The Role of Iraqi Refugees and Expatriates in Peacebuilding through Governance

Ahmad Al-Hadidi

March, 2010

This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Introduction and Background

In the wake of the 2003 U.S. led invasion of Iraq, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fled the aftermath of the war and the consequent sectarian violence that struck most of the country in the following years. Massive waves of population movement within and across Iraqi borders were later unleashed by the cataclysmic bombing of the holy Shiite shrine in Samarra, north of Baghdad in Feb 2006. Most estimates show that approximately two million people have been internally displaced, while a similar number sought refuge in the neighboring countries of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Iran, and the Gulf states. Jordan and Syria, however, were to receive the lion's share of Iraqi refugees, approximately 500,000 and 1,200,000 respectively,[1] most of whom are from the working middle class whose professional background is indispensable in both nation and peacebuilding efforts.[2]

Although Sunnis were disproportionately affected in post-Saddam Iraq, the Iraqis who fled to neighboring countries derived from various religious and political orientations. But because of tough circumstances and tight scrutiny in their host countries, Iraqi expatriates were not allowed to organize under one banner or another as their counterparts in Iraq. Moreover, since Syria and Jordan do not uphold the 1951 Geneva Convention, those refugees were not assigned a "refugee status," which can be broadly defined as someone who was forced to leave his/her country, especially at the time of conflict. Nevertheless, the legal definition of "refugee," mandated by the 1951 Convention and extended to apply to refugees after 1951 as well, is "a person who as a result of events occurring before January 1, 1951 and owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted ... is outside his country of nationality..."[3] According to this status, a refugee is entitled to protection as well as residence and work permits, among other rights. Instead, Syrian and Jordanian officials label Iraqi refugees as temporary "guests," because of strained resources and expectations of their impending long-awaited voluntary return to their home country.[4]

However, this return is dependent not only on improving the security conditions in Iraq, but on two other factors which will be discussed in detail below: the inclusion of the refugees in the Iraqi political process, and the active effort to "set the ground" for their return to Iraq.[5] Otherwise, the unmitigated plight of Iraqi refugees will continue to pose a great threat to peacebuilding efforts in Iraq while also overwhelming the economic situations of host countries, especially Jordan and Syria. In this regard, I argue that Iraqi refugees and expatriates have a potential to transform the conflict in Iraq if a representative government is willing to mitigate their immediate humanitarian needs and actively involve them in the political process, while simultaneously preparing for their return.

The Responsibility of Iraq's Government towards Iraqi Refugees and Expatriates

Unlike the situation of refugees in other parts of the world, where conflict-affected populations tend to concentrate in camps along or across borders, most Iraqi refugees have been dispersed in the urban centers of neighboring countries. Also, given the fact that only a small portion of them are registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNCHR), it is very difficult to know their exact number and subsequently assess and address their needs. In 2010, more than fifty partnering organizations, in coordination with donors, host government authorities, and the Iraq's Ministry of Migration and Displaced (MoMD) have committed themselves to improving the situation of Iraqi refugees at many levels. However, although the 2010 Regional Response Plan (RRP) for Iraqi refugees under the auspices of UNHCR seems very comprehensive in terms of its immediate and strategic objectives to meet the mounting needs of Iraqi refugees, it does not account for unregistered refugees.[6]

The debate on the number of Iraqi refugees in neighboring countries is clearly politicized. For example, the al-Maliki government and the MoDM maintain that there are only 206,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria, which is the number that the UNHCR has registered by 2010. On the other hand, Syrian officials and opposition parties in the Iraqi parliament assert that the number is over one million and claim that the al-Maliki government is underestimating that number for the March, 7th 2010 legislative elections.[7] Solving this problem is rather easy according to Azhar Al-Samarrae', a member in the Iraqi parliament's Committee for the Displaced and Refugees, who pointed out in an interview on Al-Jazeera TV that it would be easy for the Iraqi government to survey all Iraqi refugees through its embassies in Syria and Jordan.[8] However, as long as the issue of Iraqi refugees is politicized, we will not know how many refugees there are in Syria and Jordan, nor will Iraqi refugees have their needs and rights met. This mutual alienation might have stemmed from having what is referred to as "refugee spoilers," which is defined as refugee "groups and tactics that hinder, delay, or undermine conflict settlement."[9] For example, the al-Maliki government charged that high ranking Baathists in Syria, who were overthrown and became opposed to the whole political process in Iraq, try to undermine the improved security condition by launching terrorist attacks against governmental locations. The attacks on the Baghdad's provincial headquarters and the foreign affairs ministry on August 19, 2009 worsened the relationship between Iraq and Syria when the latter refused to hand over persons accused by the Iraqi government.[10] But this distrust has been generalized to almost all Iraqi refugees, who reciprocally lost hope in their government.[11] Regaining this trust is essential for current peacebuilding efforts and the future reintegration of Iraqi refugees.

The record shows that al-Maliki government did not stand up to the mounting needs of its displaced people in Syria and Jordan. Rather, it has contributed only $15 million to Iraqi refugees' needs in Syria and Jordan so far. A few days before Iraq's second parliamentary elections were held on March 7th, 2010 (the first parliamentary elections were in January 2005), Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi told a crowd of Iraqi refugees in Damascus, Syria that their return requires institutionalizing their vote in the parliament, whereby laws can be passed to ensure their rights and reintegration. He also put the blame on the al-Maliki government for not accepting its obligations towards Iraqi refugees.[12] This mutual alienation should be reversed if all interested parties want lasting peace in Iraq. One way is through refugee reintegration and involvement in the fledgling political process and democracy. Another is to prepare the ground at home for returnees.

1. Political Reintegration of Iraqi Refugees and Expatriates

In the months preceding the Iraq's second parliamentary elections, the debate over the number of Iraqi refugees surfaced again, but this time focused on their quota in the newly elected parliament. The new parliament consists of 325 seats up from 275 in the former parliament. According to the new elections law, there would be one seat for every 100,000 Iraqis. Counting within Iraq was relatively non-controversial, since the Iraqi Ministry of Trade's ration system keeps records of all Iraqis eligible for the food rations instituted during the sanctions period in the 1990s. The same method for counting the electoral votes was implemented in the 2005 elections, but this time population growth was considered. The 100,000 per seat quota applies to Iraqi refugees and expatriates as well as current citizens living within Iraq.[13] However, since their number is controversial, Iraqi legislators reserved 5% of the 323 seats as "compensatory seats" for minorities, as well as Iraqi refugees and expatriates. However, this law was vetoed by vice president Mr. al-Hashimi, who argued that the 5% rule markedly underestimated the number of Iraqi refugees and expatriates. He called for increasing it to 15% instead. The veto created political turmoil among various Iraqi factions and delayed the elections for two months. Ironically, Mr. al-Hashimi was accused — by Prime Minister al-Maliki, President Jalal Talbani, and various factional leaders — of jeopardizing the political process in Iraq.[14]

As an emigrant granted asylum in the United States and forced to live abroad, I think Mr. al-Hashimi was actually saving the political process by encouraging and involving Iraqi refugees and expatriates. They have the right to vote and be fairly represented in the new parliament. Whether Mr. al-Hashimi has a political interest in the Sunni vote abroad, as his opponents alleged, or not, I feel that he reached out to all Iraqi refugees and expatriates regardless of their background, calling for their right share of the vote. This is a very important peacebuilding effort that has a far-reaching impact on the situation of Iraqi refugees in their host countries and within Iraq once they can return. Therefore, I decided to go to Chicago to cast my vote.

Being away from home for several years and unable to foresee a peaceful return in the near future, I felt that the ballot box is the one place where my voice can be heard. I imagine that hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees and expatriates have had the same feeling. Although I am fortunate to have been granted asylum and resident status in the U.S., I still identify with my fellow Iraqi citizens in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and elsewhere in the world where there are no refugee rights. Despite an inconveniently located polling station, I was determined not to miss this very important opportunity to vote in Iraq's second parliamentary elections since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Before making the trek, I read an article in the Chicago Sun-Times describing the inaccessibility of the polling location and complaints about why the Iraqi Independent Higher Electoral Commission chose such a location.[15] Arriving there on Sunday, March 7, 2010 an hour before the station closed, I found a long line of fellow Iraqis waiting under a cloudy sky and in the open cold air. When I spoke to some people in the line regarding what I read in the Sun-Times article, one person did not hesitate to say that it was a political maneuver from "some parties" to discourage the Iraqi Assyrian vote, a Christian minority in northern Iraq, who constituted most of the large turnout at the Chicago polling place. Because I believe in the peacebuilding efforts that Iraqi expatriates and refugees can play, I think it would have been easy to find a much better location that would serve even more numbers of willing voters. A small martial arts studio in an isolated industrial park was the place where I cast my vote among a very determined and exuberant crowd. Crammed inside an approximately 2500 square feet area, several thousand Iraqis showed up over the three-day election period. Iraqis from different backgrounds were congratulating themselves and each other on the occasion. This was a clear message that, no matter how long they are forced to be away from their home country, Iraqi expatriates and refugees deserve to have fair representation in the new parliament. It was also demonstrating their coherence under one banner, their home country Iraq. The same message was sent in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and elsewhere in the world where the turnout was considerable. Many were expected to vote for Iraqi National Movement (al-Iraqiya), which is an alliance of secular Sunni and Shiite parties including Mr. al-Hashimi's.[16] I voted for al-Iraqiya believing it will help bring Iraqis together and refugees back home.

It was absolutely worth the effort to travel the three hours from South Bend, IN to the northern suburbs of Chicago, Illinois to cast my vote. And it is absolutely worth the effort and resources to include millions of Iraqi refugees and expatriates in the political process, for they not only have the right to do so but also they can translate this into a successful peacebuilding framework. Many are highly educated business owners and entrepreneurs with skills and expertise much needed for nation-building as well as peacebuilding efforts. For example, the most important part of Iraq's private sector is now based in Jordan, where many businessmen and their multimillion dollar enterprises have settled before and after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Some of them have tried to be involved in the Iraqi political process, but the highly sectarian politics in Baghdad have kept them away. The same holds true for many less affluent merchants and entrepreneurs. One of the most affluent Iraqi businessmen in Amman wondered why the Iraqi government did not invest in human capital if Iraq's economy consists of the oil economy and the people economy.[17]

2. Preparing the Ground at Home

Many Iraqi refugees were forced to leave their homes behind, where many of them were occupied by militias, displaced people or intruders. Others had to sell or rent their properties so they could survive in their country of asylum. In either case, peaceful return implies settling property disputes and accommodating vast numbers of returnees. Although the MoMD has been active to accommodate internal and some external returnees, these efforts fall far short of what effective reintegration and peacebuilding programs entail. Granting each eligible family a sum of one million Iraqi Dinars ($1000) and a lot of land after a complicated bureaucratic process is not enough to stay afloat. Moreover, the MoMD acknowledges that it does not have the capacity to settle many property disputes.[18] At best, the MoMD could only deal with registered refugees, provided that the Iraqi government supports the ministry financially, legally and logistically. So far only a small portion of them have voluntarily returned.

In addition, many Iraqi expatriates are well-educated, so there is a real need for creating meaningful employment opportunities upon their return. Many Iraqi professionals left for other countries for economic opportunities that were not available at home. This has been the case since the early 1990s. Creating these opportunities is not an easy process — even in stable countries. The new government needs to invest in its exiled human capital and allocate enough resources for reintegration. Iraq is an oil-rich country and it has the all resources required to employ a majority of its refugee population. Thus, efforts must be made to fairly count all refugees in neighboring countries and launch employment and financial incentives to get them to return. In doing so, the new government has a real opportunity for reconciliation with its refugees and their host countries through giving them a real hope for return and a peaceful life.


The relationship between Iraqi refugees/expatriates and their government is a two way relationship. On the one hand, the newly-elected parliament and government have at their disposal the means necessary to improve the humanitarian condition of millions of Iraqi refugees abroad and at home. On the other hand, refugees and expatriates have the right to be fully and fairly represented in the parliament and government where they can rule in favor of peacebuilding in Iraq and improving the ground for their return. Iraqi refugees and expatriates can always present their viewpoints for or against the homeland's government, many members of which used to be in exile as well. However, this critique should by no means be associated with violence or violent opposition groups. Instead, they can seek their goals through democratic participation and governance whether in the private or public sector as a tool for change.

[1] Joseph Sassoon, The Iraqi Refugees: the New Crisis in The Middle East (New York: I.B.TAURIS, 2009), P 1 & 5.

[2] International Crisis Group, "Failed Responsibility: Iraqi Refugees in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon," Middle East Report No. 77-July 10, 2008, P2, Accessed online at ndex.cfm?id=5563.

[3] The United Nations Refugee Agency UNHCR, "Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees," P16, Accessed at ect/PROTECTION/3b66c2aa10.pdf.

[4] International Crisis Group, "Failed Responsibility: Iraqi Refugees in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon," Middle East Report No. 77-July 10, 2008, P9 & 20, Accessed online at TECTION/3b66c2aa10.pdf.

[5] James Milner, Refugees and the Regional Dynamics of Peacebuilding (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2008), P 23.

[6] United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), "Regional Response Plan for Iraqi Refugees," P1-4, Accessed at http: //

[7] Press Release, "al-Maliki's Government Responds to Syria: Iraqi Refugees are 200,000 and We Did Not Fail Them," Dar Al-Hayat Newspaper, Wednesday, Jan 20, 2010.

[8] Al-Jazeera TV, "The Iraqi Scene: The Iraqi Refugees' Situation in Exile," Feb 10, 2010.

[9] James Milner, Refugees and the Regional Dynamics of Peacebuilding (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2008), P 24.

[10] Zaid Al-Zubaidi, "Sattam Go'oud 'Blew Up' the Relationship Between Baghdad and Damascus," Al-Akhbar Newspaper, August 29, 2009.

[11] International Crisis Group, "Failed Responsibility: Iraqi Refugees in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon," Middle East Report No. 77-July 10, 2008, P29, Accessed online at ndex.cfm?id=5563.

[12] Suad Jarous, "Al-Hashimi Meets With Iraqi Refugees in Damascus and Criticizes Baghdad's Failure to Bring Them Home," Al-Sharq Al-Awsat Newspaper, Mar 3, 2010.

[13] Marina Ottaway and Danial Kaysi, "Election Law, Take Two," Carnegie Endowment For International Peace, Accessed at dex.cfm?fa=view&id=24251&zoom-highlight=election+law+take+two.

[14] Huda Jasim, "The Iraqi Supreme Federal Court Rejects al-Hashimi's Veto and Parliamentarians are to Discuss it Tomorrow," Al-Sharq Al-Awsat Newspaper, Nov 20, 2009.

[15] Mark Brown, "Iraqis Here Fear Chicago-Style Election Tricks, Some See a Plot in Moving Poll to Glenview for Sunday Vote," Chicago Sun-Times, Mar 3, 2010.

[16] Sara Birke, "Iraq election: In Syria, disillusioned refugees trudge to the polls," The Christian Science Monitor, Mar 5, 2010.

[17] Stephen Glain, "The Land of Tycoons: Many Iraqi Businessmen are Running Their Empires from Self Exile in Jordan," The Newsweek International, June 27, 2005. P48-49.

[18] Ministry of Migration and Displaced (MoMD), "Encouraging Peaceful Return," Accessed online at