Three years ago the bombing of the Al-Askari Mosque, a Shi'ah holy site in Samarra, triggered a wave of sectarian violence in Iraq that led to massive displacement. At one point five million Iraqis - 20% of the population - were displaced by violence between Sunni and Shi'ah Muslims.
Recently, the displacement has slowed, and in some cases it is reversing. "Some Iraqis are returning, but their conditions in places of return are extremely difficult," The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported in its most recent Emergency Needs Assessment. "Many returnees are coming back to find destroyed homes and infrastructure in disrepair. Buildings, pipe and electrical networks, and basic public services such as health care centers are all in need of rehabilitation to meet the needs of returning IDP (internally displaced persons) and refugee families."
Next month Refugees International will launch its 10th mission to assess the conditions of displaced Iraqis. The focus of this trip will be on ways to create conditions for speedier return, specifically how the US, the UN and the government of Iraq can work more productively together to resolve the security, humanitarian and legal problems that are preventing Iraqis from returning home.
The Obama administration is still refining its Iraq policy, but it's clear that an aggressive program to get Iraqis home must be a key part of it. It's impossible to imagine a stable Iraq with 2.6 million people internally displaced, some living in tented camps and others squatting in a variety of buildings. Nor is it possible to imagine a stable region with as many as 2 million Iraqi refugees living in neighboring countries, primarily Syria and Jordan. This is why Refugees International is currently asking people who want to see a more stable Iraq to ask President Obama to address the problem of Iraqi displacement.
The obstacles to return are daunting. According to a survey by IOM, 80% of displaced Iraqis say they don't have access to property they abandoned, generally to escape sectarian violence, or don't know whether they have access. A frayed social safety net, including gaps in the Iraqi government's food distribution program, makes it difficult for internally displaced Iraqis to support their families. Many internally displaced Iraqis have given up to the idea of returning to their old neighborhoods, but they need some sort of payment or restitution for the houses they abandoned.
Increasingly, refugees, who generally can't work legally in their host countries, are running out of resources. The number of Iraqi refugees in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt is simply too large for these countries to absorb. The population is also too large to resettle into third countries. Therefore, the only real, long-term solution to the Iraqi displacement problem is return to Iraq. Finding ways to create conditions for safe return is central to improving stability in Iraq and in the Middle East.
Refugees International has been promoting a comprehensive program for dealing with Iraqi displacement since last summer. Recognizing that it will take some time to create conditions for safe return, the program calls for increased resettlement of vulnerable Iraqis in the U.S., more help for Jordan, Syria and other countries hosting Iraqi refugees, and a stepped-up effort to ensure voluntary return to Iraq.