April 18, 2007

U.N. Representative Debates Iraq Refugee Displacement Crisis

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Arafat Jamal ’92, the officer in charge of regional resettlement for the Middle East and North Africa for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, discussed the current displacement crisis in Iraq yesterday as diplomats from around the world met to debate the same issue at an international conference.

Jamal described the current refugee situation in Iraq as the “largest displacement crises in the Middle East since the Palestinian exodus [from Israel] in 1948.”

There are approximately two million Iraqi refugees outside of the country, mostly concentrated in Syria, Jordan, Iran, Turkey and Lebanon, and another two million Iraqis displaced within the country. These people are quickly exhausting their resources, and are unable to legally engage in economic life in most of their host nations, the majority of which do not recognize the concept of asylum and have no standards for dealing with refugees.

However, this situation was thought to have been averted. In 2003, there were already several million Iraqis in exile, mostly fleeing from Saddam Hussein’s murderous regime. Knowing that an invasion was imminent, the UNHCR began to develop a contingency plan to deal with the refugee outflows as a result of violence between the Iraqi military and American troops.

Armed with a $100 million dollar budget, this was the “best prepared contingency plan thus far” in the history of the UNHCR, anticipating thousands of refugees. However, much to the surprise of those involved, there were no refugees.
In fact, the opposite occurred, as 350,000 Iraqis in exile attempted to repatriate. The UNHCR was not needed.

“This put us in a strange situation,” Jamal said. “For once, we were very prepared.”
This resulted in the U.N. shifting its emphasis towards the situation of the people within Iraq.

To this end, the “UN geared up, sent in the A team, our best people, to Baghdad,” Jamal said.

But before they could accomplish anything significant, there was a devastating attack on the UN headquarters. The head of the mission was killed, and the UN drew out of Iraq entirely. From this point on, UN involvement was limited to “remote control missions,” as it attempted to work through other organizations towards its humanitarian ends.

Jamal then went on to describe some of the challenges refugees must deal with. One of the major problems that refugees have to face is their status, or lack thereof, in the host countries.

Most of the countries in the region have not signed any statutes guaranteeing the protection of refugees. Instead, nations such as Lebanon and Jordan have signed “memorandums,” which states that refugees are not entitled to any help from the host country, and can be deported back to Iraq.

The effect of this policy is what Jamal termed a “protection paradox” in which individuals in these countries came forward to the UNHCR and if they were declared refugees they would be resettled out of the region. However, if they were not declared refugees, the host government could deport them back to Iraq. Therefore, individuals were reluctant to come forward.

To counteract this policy, the UN advocated a temporary protection regime, in which countries neighboring Iraq would keep their borders open. However, this regime was “not workable,” as only Syria abided by it.

However, until 2006, the UN’s approach was “relatively reactive and restrictive”. It resettled only 3,000 people, and looked at each case on an individual basis. However, in 2006, this changed.

According to Jamal, it became apparent that Iraq was hemmoraging. Something terribly wrong had occurred.” The new influx of refugees was not like the previous urban, wealthy group, who had no need for the rudimentary support from the UNHCR. They were individuals fleeing sectarian violence, and it was at this point that the previous UN provisions became inadequate.

A new approach was therefore developed. All Iraqis leaving Iraq were given primae facie recognition of their refugee status, and there was a push to make countries provide security and asylum for the refugees, as well as an emphasis on the importance of the international community shouldering the burden.

Through demonstrating that other nations, such as the United States, were resettling the refugees, UNHCR hoped to encourage countries in the region to provide some social services for the refugees, including access to education and basic services such as clean water.

Nevertheless, the situation has not improved. Jamal believes that the Iraqi refugee crisis is “now massive and chronic.” It has the potential to destabilize the entire region, but because the situation has a political foundation, only a political solution can improve it: humanitarian aid can only go so far. Furthermore, according to UNHCR’s website, the number of refugees is increasing by 50,000 people every day.
Heidi Craig Law ’07, found the talk intriguing.

“The most interesting part was trying to understand how international humanitarian law fits in practice into U.S. law,” Craig said.