Internal Refugee Crisis Looms in Iraq

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WASHINGTON, March 26 (UPI) — The war in Iraq is unlikely to result in an influx of Iraqi refugees to the United States, but it will increase the existing population of internal refugees in Iraq and generate a set of challenging problems, think tank experts who study refugee issues say.

“I would be very surprised if there was any uptick in refugees from Iraq,” Daniel T. Griswold, associate director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, told United Press International. “After all, if the war is a success there are groups of people who would be going back to Iraq.”


Estimates of the number of refugees and internally displaced persons, or IDPs, resulting from the war run as high as 1 million to 2 million individuals. This is in addition to the estimated 1 million internally displaced people already living within the country.

Some experts have argued that if the United States were to accept significant numbers of Iraqi refugees, the countries bordering Iraq — Iran, Syria, Turkey, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia — would reverse their stance of allowing in Iraqi refugees only in very small numbers. Turkey has even placed soldiers at its border and sent troops into Iraq to prevent the kind of mass influx of Kurdish immigrants it saw in the Gulf War in 1991.

Roberta Cohen, a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the liberal-centrist Brookings Institution and co-director of a joint project on Internal Displacement run by Brookings and the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, said because Iraq’s neighbors have refused to take in refugees in large numbers, the majority of displaced Iraqis would not become refugees.

“I think this will keep people inside the country, but they will still need help,” she told UPI.

Peter W. Galbraith, professor of national security studies at the National War College, former U.S. Ambassador to Croatia in the Clinton administration, and an expert on Iraq, also said though the fighting may send many Iraqis fleeing from their homes, they are unlikely to be able to leave the country.

“I don’t see this as being a big refugee situation domestically,” Galbraith told UPI. “They will have to go to some other country before they can get to the United States.”

Galbraith, author of “Refugees from War in Iraq: What Happened in 1991 and What May Happen in 2003,” a recent policy brief published by the Migration Policy Institute, said refugee immigration from Iraq is unlikely to be a significant U.S. problem.

Nevertheless, he pointed out that refugee immigration to the United States from Iraq could become a concern if the Iraq war turns into another Vietnam, an outcome he viewed as unlikely.

Steven A. Camarota, director of research at the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, said he believes past conflicts have shown that immigration to the United States is often the result of U.S. military intervention in a foreign nation, and this phenomenon will repeat itself in the case of Iraq.

“Each past conflict has shown — be it the United States interventions in Somalia, Vietnam, Haiti or the Dominican Republic — that there is an increase in immigration to the United States from these countries,” he said.

Camarota, whose think tank’s position is that federal law should be reformed to better deal with the negative impacts of immigration, added that immigration from a predominately Muslim Middle Eastern country such as Iraq presents security concerns that have not been adequately addressed by the Bush administration in the war on terrorism.

Griswold, Galbraith, Cohen and other analysts said that the Bush administration will be forced to deal with internal immigration issues in Iraq. According to Cohen, Iraq had a major problem with IDPs even before the war started.

“You have more than one million who are already displaced within Iraq because the government had used a policy of deliberate expulsion of people from their homes as state policy over the last 20 years,” said Cohen.

She said the tactic was widely used in the oil-rich region surrounding the city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, where Saddam Hussein primarily expelled Kurds and Turkmen from their land. There are an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 displaced people in the region, mostly Kurds. There are also another estimated 300,000 displaced individuals in the south central region of the country.

Both Cohen and Galbraith say this IDP population represents a major problem because many of them are likely to go back to where they came from when Saddam’s regime falls. This raises the potential for ethnic conflict or revenge-driven violence between Baathist Sunni Muslims, Saddam’s ethnic power base, and returning Kurds (Iraq’s largest minority population), Shiites (Iraq’s largest ethnic population), Turkmen and Assyrians.

Attempts by Kurds to return to reclaim homes and property in the region that they have lost under Saddam’s regime could also pull Turkey into the equation. The Turks are anxious that Kirkuk could become the capital of an independent Kurdish state in post-war Iraq. They believe even if the area remained part of Iraq as a semi-autonomous Kurdish confederation, it could ignite the separatist tendencies in Turkey’s own Kurdish population.

“The Turks are positioning troops (there) because they want to stop displaced people from going back to Kirkuk, to their homes,” said Cohen. “That is a concern because people have the right to do so.”

Turkey is also worried about a huge influx of refugees, mostly Kurds, as a result of the war. On Tuesday, one Turkish official told the nightly Canadian TV news program The National that on just the first day of the 1991 Gulf War, 500,000 refugees swarmed across the Turkish border from northern Iraq.

Cohen said the IDP problem would have tremendous impact on the political and economic future of the country. Because of this, she said, U.S. troops must secure control of Kirkuk and establish a mechanism to deal with returning displaced people and disputes over land.

She added she was concerned about the lack of U.S. troops in the region.

“This is one of the things they are going to have to do,” she said. “It is important that they deal with this because it is a potentially explosive area.”

Cohen also said though the Bush administration has promised supplies will be brought in as soon as possible to address humanitarian needs, additional food and medicine will be necessary to meet a growing demand. She added help from U.S. troops for internal refugees in the first days after the end of the fighting will not be enough, and more support will be needed before the country is secure enough for international aid agencies to come into Iraq.

The Kurdish administration in the north is capable of providing assistance but does not have the supplies to do so, says Cohen. And there are questions about who could provide immediate humanitarian relief in other areas of the country. The United Nations has only local staff in Iraq, and the International Committee of the Red Cross has only about 100 people there.

“They can’t possibly cover protection and assistance for all these IDPs,” said Cohen.

Galbraith said the potential for humanitarian crisis is especially serious in the cities, where relief efforts will be impossible if there is extended fighting.

“The big issue is, how we are going to deal with urban warfare?” he said. “If the cities are besieged there are no good options.”

For example, British troops have encircled Iraq’s second-largest city, Basra, but have been unable to gain control of the city itself. As a result, Basra, the site of the ill-fated Shiite Muslim uprising against Saddam in 1991, hasn’t had electricity or running water for days. This prompted the United Nations to issue a warning Monday of a pending humanitarian crisis there.

On Tuesday it was reported that British military engineers and Kuwaiti government employees were working around the clock to lay an emergency pipeline to bring drinking water to the city. This, along with reports of a local uprising of Shiites against Iraqi troops, offered some hope that such a crisis can be minimized.

“This doesn’t surprise me with regard to Baghdad, but I did not anticipate that it might be a problem in the south, which rebelled in 1991,” said Galbraith. “I don’t think the Pentagon anticipated it.”

Copyright 2003 by United Press International. All rights reserved.