The Next Iraq Problem
Iraq’s refugees tell heartbreaking accounts of suffering, displacement, and shattered dreams, but these refugees represent more than mere human interest stories. Collectively, the outpouring of millions of Iraqi refugees into a very small number of neighboring countries poses a dramatic security threat to the Middle East, and there is no sign that threat is going away.
In the lead up to the Iraq war, most of the U.S. government discussion about refugees assumed that refugee flows would be sudden, massive and brief. When more than a million Kurds fled Iraq into Turkey and Iran in 1991 to avoid Saddam’s wrath, camps were set up within days. The U.S. military dropped food and supplies, and provided protection for those trapped within Iraq’s borders. A few months later, the crisis was over, and refugees returned to their homes.
Iraq’s refugees now are not like the refugees then. They have fled slowly, not suddenly. They live in capital cities such as Damascus and Amman, not in open fields or encampments. And they are not peasants or craftsmen who can eke out a living on meager resources; they are white-collar workers with education and training but little future in their homeland.
Iraq’s refugees give little sign of returning home, and it is no wonder why. Iraq continues to unravel, and life is especially dangerous for the cosmopolitan petit bourgeoisie whom many assumed would inherit post-Saddam Iraq. Today’s Iraq is no place for a doctor or a professor, especially one with a young family. Sectarianism plays in as well. Perhaps half of the refugees are Sunni Arabs, a group that represents about a fifth of the Iraqi population but had been the backbone of Saddam’s regime. They see their country sliding not only into Shi’a control, but to rule by a Shi’a mob that is bent on revenge.
In many ways, however, fleeing the country provides only a brief respite. Few refugees are allowed to work in their new homes, and savings are running out. Children are sometimes barred from school, and others go to schools bursting at the seams. Health care, when it is available, is often expensive. The refugee flow has dramatically boosted housing prices, not only raising costs for the new émigrés, but also squeezing the young and working class in countries such as Syria and Jordan who see affordable housing sliding beyond their grasp.
The refugee flows are massive, and they are squeezed into a very small number of countries. Syria alone claims to have more than 1.5 million Iraqi refugees—representing about eight percent of Syria’s population—mostly concentrated in the Damascus area. The economy is far from booming: foreign subsidies have dried up, the country’s small oil reserves are fast depleting, and foreign investors balk at penetrating a government bureaucracy that is slowly reforming but remains profoundly opaque. While some Iraqis maintain businesses back home while living in the safety of Damascus, desperation forces many more into prostitution and other crimes.
Syria periodically raises the possibility of cutting off the refugee flow or pushing Iraqis out, but doing so would require a dramatic shift in the ruling party’s pan-Arab ideology. The government seems caught, yet determined to muddle through.
Difficult as Syria’s problems are, Jordan’s are even more dire. Jordan has accepted 750,000 Iraqis, who now constitute more than ten percent of Jordan’s population. When combined with the 60 percent of Jordanians of Palestinian origin, the ruling Hashemites and their East Bank Jordanian allies have become an even smaller minority in their own country. Jordan has always been more homogenous than Syria, but the influx of hundreds of thousands of Shi’a Arabs has put an end to that.
Jordan’s refugee problem is compounded by a crisis brewing on its western border. With Hamas’ rise in the Palestinian territories, and the Fatah-led government’s determination to squelch it, instability there leaches into Jordan’s majority Palestinian community. The peril increases as U.S. policymakers and others push Jordan to deepen connections to the West Bank as a way of improving conditions in Palestine and supporting President Mahmoud Abbas. It may all work out well, but the danger is that Jordan falls prey to the crises on its eastern and western borders.
Other countries have taken smaller numbers of refugees but many have taken few or none. It is here, perhaps, that the United States is leading by example. The United States accepts 70,000 refugees per year worldwide, and only a small fraction have been from Iraq. Post-September 11 security concerns are partly in play, but more important is a reluctance to admit the magnitude of problems in Iraq and the likely permanence of the refugees’ displacement.
For too long, the Iraqi refugee problem has been seen merely as a humanitarian problem. It is that, but it is also a strategic one. Hundreds of thousands of increasingly desperate, unassimilated refugees can do dramatic things, and among them is threatening the stability of their new home. Assimilating these populations has its own challenges, especially in essentially authoritarian systems with limited resources and existing patronage networks.
For the United States, the strategic implications of Jordanian instability are clear, so deep is the military, intelligence, and diplomatic cooperation with that country, and so important is the Jordanian role in Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Instability in Syria is feared less, although it could make the country even more hostile to U.S. interests. In addition, few have contemplated the long-term impact of violent extremists mixed into these refugee populations, networked throughout the region and representing a new and virulent threat to their host societies.
No amount of money or time will make this problem go away. It is an international problem, and it will require international cooperation. More refugees will need to be absorbed outside of the Middle East, and lives will need to be put back together. There will need to be extensive screening of migrants, and robust intelligence cooperation. Making all of this work will require leadership, and the United States has not led nearly as much as it needs to.
Alterman raises issues which I see as ever-more central to the future of Iraqi and regional politics. While it's been good to see some public pressure on the United States to do more about admitting a few thousand Iraqis who have worked with the US and to whom we most certainly have some moral obligation, this strikes me as largely beside the point. The Iraqi refugee problem isn't just about American moral obligations - it needs to be understood as a deep strategic problem shaping both internal Iraqi and regional political outcomes. I don't think there's been enough thought given to the complex ways in which this issue could reformulate Iraqi and regional politics over the next few decades.
Alterman lays out the destabilizing impact around the region. I'd go further than the immediate effects on regime stability. If the Iraqi refugee problem is not dealt with, it will likely "default" into precisely the conditions which have made the Palestinian issue so potent and so destabilizing over the decades: a large population of permanently de facto stateless persons spread across multiple Arab countries, whose personal and communal traumas resonate deeply with core political narratives (Arabist or Islamist or sectarian). Might they be expected at some point to form some kind of diasporic political movement like the PLO? Might they become a receptive audience for and instrument of new forms of transnational politics, mobilized by ambitious Arab leaders or movements against their host regimes? Could an Iraqi "state within a state" form in parts of Jordan or even Syria? Will these Iraqi refugees be eventually integrated into their societies, or will they be confined to refugee camps? Or will they become a UN mandate, along the lines of the uneasy UNRWA custody of the Palestinian refugees? Will they suffer the kinds of enforced marginalization experienced by Palestinians in Lebanon? Are these questions even being asked?
Their effects will be felt deeply inside Iraq as well, of course. These internally displaced persons have scarring, recent memories of their sectarian cleansing - of their loved ones being slaughtered, of their homes being lost, of their communities fragmenting - which are by the day crystallizing into the kinds of hardened, deep narratives which make the prospects of any kind of negotiated reconciliation deeply unlikely. If they are unable to return to their homes in formerly mixed areas (something which even the most optimistic scenarios on offer these days rarely even touches upon), Iraq will face deep problems of internal irredentism. In the event Iraq has anything like a democracy in its future they will become a constant constituency for radicalism and the carriers of a deep, burning resentment which will not likely be assuaged by the kinds of benchmarks for political reconciliation currently on offer (think: Bosnia).
For more, I highly recommend the new issue of Middle East Report, which features a package of articles on the topic including Julie Peteet's depressingly useful overview which explores the Palestinian comparison in some depth.
UPDATE: .... and let me add a link to Nir Rosen's latest excellent dispatch, which coincidentally looks precisely at the Iraqi refugee question.