Iraq’s Displacement Crisis

Our guest blogger is Peter Juul, a national security consultant at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

refugee_mother_newborn_ssh.jpgAmid all the self-congratulation among American supporters of the “surge” and the controversy over a potential long-term security agreement between the United States and Iraq, there has been remarkably little discussion about the ticking time bomb of Iraq’s displaced population. Through no fault of their own, these refugees and internally displaced persons have the potential to seriously disrupt Iraqi politics and roll back the security gains of the past six-plus months. And the United States and Iraqi governments are doing next to nothing to find solutions to the status of Iraq’s displaced people or the problems associated with their potential return.

The political dynamics of refugee return were made clear in a weekend article in the New York Times detailing the struggles of a group of displaced Iraqi Shi’a to return to their homes in Diyala province. Their homes razed, these returnees are waiting on assistance from the Iraqi government. As the Times notes, “Whether supplies and compensation are forthcoming could make the difference between the return’s success and its failure.”

More broadly, the issue of refugee return is contentious because the property of many refugees and IDPs has been expropriated by sectarian militias. These militias in turn “resettled” members of their own sect, reinforcing the homogenization created by the expulsion of refugees. As a new report on the plight of Iraqi refugees by the International Crisis Group notes, “militias and armed groups exploited the refugee crisis for self-enrichment and war racketeering.” This sectarian cleansing has created two intertwined political dilemmas critical to any peaceful political settlement in Iraq.

First is the issue of how refugees and IDPs should be able to vote in upcoming provincial elections. Will they be able to cast absentee ballots in their original places of residence? Will they be able to vote in their current locations? Will the displaced themselves be able to choose where to vote? Or will they be denied voting rights altogether? As it currently stands, the upcoming law governing the elections will allow IDPs to vote in their place of origin while disenfranchising refugees outside Iraq. As Marc Lynch notes, by refusing to offer internally displaced Iraqis both options with regard to their votes, the Iraqi government has placed itself in a political straightjacket. If it allows IDPs to vote in their place of origin, it prevents them from voting for the provincial government under which they currently live; however, if the Iraqi government allows IDPs to vote in their current locations, it risks legitimizing sectarian cleansing.

This conundrum brings us to the larger problem of what to do with Iraqi refugees and IDPs. Are they to have a right to return to their pre-displacement residences, or will they be resettled elsewhere inside Iraq? Without a broad consensual framework for displaced person returns, accompanied by a resolution of Iraq’s internal conflicts, the return of Iraq’s refugees and IDPs will either not occur or create more problems than they solve. If there is no formal way of adjudicating property disputes between returnees and squatters, militias offering their own brand of “justice” will be empowered and the cycle of sectarian conflict could reignite. If Iraqis decide to ratify sectarian cleansing and resettle returnees elsewhere, it will require a commitment by the Iraqi government hitherto unseen to help those who choose to return to Iraq.

Unfortunately, the political problems of Iraqi refugees are nowhere to be found in Congressional benchmarks or President Bush’s statements. The United States needs to place a higher priority on resolving the political questions created by Iraq’s displacement crisis, and push Iraqi politicians to keep the final status of Iraq’s refugees and IDPs in mind when resolving Iraq’s conflicts.