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President’s Corner: Obama Focuses on Iraqi Displacement

By Kenneth Bacon

When President Obama met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki in Baghdad last week, he mentioned the U.S. interest in helping displaced Iraqis return home.  Currently, 20% of Iraq’s population is displaced—almost five million people—and it is increasingly clear that neither Iraq nor the region as a whole can be stable and secure as long as this large-scale displacement continues. 

Therefore, President Obama and his administration see voluntary reductions in Iraqi displacement as a key step to creating a stable Iraq as U.S. troops pull out. Last month two colleagues and I went to Iraq to study ways that the United States, the United Nations and the government of Iraq can work more closely together to encourage voluntary returns

There are three solutions to any displacement crisis:  refugees can move to a neighboring country and integrate there; refugees can resettle to a third country, or displaced people, whether they are refugees or internally displaced, can return home.  Return is the preferred solution in most cases, and it is the only realistic solution for most displaced Iraqis.  Syria and Jordan, which host the largest numbers of Iraqi refugees, say that two million Iraqis are currently living there, mainly in cities.  Iraq says the number of refugees is only about 400,000, but this is still a large number.  Neither Syria nor Jordan wants to host a new refugee population this large.  The U.S. has increased the number of Iraqis it resettles here each year to 17,000, up from 1,608 three years ago.  But even the higher resettlement numbers aren’t enough to make much of a dent in the displaced population.  

In Baghdad, U.S. and UN officials repeatedly told us that the government of Iraq sees the large displaced population as a political and diplomatic liability, a sign of Iraq’s lack of stability, and that officials want displaced Iraqis to return home.  However, rather than concentrating on providing the security and services, such as clean water, reliable electricity, health care and education, that will give Iraqis the confidence they need to return to their home neighborhoods and villages, the Baghdad government seems to want to define the problem away.  Iraq has stopped registering internally displaced people (IDPs), and officials say they want to close the “IDP file” this year. 

The challenge that Iraq and its allies face is to promote reconciliation of sectarian tensions that will lead to reduced violence and a greater sense of security.  Reconciliation is not easy or quick, but as experience in the Balkans and Rwanda shows, reconciliation is possible when the government emphasizes the importance of rule of law and works to reduce ethnic or sectarian grievances.  This is not yet happening in Iraq.  As The Washington Post pointed out this morning many of the policies in Iraq, such as bisecting cities with huge security walls, have actually re-enforced sectarian divisions. 

President Obama knows that the stakes are high.  In his February 27 speech on responsibly ending the war in Iraq, he said that “millions of displaced Iraqis…are a living consequence of this war and a challenge to stability in the region, they must become part of Iraq’s reconciliation and recovery.” 

The Obama administration is currently developing a policy to reduce Iraqi displacement.  In meetings with administration officials, Refugees International and other agencies have been stressing the need for a regional approach to displacement; since Iraq’s neighbors have an interest in a stable Iraq to which many displaced Iraqis would feel comfortable returning, they should also have an interest in providing aid and technical assistance to help Iraq now.

There is also room for greater European engagement.  Many European countries have promoted reconciliation in Rwanda and the Balkans, and some of the programs that worked there could also work in Iraq.  The development of a more robust civil sector in Iraq, including nonsectarian, community-based non-governmental organizations, would be a big help.  One important need is a property law that facilitates returns to legally owned property or restitution for lost property.  Finally, it’s clear that U.S. investment in Iraq will have to continue for some time.  Long after American troops leave, efforts to rebuild community services and the Iraqi economy will need to continue.  

When our troops leave Iraq there will be a great sigh of relief and a temptation in Congress and in the country to close the Iraq file.  If we want to help Iraq stabilize, we must resist that temptation.

--Ken Bacon

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