Marc Lynch

Iraq’s internally displaced are still there

IDP children at school in Baghdad area (source: IOM Baghdad Governorate Profile) The International Organization for Migration has recently released its bi-annual overview of the conditions of the 1.6 million internally displaced persons in Iraq.  Amidst the general focus on insurgency and sectarian conflict, American troop levels and strategy, the coming Iraqi Parliamentary elections, and ...

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IDP children at school in Baghdad area (source: IOM Baghdad Governorate Profile)

The International Organization for Migration has recently released its bi-annual overview of the conditions of the 1.6 million internally displaced persons in Iraq.  Amidst the general focus on insurgency and sectarian conflict, American troop levels and strategy, the coming Iraqi Parliamentary elections, and the Arab-Kurdish conflict, this intensively researched, matter of fact summary makes for grim reading.  As the report concludes, “despite improved security in most places in Iraq, without work, their own home, schooling for children, access to water, electricity and health care, life for the vast majority of Iraq’s internally displaced and for those returning home continues to be a bitter struggle.”  

 While IOM in line with its mandate focuses exclusively on the humanitarian needs of the internally displaced, this continues to be a massive political issue about which little has been done despite many efforts to draw attention.  The IDPs represent a massive hole in the political and institutional evolution of the Iraqi state, and an ongoing indictment of its evolving order.  The failure to provide for the basic needs of the IDP population — housing, food, employment, personal security — shines a glaring light on the overall lack of institutional capacity across Iraq.  So does the fate of the Iraqi government’s belated efforts to establish a mechanism for dealing with the IDP problem in the summer of 2008, which have received only a small number of applicants for compensation and have actually made payments only to a fraction of those.  The detailed profiles of the governorates produced by IOM betray few signs that the new provincial governments elected this year have done significantly better for their IDPs, although some localities have clearly done more than others.

 Neither the political jockeying in Baghdad over upcoming elections nor the much-praised 2009 provincial elections appear to have notably improved the prospects of the IDPs.  Most IDPs were effectively disenfranchised in the 2009 provincial elections, and it is not yet clear that better provisions will be made in the scheduled 2010 Parliamentary elections.  That reduces the incentive of politicians to consider their needs or concerns, and risks entrenching their marginality.   And if they were better enfranchised without their basic needs being met, it seems plausible that they might represent a pool of voters either disposed to more radical views (against the government which has failed them or the sectarian group which displaced them) or to happily selling their vote to the highest bidder.  

 According to IOMs interviews, most of the IDPs say that they would like to return to their place of origin.  But few have, which is suggestive of the tenuous and patchy nature of security improvements.  Despite some legislative and Prime Ministerial initiatives, little still appears to have been done to deal with the likely consequences of such returns, which could re-mix the communities separated by the sectarian cleansing of 2006-07 and create a tidal wave of competing property and reparation claims. 

 This is not a call for the U.S. to “do more”, to send more troops, or to alter its strategy for withdrawal from Iraq.  These problems weren’t solved or even materially addressed during the “surge”, and slowing down withdrawals wouldn’t make the slightest difference.  This is a problem for the Iraqi government, which has thus far has failed badly to deal with its IDP problem — either because politicians don’t care, or because state institutions aren’t up to the task.  If it wants the help, this is exactly the kind of issue on which the U.S. should be working with international organizations and NGOs to ramp up a multilateral, regional approach (including the problem of refugees) — just as Obama promised during the campaign.  

 Twitter: @abuaardvark

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