Iraqi Refugees between Precarious Safety and Precipitous Return

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April 7, 2008

By Layla Al-Zubaidi and Heiko Wimmen

Download the complete report (14 pages, 85 kB, pdf-file)


The US-led war against Iraq and its aftermath has triggered a massive exodus with nearly one in five Iraqis being on the run, the region’s greatest refugee crisis since the Palestinian displacement starting in 1948 and also one of the largest movements of people caused by violent conflicts around the globe.

According to United Nations estimates, more than 3.5 million Iraqis were compelled to leave their homes by the violence that has engulfed their country since the 2003 war, disrupting people’s lives and the most basic services.  Nearly a third of them, around 1.3 million, changed residence within the borders of the country.  Some of these “Internally Displaced People” (IDPs) found shelter with relatives in less precarious spots; others were forced to settle in deserted buildings or improvised camps. Together with an estimated one million displaced people within Iraq before the 2003 invasion, IDPs recently amount to around 2.3 million in total. More than 2.2 million fled Iraq altogether.

“In short, the nightmare scenario of massive refugee movements feared by international humanitarian organisations just prior to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 has now materialized, and indeed turned out to be worse than initially anticipated”.

Most of those who left Iraq ended up in countries of the region, including Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, the Gulf countries and Iran. Syria represents the most important host country with more than 1.5 million refugees, followed by Jordan with up to half a million.  By hosting nearly 2.2 million refugees altogether, these two countries have absorbed the overwhelming majority of those Iraqis who sought refuge abroad and hence are bearing the brunt of the exodus.

For a long time, this new and increasingly massive refugee crisis in the Middle East has been virtually ignored by Western media and public opinion. With the apparent improvement of security in Iraq comes the danger that the slowly growing awareness of the dimensions of the crisis – which is yet to be followed by substantial action to address the plight of this people – may give way to expectations that the problem may just go away as people return, or that those who stay put in exile do so for ulterior motives, in particular eventual immigration to the “prosperity” of the West. The following report attempts to give an overview of the origin and magnitude of the crisis, probes the likelihood of substantial numbers of refugees returning in the near future, and assesses the responsibility of international actors towards the refugees.

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