This briefing paper describes the current humanitarian and security conditions faced by hundreds of thousands of Iraqi residents, refugees, and displaced persons, and examines priority concerns and potential humanitarian consequences in the event of war.  It urges relevant governments, including those of Iraq, the United States and its allies, as well as Iraq’s neighbors to uphold their obligations to these vulnerable populations and to implement several key measures to minimize harm. In identifying some of the potential humanitarian consequences of war, this briefing paper particularly focuses on the displacement of people both inside and outside of Iraq.

By addressing the possible effects of war in Iraq, Human Rights Watch is not purporting to predict future events nor does Human Rights Watch take a position on the legality of any such war.  However, Human Rights Watch does consider it important to raise concerns about the manner in which war might be conducted, and about war’s potential humanitarian consequences.

This briefing paper is divided into five sections addressing the potential within Iraq for a humanitarian disaster, the plight of internally displaced Iraqis, the prospects for “safe areas” within Iraq should there be a war, the situation for Iraqi refugees in neighboring countries, including Iran and Turkey, and the situation for Iraqi refugees outside the region.  Each section is divided into three parts: current concerns, the background to the issue, and obligations of the relevant actors.  The applicable international standards include, among others, the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (the Refugee Convention),1 and Conclusions adopted by the Executive Committee (ExCom)2 of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).  The concluding section of this briefing paper makes recommendations to key international actors on steps they should be taking now to address the current plight of refugees and displaced persons and to minimize future abuses in the event of war.

A war will bring new hardship to existing civilian and displaced populations within Iraq; produce new refugee outflows to neighboring countries; strain the resources of and possibly prompt a backlash within neighboring countries against Iraqi refugees; and place new demands on donor states to provide increased assistance inside Iraq and to Iraq’s neighbors, as well as to open their own doors to a significantly larger number of Iraqi refugees.

In the event of war in Iraq, a mostly urban civilian population already dependent on centralized food, water, and sanitation distribution systems, will be at risk from the disruption of those systems.  Depending on the evolution of a potential conflict, internal displacement and refugee flight are likely to result from a humanitarian crisis as well as from the direct effects of war, ethnic or other conflict, or human rights abuse. 

Should the United States go to war with Iraq and establish military control and authority over Iraqi territory, it will have responsibilities under international law to meet the humanitarian needs of the inhabitants, including people displaced by the fighting.  Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned that Iraqi civilians be protected from forced displacement inconsistent with international humanitarian law, but be allowed to flee voluntarily to safety should conditions so dictate.  An occupying power must ensure the security of the civilian population or allow civilians to voluntarily move out of harm’s way, both within and outside the state’s borders. 

Human Rights Watch fears that Iraqis who attempt to seek greater safety across international borders may be prevented from doing so. Turkey has announced plans in the event of war to establish camps for Iraqis inside Iraq.   If such “safe areas” are created, Turkey or any other government in control will have the burden of ensuring that such camps are secure and must make arrangements to provide all necessary humanitarian assistance. Past international experience has shown that “safe areas” often do not remain safe.  If “safe areas” become insecure, or whenever individuals arrive at borders seeking protection, Turkey and all other neighboring states will be obliged to allow Iraqi refugees to enter, at least on a temporary basis, and the international community will have an obligation to help such host governments cope with the refugee influx. 

Iraqis have also been blocked from seeking safety in Australia, Europe and the United States. Restrictions imposed by western governments, including: boat interception, visa restrictions, policies determining that areas within or countries surrounding Iraq are “safe” for Iraqi refugees, and arbitrary detention of Iraqi asylum seekers, have all threatened the human rights of Iraqi refugees in the past, and may do so in the future. Governments outside the immediate region of Iraq must lift these restrictions, and increase their willingness to host new arrivals of Iraqi refugees in the event of a crisis in the region.

1 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 189 UNTS 150, 1951, entered into force April 22, 1954. In 1967 a Protocol was adopted to extend the Convention temporally and geographically. Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, 19 UST 6223, 606 UNTS 267, 1967, entered into force October 4, 1967.

2 The Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Program (“ExCom”) is UNHCR's governing body.  Since 1975, ExCom has passed a series of Conclusions at its annual meetings. The Conclusions are intended to guide states in their treatment of refugees and asylum seekers and in their interpretation of existing international refugee law. While the Conclusions are not legally binding, they do constitute a body of soft international refugee law.  They are adopted by consensus by the ExCom member states, are broadly representative of the views of the international community, and carry persuasive authority.  Since the members of ExCom have negotiated and agreed to their provisions, they are under a good faith obligation to abide by the Conclusions.