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War on Iraq: An Impending Refugee Crisis?

Authors: Arthur C. Helton, and Gil Loescher
December 17, 2002


The likely consequence of military action against Iraq is an extensive humanitarian crisis – involving the displacement from their homes of large numbers of people in need of food, shelter, and medical care. Yet international agencies, from the UN to NGOs, are unprepared for this outcome. Two scholarly experts on the politics of aid argue that forward planning for war’s aftermath is essential.

This article is part of a series on openDemocracy about issues arising from humanitarian action that receive too little attention in public discourse – especially the impact of war and disaster on populations, and the record of international agencies and NGOs in dealing with them.

In this opening contribution to the series, we focus on the humanitarian implications of a likely war on Iraq, both in the midst of crisis and during the immediate aftermath of conflict there. In later articles, we will address a wide range of actors including governments, military forces, UN agencies, NGOs, and local populations. We plan to draw upon recent history and lessons from past humanitarian emergencies and discuss their relevance to the possible coming refugee crisis in Iraq, and the response of governments and humanitarian institutions.

Finally, our contributions will be accompanied by statistical, informational, and illustrative material designed to educate the global public about the key forces which, in time of war and disaster, decide matters of life, death, and survival for millions of refugees, asylum-seekers and displaced people around the world.

War: costs and consequences

As military plans evolve for a US-led attack against Iraq, there has been surprisingly little public discussion about the possibility of a mass exodus of Iraqi refugees as a consequence of this conflict, or the current state of unpreparedness for an ensuing humanitarian crisis. Yet, as past humanitarian emergencies clearly demonstrate, early planning for a crisis response can mean the difference between life and death for thousands of civilians.

It is impossible to predict with any degree of certainty that there will be a new Iraqi refugee crisis as a consequence of a possible war. The exact extent of any refugee problem will ultimately be determined by the manner and duration of a military campaign as well as surprises in the course of conflict. While these risks are hard to quantify at this stage, what is clear is that the mechanisms and resources needed to respond to worst-case scenarios are not yet in place and the lack of coordination and contingency planning between the military and international and non-governmental agencies to date is a cause for great alarm.

Both past experience and current patterns of forced migration in the region suggest that the number of refugees resulting from any large-scale military attack against Iraq could be substantial. In the immediate aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, for example, Shi’as in the south and Kurds in the north spontaneously rose up and attempted to overthrow the Iraqi government. Saddam Hussein suppressed the revolts, leaving at least 30,000 dead and displacing more than a million people. Some 700,000 crossed into Iran and nearly 400,000 massed on Iraq’s border with Turkey. Turkey closed its border and flatly refused to admit them, despite being a signatory to UN refugee treaties that forbid the return of asylum seekers to a place of persecution. Accepting the concern of the Turkish government that a mass influx of Kurdish refugees would be destabilising, a UN Security Council resolution approved military intervention by US-led forces to stem the refugee flows and restore stability in northern Iraq.

Currently, there are well over one million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Iraq, with an estimated 750,000 in northern Iraq alone. Outside of the Middle East, the number of Iraqis seeking asylum in the West has increased steadily in recent years, making Iraqis the largest national group of asylum seekers in Europe and the UK. The alarming size of Iraq’s populations of internally displaced people, refugees and asylum seekers in the west underscores the fact that, even without a war, there already exists a global Iraqi refugee crisis.

In addition, the socio-economic situation in Iraq has been in crisis since the imposition of economic sanctions in 1990, according to UNICEF, UNDP and other UN agencies. The vulnerable elements of Iraqi society have suffered disproportionately, especially children, many thousands of whom have died from malnutrition and disease in the past decade. Hundreds of thousands more are in a weakened and highly vulnerable state as a result of the general collapse of the country’s health services and water system.

No less than 87% of the country’s population (20 million people) are dependent upon rations received through the UN Oil for Food Programme. This programme, administered by the UN in northern Iraq, is implemented in the centre and south by the Iraqi government, and would likely be seriously disrupted when war breaks out. Military action could, therefore, uproot large numbers of needy people, already on the margin of society. In the event of a new war, the number of fleeing Iraqis is likely to increase even more dramatically.

A lack of preparation

While organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies will operate inside Iraq, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will almost certainly be the lead agency in responding to a refugee crisis in neighbouring countries.

However, uncertainty about the nature, intensity and duration of the conflict has complicated planning. Nevertheless, UN relief and humanitarian agencies are currently working on mitigation and contingency responses for a range of scenarios in Iraq and the region, including vast internal displacement. The UNHCR is also in discussion with Iraq’s neighbours over their preparedness to receive large numbers of refugees in the event of war.

However, the UNHCR and other UN agencies face considerable difficulties in mounting an effective emergency response to a large-scale refugee crisis in Iraq. A major problem has been that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan prohibited discussion of any UN-wide plans to prepare for a refugee crisis in the region while the Security Council was debating UNSC Resolution 1441. The UNHCR could not, therefore, formally consult the US military regarding contingency planning nor could it appeal to donor governments for emergency planning funds. While such consultations are beginning, the delay has created a real risk of unpreparedness.

The UNHCR has enough food stocks in its central emergency stockpile (in Copenhagen) to feed an initial wave of 250,000 refugees. At present, it is unlikely to be able to cope with a larger outflow and will have to rely on neighbouring countries’ Red Crescent Societies to respond to this first wave. Should refugee flows approach the 500,000 mark, the UNHCR will need to appeal to donor governments to provide assistance and funds and to release excess stocks of food and supplies. Such appeals have not yet been made. Should refugee flows exceed one million, the UNHCR would find itself lacking the capacity to respond, and the UN would have to resort to extraordinary measures – such as calling upon US military to fill the gap by providing supplies and logistics – as it did in Rwanda, Kosovo and other recent refugee crises.

The planning problems in the UN system are mirrored among the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that would likely implement relief programs. NGO capacity in Iraq is limited. Very few U.S. or international NGOs currently operate in Iraq or the neighboring region. The lack of significant NGO infrastructure and presence in Iraq and the surrounding region means that relief agencies will find it difficult to meet humanitarian needs quickly.

The NGOs are also no better prepared than the UN agencies for operating in a conflict where chemical or biological weapons are employed. While a small number of US NGOs will soon be receiving initial training sessions in awareness and preparation for working in a potential toxic environment in Iraq, most NGOs are woefully unprepared in both training and equipment for providing assistance in contaminated zones.

Government agencies and NGOs in the US are forbidden to work in Iraq without a license from the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) of the Treasury Department. NGOs need to apply for a license to travel to Iraq and to import anything from toothpaste to computer chips to Iraq. Similar sanctions are directed against Iran, the country which is likely to host large numbers of refugees in the event of war. This prevents NGOs from effectively assessing the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi civilian population.

The dangers of incoherence

Perhaps the most alarming feature of the contingency planning currently taking place is the almost total lack of coordination between the US government and military, the UN agencies, and the NGOs. This was a feature of the humanitarian response during the Iraqi refugee crisis after the Gulf War of 1991. A US State Department ‘lessons learned’ report prepared in November 1991 found:

“There was much criticism about the perceived slowness of the initial response of the international community to this crisis; this criticism was compounded in some cases by those who felt that the U.S. was in part responsible for the plight of the refugees (by not supporting the rebellions, or by becoming involved in a war with Iraq at all) and, at the very least, should have been more prepared.”

Without dialogue among all the actors engaged in coordinating a response to a potential humanitarian emergency, concerned civil actors risk being unprepared once more for a critical emergency response to the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people. This includes delays in mobilising and pre-positioning food, medical goods, shelter and maintenance. One of the primary lessons of international responses to past humanitarian crises is that UN inter-agency coordination, and coordination between military forces and NGOs, are probably the most difficult aspects of any large-scale relief operation. Unless immediate steps are taken to improve the coordination of the UN, NGOs and the US military, well-intentioned incoherence is likely to characterise any emergency humanitarian response.

Arthur C. Helton is Director of Peace and Conflict Studies and Senior Fellow for Refugee Studies and Preventive Action, Council on Foreign Relations, and author of The Price of Indifference: Refugees and Humanitarian Action in the New Century (OUP, 2002); Gil Loescher is Senior Fellow for Forced Displacement and International Security for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London and author of The UNHCR and World Politics: A Perilous Path (OUP, 2001).

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