Refugees or angry citizens

Iraqis should engage the exploding crisis of the refugees

Mundher Al-Adhami 

Al-Ahram 29 March - 4 April 2007

The United Nations, European aid agencies and NGOs are frantically trying to understand and deal with the unfolding tragedy of displaced Iraqis. The Western agencies however may not be able to help with this crisis without Iraqi and regional grassroots engagement. Iraqi and Arab groups must offer ideas that reflect the region's culture and contribute to, rather than exacerbate, the Iraq problem. The agencies cannot even cope with the shameful tragedy of the 15,000 Palestinian refugees in Iraq, who have a long association with UN relief efforts.

The figures for Iraqi refugees are staggering, including the concentration of about half a million in Amman and about one million in Damascus which are seriously affecting the economy and social relations in Syria and Jordan. The speaker of the Iraqi parliament has decreed that the word "refugees" is not to be used, but rather guests. As with US ex-Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld and the word "insurgents" and his advocating not to use it, this dislike of words means little. 
A year ago, the savings of Iraqi exiles paid for them, turning their presence abroad into a form of extended tourism. Their presence pushed up rents and prices but was not an undue burden on the economies of Jordan and Syria. Now that Iraqi savings have run out, problems include residence permits, health and children's education, employment and crime.   

Western assumptions about refugee aid do not work. Iraqis refuse to live in tents; sometimes they even refuse to register to qualify for aid, and are too proud to accept charity. There are only a few hundred refugees in the four camps of Al-Waleed at the Syrian border, Al-Tanf, Trebeel at the Jordanian border, and Ruwyshed inside Jordan. At the same time many of the four million displaced people inside and outside the country see no clear end in sight for their plight. A potentially explosive situation is developing, while help is needed for the vulnerable groups regardless of politics or pride. Like the rest of Iraqi household, 40 per cent are below the age of 15, and half have pregnant women or newborn babies. A quarter of the households are headed by single mothers. 
In the Oxford University seminar this month, the first of its kind, a number of issues raised and some of the views of Iraqis opposed to occupation were aired, in humanitarian rather than political terms. 
Use of sectarian terms in data on domicile and citizenship: One concern we have was that the NGOs have slipped into the use of sectarian labels for analysing forced migrations. As with the occupation forces and media, they are happy with colouring the maps in sectarian and ethnic terms. The International Medical Corps maps of Baghdad for "before and after" February 2007 are typical, and look like a copy of US military maps. Of 72 coloured areas before, 16 had been coloured either blue or red as Shia or Sunni areas respectively. Thirty-two areas were coloured blue or red as dominant but the other colour presented less presence. The other 25 blobs are in yellow indicating mixed areas. So four-fifths of Baghdad effectively and historically had been mixed areas. The map drawn for "after" shows only 16 mixed areas, with all the others either blue or red. It is clear that some simplistic criteria are used either to obfuscate the issue of resistance to the presence of occupation and Iraqi government forces, or for other "practical" reasons, such as funding of various collaborators. Some statements indicate that in this environment, a neighbourhood can avoid sectarian cleansing and conduct non- sectarian neighbourhood protection, but they wish to avoid drawing attentions to themselves and fit in with the "official" labels to avoid attracting attention to themselves. 
The worry is that the surveys the aid agencies use to collect information from the displaced people will also have sectarian labels. We have to explain that these labels are transitory and dependent on who is asking, for what purpose and when. This is well known in all social and ethnographic studies.
It seems necessary to remind the NGOs that the surveys should be of people as citizens irrespective of ethnicity or origins. Any map colouring is arbitrary and is provocative to Iraqis since all demarcations are contested. We live together and each of us has many identities at the same time, with Iraqi as the overall identity. About a quarter of living Iraqis are of mixed ethnic and religious origin, and if you go back two or three generations then almost all are likely to be so. This religious categorising is political and should be avoided. Maps and tables should be in terms of governorates and jobs, etc. Otherwise the NGOs and the UN may be working against the interest of the Iraqis. There was a mix of apology and pleas that they are trying to be practical, and they need to give advice to workers on the ground and drivers, etc. The simple fact is that the fragmentation within each locality and sectarian labels make any broad colouring of maps and data useless any way. I think this message must be hammered home. 
Responsibility for supporting forced migrants: Living conditions are rapidly deteriorating for the two million Iraqis displaced abroad and the similar number inside the country. Their savings are gone and there is no end in sight. The NGOs think the displacement is going to be lasting or permanent for many. Their position is that refugees need to be fed. But the Iraqis refuse to live in tents, (only four per cent of the displaced inside the country do, and two per cent outside) and to be treated as refugees except for relocation to Western countries. The UN and western governments are being asked for help, but the main responsibility is with the occupation authorities and the Iraqi government. The NGOs have no way of forcing the issue. Their role is operational, while this is political. It is unclear what to do, but the collection of data may have a role. 
Registration of displaced person should be on the basis of entitlement for services by the Iraqi government, and the governorate from which they come. The governorate by law have resources allocated for them, like food rations, education, health, and housing. They have to fulfil these obligations. There is a better chance that registration can be complete, and can be checked if it is based on such citizen entitlement. Otherwise it is to the advantage of governorates to expel citizens and not protect them. 
Household accounts: An idea I offered that needs developing is for each displaced household to have a post office or bank account with micro-credit. No charity implication for the proud Iraqis, and at certain times the Iraqi government, the occupation forces, or local governorates would settle the account. 
Absorbing the translators and helpers in the US/UK: I argued that this is arbitrary and unfair treatment, as well as politically harmful. Iraqi society should deal itself with these people (7,000 already employed). A uniform Iraqi graded system for individuals should be used, and such temporary emigrants should be treated as Iraqi citizens responsible for thier actions under Iraqi law. Otherwise technocrats cooperating with the occupation by necessity may eventually be treated worse than others doing similar work, the only difference being where they live. Some argued that this is not practical; some others raised the issue of this being a kind of braindrain. 
Working with local civil society vs traditional society: A development in NGO practices is to accept working with mosques, tribes and neighbourhoods. That is preferable to working with dubious local NGOs which have unknown connections. There are however worries that this helps the fragmentation along sectarian and ethnic lines. I raised the need to mainly work with civil structures, such as schools, most of which have Parent-Teacher Associations, local lawyers unions, teachers unions, universities, medical unions and the chamber of commerce. These are more likely to be non- sectarian and forward-looking. 
The NGOs work largely on immediate operational tasks, and seem to need time to adapt to any new ideas. At the moment they work by remote control from Amman or Geneva, and they make do with any contacts. However, proposing new ideas is worthwhile. Also they seem to welcome input from Iraqis, since they desperately need to forge links with what they consider is their main constituency. 
The organisers and active members of the UN organisations and the NGOs are public spirited, highly professional, and hardworking. Although there are careerists in this sector, it is often a secondary concern for the individuals, as is the case in caring professions such as education, health and social services. Talk of perks and corruption is more likely than not to be cynical smears by the right-wing, or the ignorance of hot- heads. These are the nearest people to the cause of world justice, reclaiming international law and working for peace. They are acutely aware of their predicament and the suspicions amongst the people of their role, eg, in Iraq and Palestine, due to the open US policy of tying aid and NGO funding to politics. They try to deal with being tainted with politics, and to avoid having Eurocentric views on the world. They are constantly looking for new language and ways of working. This is a challenge for them and for activists in Iraq, Palestine, and elsewhere, and very worthwhile since it is one of the civilised routes for achieving justice, at least in the long term. 
During the Oxford Seminar on Iraqi refugee crisis, about 50 representatives of UN bodies, international NGOs, concerned groups, academics, and diplomats attended a day-long round table discussion on the current Iraqi refugee crisis. The seminar was organised by the Department of International Development of the University of Oxford on 23 March 2007. Roger Zetter, director of the Refugee Studies Centre, opened it and his colleagues at the centre chaired the sessions.
It seemed from the reactions of the participants that this was a rare coordinating event. Even the UN organisations have few opportunities for reflective discussion, and they have few chances for substantive talk with academics and NGOs. UNHCR (Iraq operation) and UNOCHA (Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) sent their directors from Geneva, and UNICEF its deputy director from Afghanistan. But UNAMI was not present. The list of NGOs included Amnesty, DFID, ECHO, ECRE, Human Rights Watch, ICRC, IFPO (Amman), IOM, IMC (medical), Oxfam, Refugee Council, Save the Children, and the Norwegian RC. Diplomats attended from FCO, Iraq, Jordan, Sweden, Syria, Turkey and the US. 
Andrew Harper of the UNHCR provided much input on data, maps and relevant issues and developments. A general point is that the UN and the world seem only recently to have awakened to the scale of the crisis, and the UN has named it only an emergency, rather a crisis or catastrophe. This language is likely to lead to some actions and funding. But they are at the stage of surveys and assessment of needs.
UN Refugee Agency UNHCR figures on Iraqi refugees, March 2007: 
Syria: 1,200,000 including 56,000 registered asylum seekers.
Jordan: 500,000-750,000 including 24,000 registered asylum seekers. 
Egypt: 80,000-100,000. 
The Gulf: 200,000.
Lebanon: 20,000.
Europe: Asylum applications doubled in the last two years. 
Sweden: Four-fold increase over last year.
Iran: 300,000 returnees since invasion, a quarter went back.
Inside Iraq: 2.3-27 million including 1,900,000 long-term displaced. Some 727,000 were displaced since February 2006. 
The International Medical Corps figures for internally displaced persons for 11 months of 2006 -- 91 households (with an average household size of six people) distributed in all the governorates, with about a quarter in Baghdad.