buying apartments in the overcrowded city. The UNHCR has scrambled to build a transit camp in the desert next to the border checkpoint between Mosul and Erbil, where those without any means of finding accommodation can seek shelter, if in awful conditions and boiling heat. The crisis is pushing humanitarian logistics to the limits, and although aid agencies have flooded into Erbil, coordination remains a challenge — resulting in an oversupply of aid in accessible areas, while more remote locations receive nothing. Aid organizations have no access to Mosul itself, nor to other ISIS-controlled areas. Communal solidarity, including between strangers, continues to function as the bedrock of the aid response in Erbil, together with the opening of public health facilities to the displaced.
Those fleeing ISIS to the KRG areas are widely referred to, including by the UN, as IDPs — internally displaced persons. But this designation is inaccurate. Non-Kurdish Iraqis entering the Kurdish region have to pass through immigration controls and receive only short-stay visas, ranging from one to three weeks; sometimes a Kurdish sponsor is required to gain entry. Non-Kurdish Iraqis’ status in the Kurdish region is thus closer to that of refugees than that of internally displaced persons, who usually do not require a residency permit and do not have to pass through immigration controls. Ironically, Syrians, of whom the Kurdish region is also hosting around 200,000, according to the UNHCR, hold a clearer legal status, as they receive a residency permit after registering with the UN agency. Officially, Syrian refugees, many of whom are Kurdish, are required to reside in camps, but authorities are turning a blind eye as many Syrians work and live outside of camps.
We may hope that global interest sparked by the striking images of ISIS marching through Iraqi cities will result in greater attention to Iraq’s relentless crisis of displacement. More support for the aid effort is crucial, as is an urgent wake-up call from the UN’s humanitarian agencies, whose response in the region is increasingly constrained by the impasse at the Security Council over access to all areas, including those under control by rebels or ISIS forces. The more difficult questions concerning the United States and Europe, whose disastrous interventions lie near the root of today’s crises, remain open. The paralysis of the US and EU was confirmed by the failure of the Geneva process to find a solution for Syria. The Western powers show little interest in developing any strategy for the regional crisis apart from ever harsher border controls to ward off the growing numbers of desperate migrants trying to reach Western shores.
In truth, the exodus and/or mass displacement of the Iraqi population has been underway since the 2003 invasion, if not the wars of the 1980s and 1990s. The war in Syria has forced the return of tens of thousands of Iraqis, many of whom have not been able to return to their place of origin. Before the ISIS capture of Mosul, the militia’s advance throughout Iraq’s western Anbar province since January (which heralded its future successes, but was a mere blip in the media) had already displaced over 400,000 residents, who again were mainly forced to flee due to intensifying warfare between the militants and government forces. For years now, Iraqis have been the second-largest group of refugees in Turkey, whose government does not give them access to the refugee camps specially built for Syrians.
The warehousing of Iraq’s IDPs and refugees in ballooning, overwhelmed UNHCR camps must not be allowed to be established as the accepted solution to the crisis. This approach has had disastrous effects on displaced populations in Africa and Asia, and its creeping expansion into the Middle East is a depressing development. Instead of a purely humanitarian problem, displacement must be considered as a political effect of Iraq’s terrible political crisis, to which a political solution must be found.