Iraqi Refugees and Regional Stability

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By Ellen Laipson – Iraq’s refugee crisis is an often neglected part of the larger Iraq drama. It needs more attention for purely humanitarian reasons, with at least one million Iraqis living outside the country, often in dire economic straits. But it is also has two strategic dimensions: the international community has a stake in avoiding a repeat of the Palestinian tragedy, where a large population movement affected the stability of the neighboring states for generations, and Iraq’s reintegration into regional politics, an Obama Administration goal, will be shaped at least in part by the refugees and their prospects for either integration or repatriation.

The spontaneous flow of Iraqis away from their homes has had huge consequences for Iraq, including the tragic loss of cultural diversity and coexistence in many urban neighborhoods and remote villages, the brain drain of well-trained professionals, and shifts in national identity that are provoked by abrupt shift in Iraqi demographics. As much as 20% of Iraq’s population has moved since 2003, half within the country and half across its international borders. The flow of Iraqis across the borders to neighboring Syria and Jordan in particular was largest in 2006 and began to taper off in 2007. Official data reports 1.2 million Iraqis in Syria, 500,000 in Jordan, 200,000 in the Gulf countries, and some tens of thousands in Egypt and Lebanon. Non-governmental organizations and various experts on the ground considered those figures to be inflated by as much as 30-40 percent, but even revised figures would suggest over a million Iraqis in need, outside of Iraq.

Current conditions for Iraqis in the neighboring Arab states are affected by a range of factors: the global economic downturn and its local impact, the history and legacy of Iraq’s relations with each host country, and the host government’s views of the changing situation in Iraq and prospects for return. Some of the early concerns about Iraqis bringing sectarian politics or violence with them appear to have abated. Local security services have attempted to screen out Iraqis with a clear political agenda, and for the most part, there are few instances of Iraqi refugees, migrants and guests causing conflict or law and order problems. Local populations, however, perceive the Iraqis in a somewhat hostile way, considering them responsible for inflation, for high real estate prices, and even for water scarcity. This suggests that conflict or competition over resources will remain a concern for host countries. 

The experiences of the Iraqi refugees are not the same in each host country. To the contrary, various domestic policies towards Iraqi refugees create different types of needs, and in some cases even exacerbate their situation. In Syria for example, economic conditions are dire despite the Syrian government’s position that the refugee problem is manageable. Many have depleted their savings or proceeds from selling homes and businesses in Iraq, and are not able to seek formal employment in the Syrian labor market. In Jordan the government rigorously screens refugees to determine eligibility to enter the country, as there are concerns regarding the spread of sectarian consciousness and other forms of political activism that could disrupt the domestic peace. Jordan also views Iraqi refugees in the context of their Palestinian experience. It grants Iraqis asylum-seeking status, rather than refugee status. They are provided with a six-month VISA, without work authorizations. In Lebanon, Iraqis are denied access to the labor market, public health and education, and have gravitated to rural enclaves, where the authorities permit them to create local organizations to support community welfare.

Returning to Iraq may be considered the optimal solution for regional stability, but most experts believe the conditions are not yet conducive to wide-scale return. Refugees, who are often good indicators of the situation on the ground, do not yet see the country as a stable and secure environment; they are still choosing poverty in Syria or Jordan over the risks of returning to their homes. The programs offered by the Iraqi government, including transport and a small stipend, are not yet robust enough. Senior leaders in Baghdad seem to pay lip service to the idea of repatriation, but may not be convinced that it is the right solution, given the resource demands of the population that has remained in Iraq.

For the region, more attention to finding long-term solutions to the refugee crisis will help shape Iraq’s reintegration. New steps to help refugees could improve the way King Abdallah of Jordan and Syria’s President Assad view the stability of Iraq and its leadership. Baghdad could improve its image in the region by being more consistent in its payments to regional states to help subsidize the infrastructure costs of services to the refugees, which in turn would reduce frictions between impoverished Iraqi refugees and their host communities.

The United States needs to work strategically for stability in Iraq, recognizing that some of these societal traumas will take a very long time to heal. Refugee policies that are generous of spirit and flexible in practice will offer the most solace to a population that needs support now, and attention over time so that Iraqis who fled war and conflict in recent years can return to play a role in Iraq’s future if they choose, or find a new life elsewhere.

This spotlight is drawn from Ellen Laipson’s March 31 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

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 Ellen Laipson is the President and CEO of the Stimson Center and directs the Southwest Asia/Gulf project.

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