As of the start of October, it was reported by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) that displaced individuals are residing in a total of 435 schools in Anbar governorate, not to mention the educational facilities that are occupied by armed militants. Around two thirds of the (1.6 million) population in Anbar are classified as being in need, which is the highest of any Iraqi province. Despite such catastrophic circumstances, an analytical report released in early October by NCCI/SNAP shows that Anbar has the lowest amount of funding per displaced person of any of the afflicted Iraqi provinces (3 USD per IDP). This is in vast contrast with the funding situation in the first quarter of 2014, when a Strategic Response Plan (SRP) was put together, specifically to address the needs of afflicted populations as a result of the militant takeover of Fallujah and Ramadi.
The most recent version of the same SRP, revised in September, focuses heavily upon displacement figures in the northern Kurdish region and fails to adequately address the situation in the remainder of Iraq. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is hosting large numbers of displaced individuals without any financial support from the central Iraqi government, but this could also be said for Anbar and other provinces that are majority-controlled by militants and subsequently have not received their usual cut of the centralised annual budget.
It is logical that the humanitarian focus is placed upon the accessible northern Kurdish regional provinces, since they host the largest percentage (43 percent) of the collective internally-displaced population in Iraq. However the prolonged reprioritisation of the humanitarian response in Anbar, and to some extent other provinces in central and southern Iraq, should have followed a detailed assessment and evaluation of comparative needs with displaced populations in other provinces. Any deprioritisation that has occurred reluctantly or even subconsciously due to challenges concerning constrained humanitarian access and poor security is potentially understandable but certainly disappointing. If true, questions must then be asked to why the humanitarian imperative was not dominant in any such planning and decision making.
There remains an urgent need for an ‘Immediate Response Plan’, inspired by that released by the UN and the KRG to address challenges specifically in the Kurdish region, but which addresses the rest of Iraq. This plan will need to respond to key questions raised in an NCCI Emergency Report in October, centred on how to speed up and scale up the nationwide humanitarian response. More specifically, such planning must lay out how aid agencies can overcome the challenges that have up until now prevented a comprehensive and coordinated aid response from being implemented in conflict zones. Displaced families from these areas inside Anbar are in desperate need of aid but every direction from which they seek to flee appears to be a dead end. The entire province is now almost completely closed off with no clear way of exiting for those fleeing violence. There are also question marks being continually raised about why there remains a critical lack of temporary accommodation in Anbar, with no immediate move towards the development of camps.
Recent events that have taken place in Heet, marked by a significant militant advance into large areas of the district, have resulted in the displacement of an estimated 34,000 people, according to the latest OCHA flash report. Previous reports had indicated significantly higher figures, with as many as 180,000 being displaced. This would constitute around 75 percent of Heet’s population, many of whom had already been displaced multiple times due to the dynamic nature of the conflict inside Anbar. Whatever the correct statistic, the resulting media reports emanating from this grief-stricken province will hopefully suffice in reactivating the collective subconscious and reminding people of the protracted suffering of some of Iraq’s most vulnerable populations that reside in Anbar and other areas far beyond the borders of the northern Kurdish provinces of the country.
For months, NGOs and UN agencies operating in different parts of Iraq have been calling upon the international community to refocus attention towards the overwhelming scale of the humanitarian needs that exist inside the country. The Anbar crisis has for more than six months posed an almost unmanageable burden upon the emergency response capacities of aid and relief agencies due to a critical lack in funding that has emanated from a clear down-grading of Iraq from the list of priorities on the international humanitarian agenda. This de-prioritisation must urgently be brought into question as the security crisis in the country has reached a breaking point which, if surpassed, will overwhelm the capability of aid agencies to respond given the burden of financial constraints. In a recent UN Security Council Press release, Member States were encouraged to support the Strategic Response Plan (SRP) that remains just 10 per cent funded, despite being launched over three months ago.
In the first week of June, longstanding concerns from humanitarian actors in Iraq about the potential for the Anbar crisis to expand to other strategic governorates have materialised as the cities of Mosul and Samarra, situated in the neighbouring governorates of Ninewa and Salaheddin respectively, have become the scenes of intense conflict. Armed opposition groups (AOGs) seized control of the entire Western part of Mosul and large areas of the Eastern part of the city. Reportedly, AOGs also took control over the city of Qayyarah, 140km South of Mosul, and the city of Muhallabuya, 70km to the West. They stormed prisons in the city and were able to free hundreds of inmates. In addition to a large influx of citizens from Mosul to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) and Zommar city in North-West Mosul, there are growing concerns from cross-sections of communities in Salaheddin about their own safety and whether they should also flee before being caught up in the expanding conflict.
Accounts vary as to the exact number of casualties from Mosul but according to the local authorities more than 100 individuals have been killed so far in fighting. The UN has projected that the estimated 500,000 people displaced this year in conflict is likely to climb significantly over the coming weeks and months. Growing humanitarian needs will increase the pressure felt by aid agencies who are concerned about the sustainability of the under-funded collective response. Initial estimates from the International Office for Migration (IOM) are that there are already around 500,000 additional displaced individuals as a result of the recent outbreak of fighting in Mosul. One NCCI focal point who himself has fled the conflict in the city described the “mass displacement of citizens from Mosul from both East and West, I am currently on my way to Dohuk and have counted 50 cars in two minutes”. Another NCCI focal point cited thousands of IDPs being stuck at Erbil and Dohuk checkpoints waiting to be able to pass through. Mosques, schools and small surrounding villages on the way to Dohuk are reportedly overcrowded.
Hashim Al-Assaf, Executive Coordinator of the NGO Coordination Committee for Iraq (NCCI) stated that “results of impending assessments in Ninewa and Salaheddin by aid agencies will reveal the extent of needs in the different response sectors but there are sizeable concerns about how already limited resources and stocks can be stretched to meet new needs on the ground”. NCCI field situation reports, released to support coordination efforts on the Anbar response, continue to show significant gaps in basic needs that include food, milk, water, shelter and blankets. Access to conflict areas of Mosul and Samarra also pose a significant concern for aid and relief agencies that are planning their response because movements in these areas are clearly restricted by ongoing fighting and road closures.
Services in the conflict areas are already beginning to suffer as there are prolonged power shortages across Mosul and water shortages that are predominantly affecting those situated in Western parts of the city. Markets and shopping areas are closing in insecure areas close to the fighting and there are reports that at least one ambulance was targeted by shelling. Schools and government offices are also predominantly shut. Curfews have been called in the Eastern half of Mosul city and fleeing IDPs have not been able to take with them much more than a few clothing items and some core essentials. As aid agencies await the results of official figures emanating from needs assessments, the efforts of humanitarian actors to highlight the impact of the devastating developments will continue. One question remains, which is: exactly how desperate does the situation need to become inside Iraq for the humanitarian crisis to receive the international attention that NGOs and the UN agencies have long been calling for?
Written by Benjamin Hargreaves, NCCI Communications Coordinator
On 18th March, a statement was released by a consortium of National Non-Governmental Organisations (NNGOs) who expressed their collective disappointment at the international community for not imparting greater attention to the worst humanitarian situation being faced by Iraq since 2006. The statement shed renewed light on the increasingly challenging situation for aid agencies, who are trying to attend to the urgent needs of the country's Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Indeed despite constrained resources and funding, NGOs and UN agencies continue to work hard to try and ensure the timely and efficient provision of humanitarian assistance for the displaced. Once being looked upon as a temporary downturn amid an already fragmented political and security scene in Iraq, contingency planners are now facing up to the increasing likelihood that this will evolve into a protracted crisis.
Based on official figures released by Iraq's Ministry of Displacement and Migration (MoDM) on 26th March, it can be estimated that around 400,000 people have been displaced as a result of the conflict in Anbar. International NGOs that are playing a key role in the humanitarian response, such as the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), have this month called upon the international community to increase its humanitarian support and for parties in the conflict to ensure secure access for emergency relief staff working to meet the increasing needs of vulnerable populations. The International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) has also urged “everyone involved in fighting to spare civilians and allow humanitarian and medical personnel to carry out their duties in safety”. Detailed field information collected by the NGO Coordination Committee for Iraq (NCCI), through its members and networks, has highlighted the trecherous and often impossible conditions that humanitarian workers are faced with then trying to gain access to some of the most vulnerable populations. As a result, IDPs in many cases remain in desperate need of some of the most basic relief items such as water (for drinking and cleaning), food supplies, bedding, clothing and shelter.
Given the sizeable security and financial constraints on the humanitarian effort of aid agencies, it is surprising that more international attention has not been directed towards the unmet needs of those affected by the current situation in Iraq. NGOs have been working with limited resources to attend to the growing needs of IDPs, who have been forced to leave their homes because of the ongoing threat to their safety and security. Perhaps the lack of media attention towards this issue is a reflection of the regional situation, whereby the Syrian refugee crisis remains the focus for relief and donor organisations. However with assessments shifting towards the fact that this is now a protracted humanitarian crisis, NGOs are hoping that this will mean stronger donor support for their activities. Without such a shift, it is now evident that the vital work being carried out on the ground by humanitarian actors will not be able to be sustained in the long-term.
Several NNGOs this month detailed to NCCI their progressive reliance on donations from wealthy local businessmen and the help of community volunteers in order to bridge the gaps now appearing in their resources, so that they can continue distributing food and other basic items. NNGOs operating in Anbar are struggling even more than in other areas of Iraq, since the solutions and procedures deployed were initially developed with the hope that IDPs would be in a position to return to their homes and cities within days or weeks of the initial onset of the crisis in December. There was also an expectation that if it did materialize into a long-term situation then their efforts would quickly be supported from various directions, both locally and internationally. One area of particular concern for these local organisations has been the apparent shortage in planning and subsequent provision of shelter and accommodation, which they believe has not reflected the true scope or needs of responding to the crisis. Perhaps policies pertaining to this issue really have been more politically-driven than humanitarian-focused. Indeed the argument that the crisis is temporary and that IDPs will soon return home seems now quite idealistic. Or perhaps this is a greater reflection upon the continuing requirement for enhanced capacity building with relevant actors in Iraq in relation to emergency preparedness.
There are an increasing number of reports being received by NCCI through emergency coordination meetings and its field network that highlight the deterioration of social structure inside Anbar. Begging and problems relating to homelessness are on the rise, especially among the most vulnerable people such as women, children and the elderly. Unemployment rates have also increased because many IDPs have been forced to leave their jobs behind or cannot regularly access their place of work. New areas resided in by the IDPs are often unable to provide similar opportunities in the face of a rising population. Children are missing out on education because schools have closed and paperwork has been lost of unavailable for submission at their new location. Common theft and burglaries have also increased significantly and according to the joint NNGO statement released in March “criminal acts are driven by psychological factors arising out of the feeling of wanting to take revenge on society, which is considered as a source of responsibility for the conflict”. Militants in control of Fallujah have begun taking policing into their own hands by implementing Sharia law and offering some limited social services, hoping to further their moral support.
With an estimation of more than 90,000 individuals now displaced outside Anbar province and violence spiking in other governorates including Diyala, Baghdad and Salaheddin, perhaps the days of calling this an ‘Anbar’ crisis are numbered. Whilst clearly a depressing thought, it is essential for the international community and media to recognize the expanding and protracted nature of the current situation so that the needs of beneficiaries on the ground can be effectively planned for and met by the humanitarian community. This pessimistic but representative outlook of the current humanitarian situation has been added to recently by the first cases of polio being discovered in Iraq for 14 years. Responding to this situation will once again be made more challenging by limited access in Anbar province (bordering on Syria) and by the continuing displacement of large sections of the population.
Published by NCCI Communications Team, Amman
Iraq now has the second highest number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the Middle East, after Syria, with a total of more than 1.1 million registered IDPs. Most have escaped due to conflict, political strife and forced evictions on sectarian or ethnic grounds.
More than two months of military operations inside Anbar have resulted in thousands of additional Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) that have been forced to leave their homes in search of peace and security. Violence inside the province has even resulted in multi-displacement as many families that had made the difficult decision to leave home, were subsequently confronted by new outbreaks of fighting between militants and Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and were forced to once again relocate in search of sanctuary in another area of Anbar. According to NCCI field reports, the scarcity of food supplies and fuel has also been a key factor in leading families to seek better living conditions.
Recent statistics released by the Ministry of Displacement and Migration (MoDM) show that there are now more than 68,333 internally displaced families as a result of the ongoing conflict in Anbar province. The majority of these families (48,243) are displaced inside Anbar and the remaining families (20,068) are now located in other governorates, including large numbers in Salaheddin (8,745), Kirkuk (1,304), Baghdad (3,627) and the Iraqi Kurdistan region (5,331). The estimation that more the 70 per cent of IDPs are still located inside Anbar increases the importance on coordination and information sharing between International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) and the local communities, including local authorities and National Non-Governmental Organisations (NNGOs). This is absolutely necessary in order to assess and prioritise IDP needs and to provide a collaborative, joined-up humanitarian response inside Anbar province.
It is still too early to judge the effectiveness of the challenging aid effort to address the growing needs of more than 400,000 IDPs, who are displaced across a total of 11 different governorates. However when specifically addressing the humanitarian response inside Anbar, it has become apparent that the local communities and organisations are playing an incredibly important role in meeting the needs of locally displaced people. NNGOs are working under increasingly treacherous circumstances in order to carry out assessments and meet the desperate needs of IDPs.
Indeed NNGOs and communities are dealing with huge needs on the ground and are working with an ongoing shortage in funds and overstretched resources. What increases the challenge even more is that the local humanitarian community is now having to contingency plan for a long term, expanding IDP crisis. For them it is incredibly important to take special care of health and education, even prioritizing it over support for shelters, food and non-food items. There have been growing reports from NCCI focal points that displaced children are often being turned away from schools due to incomplete schooling documentation and paperwork, which is something that will have a devastating long-term impact on the future generation of this vulnerable sub-section of Iraqi youth. There are also increased warnings about potential widespread outbreaks of serious illnesses among local IDP populations.
NNGOs possess a number of important benefits for INGOs when dealing with the inside-Anbar response, which need to be exploited more effectively by humanitarian actors. Despite often having to work with contradicting, unconfirmed information from the field and difficult, unsecure access routes, INGOs have a fantastic opportunity to be able to tap into the rich pool of local knowledge and insight of NNGOs to understand the precise needs of the affected IDP population. Most NNGOs have almost exclusively local employees that are able to appreciate important cultural and political factors without facing language or trust barriers to information collection and field research.
Whatever could be said about national and local NGO capacities in Anbar, there have been substantial efforts made by the NGO Coordination Committee for Iraq (NCCI) and other important humanitarian actors in developing their capabilities in order to support local communities and respond to developing humanitarian emergencies. The time seems right for the international humanitarian community to build closer partnerships with these NNGOs to help to leverage their capabilities still further. Stronger local partnerships with NGOs that embrace the core humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and do-no-harm will help to better assess and meet the collective needs of IDPs in Anbar, and to overcome the ongoing difficulties of sporadic access route changes and a dynamic battleground.
However there are still significant obstacles to reliable partnerships, which are borne out of the fact that the nature of Iraqi civil society substantially differs from the Western-inspired model that is defined by independence from traditional social structures and the state. Iraqi civil society on the other hand relies on the values of solidarity, contacts and social cohesion, rooted in religious and tribal ethics. Full embracement of core international humanitarian principles and actual on-the-ground capacities are still points of concern for humanitarian actors that are seeking local partnerships.
From an NNGO perspective, there are substantial benefits to be gained from the enhanced resources and procedures that would be provided by the establishment of stronger partnerships with INGOs that would increase the effectiveness of their aid effort. A protected space for NGO coordination, being provided by NCCI, will also help to ensure that the activities of NNGOs are not overlapping but are instead based upon detailed, evidence-based needs assessments from reliable and trusted sources of information in the field. Priorities of people inside Anbar are constantly changing and must be kept up with via continuous detailed assessments. Trends analyses suggest that the crisis is now becoming long-term and is expanding. The sooner such partnerships can be strengthened, the faster the collective humanitarian effort can be adapted to meet this increasing IDP challenge.
Published by NCCI Communications Team, Amman
The number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Iraq continues to pose a significant humanitarian challenge for Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and Iraqi authorities. An estimated 1.8 million Iraqis were displaced as a result of the 2006-2008 widespread sectarian violence and there have been consistent warning signs over the past year that the country is on the verge of returning to some of its darkest days of internal conflict. With such conflict come new waves of IDPs that join the existing victims of sectarian violence to form one of the most vulnerable populations of people inside Iraq. Between April and December 2013 more than 1000 families were displaced, mainly in Baghdad, Diyala, Ninewa and Basra, due to increased security threats. The fear of violence and a deteriorating security situation also sadly prevent existing IDPs from returning home. In 2013 the UN estimated the number of IDPs in Iraq to be approximately 1.13 million.
Prior to the worrying destabilization of Anbar province this month, the United Nations (UN) had already expressed clear concerns that Iraq was facing a new crisis regarding an increasing number of IDPs and deteriorating living conditions for this vulnerable section of Iraqi society. Since the outbreak of sporadic conflict in and around Fallujah and Ramadi and the emergence of impending large-scale Iraqi security force offensives in these cities, thousands of families have made the difficult decision to abandon their homes in fear of their own safety. NGOs, UN agencies and the International Organization of Migration (IOM) have released estimates that vary greatly but indicate that a total of more than 100,000 people (22,000 families) have been displaced from and within Anbar since the start of the violence. The vast majority of displacement has been from families living in Fallujah.
The situation in Fallujah and Ramadi is developing rapidly and field situation reports published by the NGO Coordination Committee for Iraq (NCCI) have confirmed that the main reason for families leaving their homes has been the deteriorating security situation. For a few weeks families were facing difficulties in obtaining food and fuel but most decided not to leave. However as the threat of violence and head-on conflict have increased the difficult decision to leave has been taken out of their hands. The associated strain on local hospitals also appears to have been intensifying as the frequency of casualties requiring urgent medical treatment continues to provide a significant burden upon available resources. More than 71 civilians have been killed and 319 injured as a result of the conflict in Anbar, according to UN statistics.
NCCI field situation reports have shown that displaced families have been seeking refuge in local schools, old housing and storage places that are strongly unsuitable for residence over a sustained period of time. These families have been in great need of items such as blankets, mattresses, cooking appliances and food items. The availability and pricing of food items and fuel have been significantly affected by the ongoing violence. Rental of local housing has also escalated to about four times the original cost in some locations, which has greatly hindered displaced families looking to somewhere to lodge. Other displaced families have been luckier in that they have been hosted by family relatives.
The humanitarian response up until now for displaced families in Anbar has faced significant constraints that have arisen due to the complexity of the conflict. Checkpoints have been closed by security forces for long periods and other roads and accesses have fallen under the control of militants. Fields workers for local community groups, religious groups and NGOs such as the Iraqi Red Crescent have been bravely operating under treacherous conditions in order to distribute relief supplies, which up until now have been received from very limited resources. The conflict is dynamic and has been evolving at a pace that is difficult to keep up with when planning comprehensive relief efforts. Access routes that are open one day may quickly become blocked as the violence becomes scattered in an increasingly desperate battle for territorial control. Limited access to areas has also been a sizeable obstacle to carrying out detailed needs assessments for the IDPs in Anbar.
Whilst the majority of displaced families still remain in Anbar, a large number have also been displaced to other regions in Iraq. This presents a wider challenge for the humanitarian response effort. According to NCCI’s field network there are around 15,000 IDPs in Iraqi Kurdistan (Erbil, Sulaymaniya and Dohuk) that have been displaced from Fallujah and Ramadi, in addition to the significant number of IDPs that are now located in the Iraqi regions of Salah-al-Din, Kerbala, Najaf, and Baghdad. Displaced families in Iraqi Kurdistan may feel relieved that they have found their way to this relative safe haven but will quickly find themselves staring in the face of new challenges. Families are beginning to complain about high prices for the rental housing and the difficulty of obtaining residency, which is now being renewed on a weekly basis at the discretion of local security forces. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is currently working alongside aid agencies to set up a temporary camp for the IDPs arriving from Anbar.
It appears that in the current whirlwind of political and security instability we should expect more and more families to be forced to make difficult choices about whether to leave home and search for relative peace and stability in a different region of Iraq. Providing assistance for the displaced remains one of the lasting challenges for the humanitarian community working in Iraq. NGOs and UN agencies intensify their activities under difficult constraints in Anbar province with no end in sight to the violence. Only when stability improves and access enables aid agencies to carry out more detailed assessments will the extent of the humanitarian crisis emanating from Anbar truly be realized. If this stability is maintained then families will be able to return to their homes and schools can reopen. Any growing pressure on health services in areas hosting a large number of IDPs will also be somewhat relieved. However the Director of Health in Anbar has been working hard to quickly fill any gaps that appear due to an increased population in any area hosting IDPs. In terms of infrastructure damage as a result of the ongoing conflict, significant reparation costs are being projected and houses belonging to local families have been in some cases seriously damaged.
Written by Benjamin Hargreaves, NCCI Communications Team, Jordan
The death toll of the Syrian Uprising to date is nearly four times greater than that of all of the other Arab Springs combined except Libya – some 11,000 dead in total.[i] Furthermore throughout the Uprising's first year both the rates of violent deaths in Syria, and in parallel refugee displacement therefrom, have been accelerating sharply. Monthly figures of Syrians killed by violence doubled in each of four consecutive periods reaching 2,000 per month by March 2012. The rate of displacement has accelerated in parallel, doubling in the last two months the number reached in the previous ten. In mid-April 2012 UNHCR reported that the number of Syrian refugees in Syria's four neighbors stands at 55,000 registered. Conservative estimates put a further more than 200,000 Syrians as displaced within their own country (Syrian Red Crescent).
Given Iraq's own recent and incomplete immergence from insurgency, terrorism and civil war, it is unsurprising that the first waves of refugees have chosen and continue to prefer to go to Syria's other three neighbors (Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon). But for some – both new Syrian refugees and Iraqi refugees displaced back to their countries of origin – Iraq may be the only place they can go, and their numbers have been accelerating as the Syrian Uprising passes its one-year anniversary. This is especially true in light of current trends of violence which indicate that a serious risk remains of violence increasing, spreading its geographic reach, and becoming more sectarian in nature – even as a 6-point peace plan has been nominally agreed upon by both opposition and government forces and the first batches of UN observers deployed.
Syrians Fleeing Syria
When first looking at Iraq it might seem logical to ask who would seek refugee from a war zone in a country with its own ongoing conflict? Actually, there are a number of highly compelling reasons for certain segments of Syrian society and the Iraqi refugee population in Syria to seek to come to Iraq.
Iraqi violence is still extremely high, but also highly concentrated in certain areas. The northernmost three provinces (the Kurdish Region) and southernmost six provinces account for only some 4% of violent incidents throughout the country though they represent 50% of the country's provinces. Most of the Syrians seeking refuge in Iraq are males (80%), young and unaccompanied (60%), of Kurdo-Syrian origin, many fleeing mandatory military service. They seek refuge under the auspices of the Kurdish Regional Government because of its proximity to their provinces of origin (Hasakeh, Qamishli, in the Kurdish-dominated North-East of Syria, although there are also refugees to a lesser extent from Reef Dimashq, Damascus and Aleppo), shared language (despite differences in dialect) and perceived sympathy of the authorities in the semi-autonomously governed KRG. Most importantly, for those who are deserters some of Syria's other neighbors that still have or are rumored to have intelligence coordination with the current Syrian government (Lebanon, from whence deserters have already been returned across the border, and to a lesser degree Jordan) are therefore less appealing options for fear of refoulement. Although those who have fled to Iraq represent only roughly 1 in every 24 Syrian refugees at the time of writing their particular needs and vulnerabilities mean that as long as violent conflict continues anywhere in Syria their numbers are likely to continue to rise. Likewise, even if violence subsides, so long as the Syrian government remains the same, deserters among the ranks of the Syrian refugees in the KRG will be unable to return home for fear of imprisonment, torture or death.
Due to snowballing rates of Syrian refugee entries in the Kurdish Region of Iraq, the KRG, the UNHCR, International Organization for Migration (IOM), partner NGOs such as Qandil, and NNGOs such as the Kurdistan Civil Rights Organization (KCRO) have been focused on providing food and non-food assistance as well as constructing a second refugee camp called "Domiz" in Dohuk for Syrian nations. The KRG already had a refugee camp ("Qamishli"). However it became overcrowded following the wave of refugees of the 2011-2012 Syrian uprising. Indeed the population of Syrian refugees in the KRG jumped from only 360 on March 31st 2012 and an estimated 760 arrivals altogether, to over 1,776 registered and 2,376 arrivals 2 weeks later (UNHCR estimates). The Sunni-Arab dominated province of al-Anbar, which faces much higher levels of violence and is under the direct control of Baghdad has also engaged in the establishment of camp facilities to accommodate persons displaced by violence in Syria, about 10km away from the al-Walid border crossing, but has apparently not witnessed notable levels of arrivals to date.
Iraqis Refugees Fleeing Syria
The 102,000 currently registered Iraqi refugees in Syria, amid a government estimate of 1 million Iraqis in total there, are both the most numerous and the poorest of the Iraqi populations outside of Iraq. They are therefore particularly at risk either if forced to return home or if they stay as the situation heats up in Syria. To date there has been no mass departure of Iraqi refugees from Syria. However it is notable that according to Iraqi Government figures in 2011, 67,000 Iraqis registered as returned from Syria double the number in 2009 and 2010 combined. The average monthly rate of Iraqi refugee returns from Syria doubled again over 2011 in the first quarter of 2012 alone (UNHCR/IMoDM).
A combination of the very recent encroachment of Uprising-related violence to the populations hubs where Iraqi refugees are concentrated, and unrelated longer-standing incentives to return, are behind the jump in the rate of Iraqi refugee returns to Iraq witnessed during the last year.
For most of the first year of the Syrian uprising whose first anniversary was in March 2012, the safety of Iraqi refugees residing in Syria was by and large not directly affected because Iraqi refugees largely did not live in areas where protest and consequently violence was occurring. The overwhelming majority of Iraqi refugees in Syria live in the political and the economic capitals of the country (Damascus and Aleppo). While areas such as Homs, Daraa, and Idlib, have experienced shelling employing heavy artillery in broad daylight, and some of the capital's suburbs require as many as 7 check-points and an ID indicating residence in the area to move in and out of them, restaurants in the capital continue to remain open and people in the streets past midnight throughout the events in the rest of the country. This has only changed in the past 4 months, with a campaign of bombings finally bringing more concentrated violence to Damascus and Aleppo.
Incentives for Iraqis to return home unrelated to the Syrian Uprising include a notable drop since around 2009 in violence in Iraq to a tenth of the circa 2007 heights of the Iraqi Civil War. This maintained drop in violence, in addition to monetary incentives provided by the government, has been one of the main reasons for increases in the return of Iraqi IDPs to their homes during the last year. Other incentives for Iraqi refugees in Syria to return home also include the fact that the population of Iraqis that went to Syria (which has practically implemented an open-door policy for Iraqi refugees unlike other neighbors such as Jordan which imposed quotas and strict education requirements etc.) were the poorest. Thus for this population the drying up of savings has long been an ever increasing concern, particularly in light of the fact that technically it is illegal for them to work in their host country although many do menial jobs for sub-normal salaries under the table. The doubling of the prices of many essential food items in Syria during the course of the last year as a result of international economic sanctions only makes the situation of economically and legally vulnerable persons in Syria even more so.
On balance the increasing wave of Iraqi returns from Syria may have more to do with negative pressure than positive incentives however. A survey by UNHCR just before the start of the protest movement in Syria which found that most refugees surveyed were still unwilling to return home permanently has led some analysts to deem the increase in returns during the period of the Syrian Uprising "premature", i.e. the result of a choice between two bad options rather than a comfortable and truly voluntary decision to return home.
Outlook on Violence in Syria: Possibility of Proxy Wars and Consequent Displacement
The year of the Syrian Uprising since its inception in March of 2011 has seen a shift from a predominantly peaceful protest movement towards increased armed conflict in which outside states have high stakes, and the tactics of the Syrian government, outsiders and even the armed groups among the opposition themselves could contribute not only to increases in violence but also its greater sectarianization.
Starting December 23rd 2011, a series of bombings have rocked the capital which had previously been spared the violence. The Syrian government calls such incidents evidence of the rise of violent, foreign-funded, salafi-takfiri extremist Islamist currents in the opposition. By contrast the Syrian opposition has accused the government of staging the attacks to justify its crackdown on the uprising. In particular, the Syrian opposition notes that many of the bombings have taken place in the few areas of the capital where protests have occurred, or like the first attacks, just before unarmed (Arab League) observers were scheduled to deploy in Damascus. In this way the attacks allowed the state to restrict the movements of the monitors with a safety detail the government stated that it was providing for the monitors' security. Such explosions have continued and increased since the deployment of the UN observer mission.
Indeed, opposition forces see the likes of these bombings as part of greater theatrics put on by the state, including government-permitted or even government-sponsored violence in minority-dominated areas, and distribution of weapons 'for the self-protection' of citizens in minority areas, as a regime tactic to divide possible opposition along sectarian lines, and scare minorities and fence-sitters into blind support of the state's program of violence by proposing the security provided by the current government, or a Lebanese/Iraqi civil war scenario without it, as the only two possible outcomes of the protest movement. A fairly clear series of concessions to certain long-time opposition Syrian Kurdish parties – promising to grant citizenship rights to 300,000 stateless Syrian Kurds and even allowing the opening of some PKK-run Kurdish language instruction (previously not even legal much less encouraged) is seen by the opposition as further evidence of the state's divide and conquer strategy, and attempt to neutralize a large swath sector of Syrian society (Syrian Kurds), a potentially very potent oppositional force representing more than a tenth of the state's population. Some Syrian Kurdish parties like the Kurdish Yekiti Party (KYP) have thrown in their lot with the Syrian protest movement. However regarding the PKK, one of the stronger of the Kurdish parties the tactic has so far apparently worked. Indeed, PKK fighters have even assisted in inhibiting protests in some areas and the PKK has announced that if Turkey interfered in the Uprising, it would stand with the current Syrian government.
The precise levels of exaggeration from either side are difficult to discern in an atmosphere where free press remains almost entirely banned by authorities in Syria. However even if the Syrian government's version of events is accurate they mean that the violent conflict has arrived to the political and economic hubs of the country where Iraqi refugees have been centered. Likewise whether the result of genuine targeting of minorities by extremists or state fabrication thereof, rising levels of violence have resulted in some de-facto segregation of sects. This includes for example the flight of many Alawites (the sect of the president, and one notably over-represented in the still loyal upper-echelons of the army) to the coastal areas where they are more dominant, and Christians, from areas witnessing intensified violence like Homs. Isolation of sectarian groups from one another and blanket-association of whole minority groups as "regime supporters" increases potential for balkanization of the conflict. Balkanization of the conflict would be a major issue in a state with such a rich diversity of ethnic and sectarian groups.
Following the deployment of a UN observer mission due to report on the implementation of cessation of hostilities starting April 12th 2012, the daily rates of killing of Syrians dropped sharply. However they have increased from the first days of the mission. Two weeks after the supposed implementation of cessation of hostilities by both sides, and assurance of free movement for the press by authorities, in some of most sensitive areas (such as Homs) attacks are nearly back to pre-ceasefire levels, the state's heavy weaponry remains positioned in heavily populated urban areas, and journalism no freer. This has led some observers to label the mission a failure as the Arab League observer mission was before it. As one journalist asked rhetorically, regarding the arrival of a Norwegian general arriving as part of the second deployment of UN, "I wonder if by the time he gets to Syria, there will be any cease-fire left to monitor?"
The failure of the Kofi Annan brokered peace-plan and the UN observer mission is still unconfirmed. If the mission is beefed up from its current 15 persons, to at least the full 300-persons agreed upon by the UN Security Council, or what opposition leaders see as a minimum of 2-3,000 person size to be able to truly do their job in a country of 22 million, it might yet succeed or at least continue to put a damper of violence and allow greater peaceful protests to organize without fear of imprisonment or armed retribution by state forces. By some estimates, the largest number of protests to occur to date was 715 separate gatherings on April 13rd (i.e. immediately following the arrival of the observer mission). However if the UN observer mission fails or continues to flounder, and possibly even if it does not, regional interests in the preservation of the Syrian government (Iran, Hezbollah, Russia whose only warm water port is located on the Syrian coast) or change of the Syrian government (notably Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the US) could tip the conflict into a much more violent and difficult to stop proxy-war. Russia and Iran already provide military and strategic support to the Syrian government. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have openly discussed supporting the possibility of foreign military intervention in Syria. This is unlikely to occur given the unwillingness of any major military powers currently to devote boots on the ground, or even planes, to such a mission. However indirect support of armed opposition forces is well within the range of possibilities, with states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar recently putting forward a pledge of 100 million US dollars to pay for the salaries of the (opposition, defector-lead) Free Syrian Army first announced in July 2011 after 5 months of state crackdown on the peaceful protest movement, the discipline of whose leadership structure is uncertain, and among whose ranks some cases of torture of prisoners have already immerged.
The sustainability of the two week drop in levels of violence following the deployment of a UN observer mission to Syria is as yet unclear. If the UN peace-plan is not proven to be working soon, the combination of a tenacious state willing to employ even heavy weaponry in heavily populated civilian centers to stop the protest movement, a highly fragmented Syrian opposition even on the most basic issues (such as foreign intervention or arming the opposition), interest of wealthy foreign backers in funding the arming of diverse parties to the conflict, and some evidence of de-facto sectarian segregation raise the specter of an even more serious proxy-conflict with intensified overtones of sectarian violence. As such the failure of the UN mission would likely signal a return of Syria to the patterns of death and displacement of Syrians and Iraqi refugee returns from Syria to Iraq as had been occurring and indeed escalating for the previous year. With the March 2012 UN call for funding for the plan for assisting Syrian refugees regionally only 20% funded to date, and the Iraqi government still facing a lack of capacity in implementing its promised and legislated assistance and benefits for returning citizens, questions remain in Iraq as in other neighboring countries, how the needs of the displaced will be filled if this scenario occurs.
The Syrian Uprising and Iraq: Returnees, Refugees, and Revolutionarie, the NGO Coordination Commitee for Iraq, 1 May 2012, by Ana Nikonorow
[i] The United Nations estimated the more than 9,000 civilians had been killed in the course of the Syrian Uprising by March 2012, the Uprising's one year anniversary (U.N. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process speaking before the UNSC, 27 March 2012). Syrian non-governmental groups, counting combatant deaths beginning in March 2012 and extending through the beginning of May 2012 range in their estimates from the Center for Documentation of Violation in Syria (749 combatant deaths), to the Syrian Martyrs Organization (1,210 military deaths), to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (3,145 combatant deaths to April 16th only). Although the Syrian government's estimate of overall deaths at 6,044 in April 2012 was much lower than the UN or Syrian opposition/human rights groups, the Syrian government places their estimates of combat deaths much higher. The Syrian opposition and human rights groups counting combatant and non-combatant deaths place their total estimates of Syrian dead notably higher than the UN for the period through end of April 2012: (10,966 total deaths) according to the Center for Documentation of Violations in Syria, (12,269 total deaths) according to the Syrian National Council, and (10,281 total deaths) according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. A concise sketch of the reporting methods of the various organization cited above, and the weaknesses of these methods, may be found in an piece by Eman El-Shenawi, "Raising a brow at the Syrian death toll, al-Arabiya, 25 March 2012. Taking into consideration the above calculations, this article has employed 11,000 as a highly rough median estimate employed in an environment where reliable estimates are extremely difficult to obtain.