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Iraq: Prepare for Humanitarian Crisis   (in Arabic)  (in Farsi)
(New York, February 13, 2003) -- Iraqi civilians could face tremendous hardship if war disrupts their access to food and water or forces them to join hundreds of thousands of people already displaced from their homes, Human Rights Watch said today.

Related Material

Briefing Paper

Printable PDF Version

Background on Iraq and Possible War

Human Rights Watch Policy on Iraq

Human Rights Watch Work on Refugees and Displaced Persons

"If central services are disrupted in Iraq, the effects on civilians will be very swift and very severe."

Alison Parker
Refugee Protection Expert
Human Rights Watch

A 25-page briefing paper released today by Human Rights Watch describes the unique potential for humanitarian disaster in Iraq. Most Iraqi civilians depend on centralized infrastructure for providing food, water, and sanitation, which could be immediately disrupted by war.

The potential for crisis is particularly acute in Iraq's central and southern regions, where possibly tens of thousands of people rely solely on government rations and could immediately face serious shortages, Human Rights Watch said. In the event of an extended conflict this population would join the already huge number of displaced Iraqis.

"If central services are disrupted in Iraq, the effects on civilians will be very swift and very severe," said Alison Parker, a refugee protection expert at Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch takes no position on the legality of the use of military force, including possible U.S.-led military action in Iraq. Its work on Iraq focuses on continuing human rights abuses and, if there is a war, the compliance by all parties with international humanitarian law and protections for Iraqi civilians.

U.N. and humanitarian groups estimate that there are between 700,000 and one million internally displaced persons in Iraq and between one and two million refugees outside the country. U.N. agencies predicted in December that war in Iraq could displace an additional 1.1 million people inside Iraq and 900,000 would become refugees outside the country.

Although war has been foreshadowed for months, donor governments and U.N. agencies have not openly prepared for the humanitarian emergency. "U.N. agencies and governments have not wanted to prepare openly for something they don't necessarily support," said Parker. "At the same time, without sharing details publicly and coordinating efforts, crisis response may be inadequate."

If the United States and its allies go to war and establish military control and authority over Iraqi territory, they will have responsibilities under international law to meet the humanitarian needs of the inhabitants, including the displaced. An occupying power must also provide security or allow civilians to move out of harm's way, either inside or outside Iraq.

Neighboring countries also have responsibilities. Unlike other conflict situations where refugees are able to cross international borders in search of safe haven, Iraqis could become trapped in the midst of a conflict in their own country. Iran, already host to the world's largest refugee population, has sent mixed messages about whether it will allow Iraqi refugees into its territory. Turkey has unequivocally stated for months that it will not honor its international obligation to allow refugees to enter its territory and will set up camps inside Iraq. "Turkey must open its borders to refugees fleeing an emergency at home," Parker said.

Outside of the immediate region, western governments have also prevented Iraqis from seeking asylum in their territories. Europe in particular has policies already in place specifically geared to block Iraqis. These measures include visa restrictions and policies that return Iraqi refugees to "safe third countries" such as Turkey, or to places inside Iraq that are allegedly "safe," such as northern Iraq. All such restrictive policies should be lifted for Iraqis fleeing now and as a consequence of war, the briefing paper urges.

Iraq's problems are aggravated by its unique history of government-sponsored forced displacement. For example, in the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk, some 120,000 Iraqis from ethnic minorities were displaced under the government's forced "Arabization" campaign. New families are now living in displaced people's previous homes. In post-conflict Iraq, people are likely to return to their homes only to find them occupied by others.

"Insecurity isn't only about combat, it also happens when displaced people and refugees cannot rebuild their lives," said Parker. "Conflict can spring from the basic problems of insufficient food or water, or displaced families claiming rights to the same piece of property."

Some of the key recommendations contained in the paper include:

  • The government of Iraq, or in the event of war an occupying power, must meet Iraqis' humanitarian needs and ensure the security of the civilian population or allow civilians to move voluntarily out of harm's way, both within and outside of Iraq.

  • Governments neighboring Iraq must open their borders to refugees and must not use the existence of cross-border camps or "safe areas" as a justification for withdrawing refugee protection or for deterring those attempting to cross their borders.

  • Donor governments and humanitarian agencies must put in place plans to address the humanitarian consequences of a potential war in Iraq, paying particular attention to cooperation to ensure that in the event of an armed conflict, humanitarian relief and protection is promptly and efficiently provided to the population at risk.

  • Governments outside the region must allow Iraqi asylum seekers access to fair and efficient asylum determination procedures and prepare emergency and additional resettlement places for Iraqi refugees who may be unsafe in the region.