Several weeks before the U.S. invaded Iraq five years ago, the Washington Post published an op-ed by myself and George Rupp, the president of the International Rescue Committee, warning of the humanitarian problems that war could impose on the Iraqi people.
The piece ended with this statement: "The United States may be ready for war, but it is not yet ready to help Iraq recover from war."
Sadly, that conclusion still rings true today.
Today, the International Organization for Migration reported that "five years after the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, more people than ever before are displaced from conflict and sectarian violence, ensuring that the humanitarian crisis in the country is far from being solved." Currently, it estimates that some 5.1 million Iraqis are displaced, either within Iraq or living as refugees in nearby countries.
Although the government of Iraq is sitting on billions of dollars of oil revenues, it has not been able to mobilize to meet the needs of an estimated 2.7 million internally displaced Iraqis. More than 75% don't get government food rations, 20% lack clean water and 33% don't have access to medications they require, the IOM reports. Many refugees face similarly bleak conditions.
The displacement of nearly 20% of Iraq's population reflects continuing violence and an absence of rule of law and a failure by the U.S. and Iraq to improve humanitarian conditions in the country.
Five years ago, when George Rupp and I wrote our op-ed, we had good evidence that the U.S. was not prepared to heal the wounds of war, whatever the benefits of toppling Saddam Hussein. At the time we thought the displacement would come quickly. In fact, the quick sweep to victory in Iraq produced little displacement. But as it became clear that neither the U.S. nor the government of Iraq could control sectarian and other violence, nor restore electricity and other services, or create conditions for economic growth, people began to seek protection elsewhere.
On the eve of the fifth anniversary of the war, 24 refugee and human rights agencies, including Refugees International and the International Rescue Committee, sent a letter to President Bush, Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the United Kingdom, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki expressing "deep concern that so little has been done by your governments to address the desperate plight of Iraqis who have been forced to flee their homes as a result of the on-going conflict." The letter recommends more aid to meet humanitarian needs, greater opportunities for Iraqi refugees to resettle in the U.S. and the U.K., greater protection for Iraqis seeking sanctuary in neighboring states, such as Syria and Jordan.
Governments in Washington and London aren't paying much attention to Iraqi displacement, but neither Iraq nor the region will be stable until Iraqis feel that it is safe to go home.