War in Iraq: An Impending Refugee Crisis? Uncertain Risks, Inadequate Preparation and Coordination (Working Paper #67)

Gil Loescher, The International Institute for Strategic Studies – London

Introduction: As military and diplomatic plans develop for a US-led attack against Iraq, there has been little public discussion about the possibility of a mass exodus of Iraqi refugees as a consequence of this conflict. Nor has there been any consideration given to the implications of a refugee crisis on the security and stability of Iraq’s immediate neighbors in the Middle East. This is surprising, because for the last decade or more there have been massive cross-border flows of Iraqi refugees to neighboring states, creating regional instability and imposing social and economic strains on host countries. Iraqi nationals have also been among the highest number of asylum seekers in Europe. There is also surprisingly little public discussion of the current state of preparedness for a humanitarian crisis in Iraq. Yet, as past humanitarian crises clearly demonstrate, early planning for the uncertainties of military action, especially a refugee crisis, is essential.

It is impossible to predict with any degree of certainty that there will be a new Iraqi refugee crisis as a consequence of a possible war. The exact extent of any refugee problem will ultimately be determined by the manner and duration of a military campaign and the extent to which it might produce internal political upheavals in Iraq both during and after the conflict. While these risks are hard to quantify at this stage, what is clear is that the mechanisms and resources needed to respond to worst-case scenarios are not yet in place and the lack of coordination and contingency planning between the military and international and nongovernmental agencies to date is a cause for great alarm. In addition, Iraq’s neighbors, many of whom already host tens, If not hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees, are loath to accept greater numbers. In the event of war, the responsibility for dealing with refugees and the internally displaced is likely to fall increasingly on international aid agencies that are hamstrung by resource shortages, have limited or no experience in the region, and have only limited ability to operate in areas that may be subject to military action and chemical or biological weapons.

Working Paper #67»