Where Are Iraq’s Refugees?

Everybody expected them. They haven’t materialized.

The Abu Ghraib prison scandal is only the latest in a long string of calamities you can blame on the Bush administration’s stubborn refusal to prepare beforehand for the postwar occupation of Iraq. But the United States and the international community were very well-prepared for one crisis that never occurred: a massive outflow of refugees from Iraq to other countries.

Refugees had streamed out of Iraq during the first Gulf War, and it was assumed the same thing would happen in the second. The United Nations predicted that a million and a half Iraqis, constituting roughly 6 percentof the population, would leave Iraq. Anticipating a crisis, the State Department allocated tens of millions of dollars so aid officials could be positioned along Iraq’s borders with food, clothes, tents, stoves, and blankets. The war certainly dislocated many Iraqis from one part of Iraq to another, and to this day millions of Iraqis, by staying in Iraq, risk death, starvation, and untreatable illness due to insufficient medical care. Nonetheless, the war and subsequent occupation have not propelled many refugees out of the country.

Iraq’s refugee crisis suffers from a deplorable shortage of refugees. Why are there so few?

Part of this question is easy to answer: The war was mercifully short, and mostly fought outside heavily populated areas. Moreover, as James Fallows noted a few months back in the Atlantic, the Bush administration’s expectation of a refugee crisis was premised largely on the belief that once the war started, Saddam would let fly chemical and biological weapons—weapons that, we now know, he didn’t have.

Inevitably, the war did create some refugees; in the immediate aftermath, Human Rights Watch reported that 1,500 Iraqis had fled to Jordan. No doubt there was emigration to other countries as well. There has been considerable movement within Iraq, chiefly by Arabs displaced from Kirkuk by Kurds (who, under Saddam, were displaced by the Arabs) and by Palestinians driven out of Baghdad by Shiites (a problem that has received little attention in the press; for more on this, click here). But “[t]he war in Iraq caused no massive displacement,” according to the “Iraq Emergency” Web page of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees:

Despite the many difficulties facing Iraq’s 25 million residents in the immediate aftermath of the war, most people appear ready to wait out this phase and look towards a new, vibrant post-war Iraq.

The deeper mystery is why this has remained so during the much more violent and chaotic “postwar” occupation.

Hawks will tell you it’s because the reconstruction of Iraq has been an unacknowledged triumph. “In the ancient land that America liberated, life is more beautiful and hopeful than it has been in many decades,” Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby crowed last month. “Bush’s foes may loudly deny it, but the refugees streaming homeward know better.” It’s a logical conclusion to draw (though Jacoby ought to note that some of those huddled masses migrating into Iraq are motivated by the desire to kill American soldiers).

But doves can just as easily argue that Iraqis derive their relative contentment and optimism for the future from a belief that they will soon drive those interfering American infidels, with their condescending lectures about secular democracy and their shameful promotion of sexual license, out of Iraq altogether. An early withdrawal could leave central Iraq in the hands of the Baathist thugs who just chased American forces out of Fallujah, and southern Iraq in the hands of radical Islamists. If Iraqis view these prospects with equanimity, then the already-shaky justification for going to war is even shakier.

Bored with his own speculation on the matter and suspecting the answer lay beyond the realm of pure ideology, Chatterbox asked a few experts what they thought. Their answers were not as comprehensive as Chatterbox wished for, but they did have the virtue of being informed. They cited:

1. No money. Marla Ruzicka runs the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), a shoestring nonprofit that performs the saintly task of going door to door to count the number of Iraqi civilians who have been killed or wounded in the conflict, and to provide whatever aid they can. She’s heard a lot of people say they want to leave Iraq, she told Chatterbox. Some of them have suffered trauma and “want to go somewhere new and have a new start.” Others “haven’t been able to work for a year.” Others are afraid to work for Americans for fear of being targeted for assassination by Baathists, radical Arab nationalists, or Islamists. But it takes money to get to a new place and restart your life, and they don’t have any.

The trouble with this argument is that plenty of Iraqis managed to leave during Saddam’s reign, when Iraq was suffering an economic embargo. According to the U.N., more than 1 million Iraqis fled to Iran after the Gulf War (though the majority later returned). Another 65,000 came in 1996, and later repatriated elsewhere. Saudi Arabia took in 33,000 Iraqis (nearly all of whom repatriated elsewhere) during the same period. If these refugees could leave Iraq, why can’t Iraqis do the same today? Presumably this is less a case of “can’t” than of “won’t,” which brings us to:

2. Paul Bremer’s a big improvement on Saddam. Joost Hiltermann, a human rights expert currently in Amman, made the obvious but sometimes forgotten point that, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the war, life was much harder in Iraq under Saddam’s rule than it is now:

Keep in mind that there is a huge expanse of desert separating the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria. If people in southern Iraq were forced to flee, most would turn toward nearby Iran, as they did in 1991, but such circumstances have, so far, not obtained. Some might try to reach Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, but remember in 1991 it was the sheer terror of the reprisals by Saddam’s forces that drove people to make such a desperate journey. Likewise, the Kurds in the north spilled into nearby Turkey and (even more so) Iran, driven by the pervasive and profound fear the regime might resort once again to chemical weapons. No such thing today, just a lot of disturbance, in some places even chaos, certainly much inconvenience all aroundthings most people (except in Falluja) can still maneuver around.

3. Iraq is not like Haiti or Cuba. Refugees from these places face extreme hardship, too, but after a difficult and dangerous journey, they have someplace to go: the United States. Iraq, on the other hand, is in the Middle East, which offers little economic opportunity and even less political freedom. “There’s no place to go,” Ruzicka said. Sam Gardiner, a retired Air Force colonel who has taught at the National War College, added via e-mail that none of the nations bordering Iraq is eager to take in refugees. Turkey actively patrols its border to keep Kurds out, and the Syrian and Iranian borders are patrolled by American soldiers.

Another country that doesn’t want Iraqi refugees is the United States. Iraqi visas, Ruzicka said, are extremely hard to get. Gardiner seconded this:

I was involved a few months after the war in trying to get an Iraqi child to the United States for an operation that could not be done there.  Since Iraq at that time (and I think currently) is still on the list of terrorist countries, we had to get a Senator involved to go to the Department of Homeland Security to get a “pardon” for this poor baby to let her into the United States.  It was a “pardon,” just like you would give a criminal. 

4. No starvation, no genocide. Kenneth Bacon, who was Pentagon spokesman during the Clinton administration (and before that—full disclosure—was Chatterbox’s coworker in the Washington bureau of the Wall Street Journal), is now president of the nonprofit Refugees International  “Two conditions generally produce refugee flows,” Bacon told Chatterbox. “The first is famine or natural disasters that make it difficult for people to eat.” That hasn’t happened in Iraq. People may not have jobs, but relief agencies have done a pretty good job of getting food to people who need it. “People aren’t starving,” he said.

The other condition that produces refugee flows is “an assertive attack against a group, whether it’s a geographically located group, a racially identified group, or a religiously identified group.” That hasn’t happened, either—at least not on a large enough scale. “The violence against Iraqis,” Bacon continued, “is basically against the relatively small group that’s working for or associated with the Americans.”

And, of course, against the Americans themselves. Inside Iraq, no single group is hated more widely than the soldiers and aid workers risking their lives every day to rebuild Iraq. Apart from the inmates of Abu Ghraib and other Iraqi prisons, these Americans (and British, and the tiny number of others working for coalition allies) may represent the minority that feels most severely oppressed by the current political situation in Iraq. If life doesn’t get better for them, it is they who may end up being the refugees. If they leave too soon, they will likely be followed by a wave of Iraqi refugees—real Iraqi refugees—fleeing civil war.