Avoiding a humanitarian catastrophe in Iraq

News and Press Release
Originally published
Joel R. Charny, Vice President for Policy of Refugees International, prepared this policy paper based on publicly available documents.
With war increasingly likely no later than the middle of March, the preparations for the humanitarian consequences of the war in Iraq are woefully inadequate. Lack of funding, United Nations and U.S. legal restrictions on the operations of humanitarian agencies in Iraq, and an apparent initial reluctance by the UN to accept the inevitability of war have left humanitarian planning lagging, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

In the "medium impact scenario" -- to use the UN's term for a two to three month conflict involving ground troops -- 1.45 million refugees and asylum seekers will try to reach neighboring countries, 900,000 people will be newly displaced within Iraq, and 4.9 million people will require emergency food assistance. (The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs assembled these figures, and while it is impossible to be precise given the myriad scenarios for how the conflict might unfold, they represent the best estimates of the key operational humanitarian agencies in the UN system).

To give these agencies, such as the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Food Program (WFP), and UNICEF, the means to prepare for a crisis of this magnitude, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) launched a consolidated appeal for the modest amount of $37 million in mid-December. In recent weeks, the U.S. has pledged $26.2 million to these agencies and to the International Office of Migration and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Canada, Switzerland and Denmark have indicated their willingness to fund the OCHA appeal. But even full funding would represent no more than a token contribution towards the real costs of pre-positioning supplies for the hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people that the conflict will create.

The United States military will inevitably assume a major humanitarian role during and in the immediate aftermath of the conflict. During the war itself, the UN will evacuate international staff and humanitarian access will be restricted. This will leave about 3,200 Iraqi employees of UN agencies and the ICRC to organize a partial response to the needs of the population. As the war progresses, however, even zones that become relatively secure could face a vacuum of humanitarian assistance created by the lack of funding for humanitarian preparations and the paucity of NGOs with existing capacity in Iraq.

The complete dependence of 16 million Iraqis on government-distributed food rations begs the question of how the population's basic needs will be met when government operations and transport and storage infrastructure are disrupted or destroyed by the war. The challenge of establishing basic security, even if the U.S.-led military operation is successful, means that the United States, as the initiator of the conflict and as the occupying power in the event of victory, will practically and legally be responsible for the well being of millions of vulnerable Iraqi civilians.

Is the United States military prepared for this responsibility? As of this writing, it is impossible to know. All indications are that humanitarian planning by the U.S. military has been playing catch-up with the war planners. There has been no meaningful public dialogue or discussion of how the U.S. military is prepared to exercise its humanitarian responsibilities in the event of war. Now is the time for this discussion, and for the U.S. government to make public commitments to humanitarian principles and action.

The Current Humanitarian Situation in Iraq

Understanding the current vulnerabilities of the Iraqi population is essential to analyzing the potential humanitarian impact of the looming conflict. The decade of UN-imposed sanctions has left approximately 16 million Iraqis dependent on government rations for their entire food supply; most of the remaining eight million Iraqis rely on government rations for a portion of their daily food basket. Inability to access spare parts to refurbish water treatment and electric generation plants has resulted in the degradation of water supply and sewage systems for Iraq's urbanized society. Hospitals and clinics suffer from chronic shortages of medicines and equipment. The result is an under-five mortality rate of 130 per 1,000, more than double the rate on the eve of the Gulf War in the late 1980s. UNICEF estimates that more than two million Iraqi children will require therapeutic feeding in the event of a conflict.

The policies of Saddam Hussein's government have created a large-scale problem of internal displacement even in advance of a new war. A deliberate attempt to Arabize the key oil-producing center of Kirkuk has driven Kurdish civilians north into the three northern governorates close to the border with Turkey. The government has also targeted Marsh Arabs, a distinct population living in a unique ecological zone in southern Iraq, and the Shi'i Arab community for persecution. A recent study published by The Brookings-SAIS Project on Internal Displacement estimates the number of internally displaced in Iraq at 900,000 to one million, 300,000 of which are in central and southern regions controlled by the Iraqi government and the balance in the autonomous zone in the north. In both areas, IDPs have difficulty accessing humanitarian support systems to meet their basic needs.

The humanitarian infrastructure in Iraq is limited, considering the potential magnitude of the crisis that conflict would produce. The UN system is largely devoted to overseeing the Oil for Food Program, the component of the sanctions regime that oversees the purchase and distribution of food and medicine utilizing revenue from the sale of Iraqi oil. Very few international NGOs are present in the areas of Iraq controlled by the government. More agencies are working in the north, but the fact that their presence is considered illegal by the central government limits the scope of UN cooperation with these organizations. The ICRC is active, and intends to maintain its presence in the event of a conflict, but the independence of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society is doubtful in the political environment prevailing in Iraq.

Scenarios for Displacement in the Event of a War

Orchestrated leaks to the press from U.S. officials since July 2002 have given the public a periodic glimpse into the plans for the attack on Iraq. The most recent press reports suggest that the U.S. plan will apply overwhelming force through the air at the outset of the campaign, focusing on strategic targets in an attempt to destroy the Iraqi military's will to fight and induce a quick surrender. This initial air campaign would be followed rapidly by simultaneous ground attacks advancing from the north and the south, perhaps accompanied by the introduction of ground troops throughout Iraq by mobile units.

If these reports are accurate, they suggest two possible scenarios with different implications for displacement:

Scenario One: A Short Air War

In this scenario, an intense period of bombing would result in the collapse of the Iraqi military and a rapid victory for the U.S. and its allies, a victory that would be secured by occupation forces conducting minimal combat operations.

From the standpoint of potential displacement, there are two keys to this scenario. First is the degree to which the U.S. bombing campaign would destroy critical civilian infrastructure, such as housing and electricity, sewage, and water treatment plants, in major cities, especially Baghdad. Second is whether or not the Iraqi military has the time and the political will to use weapons of mass destruction, especially chemical and biological weapons. Some damage to civilian infrastructure is inevitable, and if living conditions in Baghdad quickly become intolerable, then the movement of 200-300,000 people towards the border with Iran is likely.

If the Iraqi military responds to the U.S. attack with chemical and biological weapons, then the numbers of people fleeing in panic to wherever they can find safety would be much greater. Movement of more than one million people would be plausible. Even if these weapons are not deployed, traumatized Kurds in the north still recall the chemical weapons attacks from the first Gulf War, and they may seek to flee preemptively in large numbers at the outset of the conflict.

The U.S. and its allies may face a challenge to restoring order quickly in this scenario if the defeat of Saddam Hussein's forces unfolds rapidly. For example, the ruling Ba'ath Party controls the entire police force of the country. The defeat of the Iraqi forces may lead to forced displacement as the result of reprisals against collaborators and moves towards ethnic cleansing by emerging defacto authorities. As the International Rescue Committee points out in a recent discussion paper, "Protecting Iraqis from a Security Vacuum (January 30, 2003)," U.S. and coalition forces must establish a credible policing function at the local level if unnecessary displacement is to be avoided in the aftermath of a U.S. victory.

Scenario Two: A Ground War

The United Nations system has based most of its humanitarian contingency planning on what it calls the medium impact scenario. This scenario envisages a ground war involving significant resistance from Iraqi forces, with the conflict lasting two to three months. According to the OCHA draft Integrated Humanitarian Contingency Plan (January 7, 2003), in this scenario, as " the result of a large scale ground offensive supported by aerial bombardments, there would be considerable destruction of critical infrastructure and sizeable internal and external population movements. Access to war-affected civilians would be severely limited for the duration of the conflict."

The level of displacement under this scenario is considerably higher than for the short air war. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that conflict at this level would produce 1.45 million refugees and asylum seekers, with an additional 900,000 internally displaced people. The World Food Program envisages the need for emergency feeding of 4.9 million people as soon as they become accessible; basing this calculation on meeting the food needs of a portion of the refugees and internally displaced people and 45% of the remaining affected population. This number will rise to 9.6 million as accessibility and logistical capacity increase.

Given the current policies and capacities of Iraq's neighbors, most of the 1.45 million refugees will not be able to find asylum. Iran is the likely destination for Iraqis fleeing from Baghdad and the southern region. Iran still hosts 2.4 million Afghans and 200,000 Iraqis from previous conflicts. Alarmed by the maximum planning figure of 900,000 refugees being used by the UN system, Iran has just announced that it is preparing camps for 200,000 Iraqis at ten sites and will attempt to limit Iraqi access to asylum to that number. Turkey, where Kurds attempted to flee in massive numbers during the first Gulf War, has announced that it, too, will limit Iraqi access to asylum. The Turks are planning for a cross-border military and humanitarian operation to establish six camps inside Iraq, six along the border, and six inside Turkey. Jordan, another country that hosted thousands of Iraqis during the Gulf War, has announced that it will provide asylum to third country nationals, but no Iraqis. Jordan's border area with Iraq is arid and with the capital Amman itself experiencing water shortages, Jordan fears that a large influx of Iraqis would place a severe strain on the country's water supplies. Finally, Syria has expressed a willingness to host Iraqi asylum seekers. They have prepared five sites, but UN figures suggest that a maximum of 60,000 people will attempt to reach Syria in the event of conflict.

The northern part of Iraq, presently governed as an autonomous zone by two Kurdish political movements, could serve as a safe haven for Iraqis fleeing the war from the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. The assumption is that the U.S. and coalition military will be able to rapidly secure and assure the safety of this zone. Two problems with this scenario arise. First, parts of the zone between government territory and the northern autonomous region are mined, and displaced people seeking safety will be vulnerable to mine injuries. Second, Kirkuk and Mosul are the logistical hubs and source of food for the Oil for Food Program's feeding operations, managed in the north by WFP. WFP projects that with the onset of war the entire population of the northern region, 3.7 million, will be cut off from food support immediately, leaving 2.2 million highly dependent on emergency supplies that would have to reach the zone via Turkey or Iran. And this figure does not anticipate any influx of internally displaced Iraqis.

In the case of those fleeing east, unless Iran changes its policy, camps or spontaneous settlements may have to accommodate 500-700,000 people. These people will be especially vulnerable to shortages of food and medicine, and possible retaliatory action by the Iraqi government if the perception is that they represent a traitorous element unwilling to defend the motherland. Diplomatic pressure will clearly be needed on Iran to avoid this worst-case scenario. UNHCR and the UN system are understandably reluctant to acknowledge the possibility of cross-border operations, as this erodes the principle of universal right to asylum. But some cross-border activity is inevitable.

Humanitarian Imperatives

Given the vulnerability of the Iraqi population, two humanitarian imperatives emerge in the event of war: the necessity of maintaining the food rationing system upon which 16 million people depend and the preservation of infrastructure "deemed indispensable to the survival of the civilian population," in the words of the Article 53, Protocol I of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

The government manages the ration system, distributing food purchased under the Oil for Food Program, with oversight from the United Nations. It depends on the labor and of a dedicated network of 43,000 Food Agents who access supplies from local warehouses and provide a monthly ration based on a computerized daily schedule to beneficiaries throughout the country.

In its humanitarian contingency planning for feeding operations after the conflict, WFP proposes two possible options: relying on a revived network of Food Agents or establishing a new network in partnership with NGOs. Given the lack of current NGO capacity in Iraq, the option of restoring the Food Agent network is the best one. This is the only way for any responsible authority, whether the U.S. military, a new Iraqi government, or a UN transitional administration, to achieve the scale of food distribution required in the shortest possible time. There may be local areas of the country where the Food Agent network has been corrupted or politicized, leading to differential access to rations based on political affiliation or ethnicity. In such locales, it may become necessary to replace or supplement the local network with targeted programs managed by NGOs. Overall, however, the Food Agent network constitutes a critical local asset for meeting the basic food needs of the population in the immediate aftermath of the conflict.

Reports by UNICEF, Oxfam, and the Center for Economic and Social Rights have all stressed the inter-relationship of the integrity of Iraq's electrical supply capacity and public health. The majority of Iraqis depend on potable water and sewage systems that in turn rely on electricity. Generation capacity is already badly degraded as a legacy of the first Gulf War. Further damage in the conflict would deprive millions of urban dwellers of access to clean water, leading to epidemics of preventable diseases such as diarrhea, typhoid, cholera, and respiratory infections.

The Iraqi government has an equal responsibility to avoid damage to civilian infrastructure. Deliberate sabotage of oil facilities and the flooding of the homeland of the Marsh Arabs to induce displacement are tactics that Saddam Hussein's government employed in the first Gulf War. The use of chemical and biological weapons, another Iraqi military tactic, would cause immense unnecessary suffering and possibly delay or prevent an immediate humanitarian response. There is also concern that the Iraqi government has already begun the forcible recruitment of potential human shields to protect potential bombing targets. Use of human shields is a violation of international humanitarian law.


Refugees International therefore makes the following recommendations to the U.S. government:

  • Issue a declassified version of its humanitarian plan quickly, so that the UN, NGOs, Congress, and others can assess the adequacy of the preparations.
  • Commit publicly to respecting its obligations under international humanitarian law, especially the Fourth Geneva Convention covering the responsibilities of the occupying power, in the event of war.
  • Clarify what humanitarian tasks the military will perform and what tasks will be the responsibility of the UN humanitarian system, NGOs, and contractors. In principle, soldiers are war fighters, not nation builders, and they should leave as much humanitarian and reconstruction work as possible to civilians.
  • Outline plans for maintaining rule of law in the aftermath of the conflict. Restoring law and order and preventing ethnic violence will be crucial to maintaining the stability necessary to distribute humanitarian aid and begin reconstruction.
  • Provide the funding necessary to enable the UNHCR and WFP to complete preparations for a potential humanitarian emergency and urge other donor nations to make similar contributions.
  • Use diplomatic means, in coalition with other countries, in support of UNHCR's efforts to negotiate unfettered access to neighboring countries for Iraqi refugees and asylum seekers.
  • Rely on the network of Food Agents as the primary distribution channel for emergency food assistance to the Iraqi people in the aftermath of the conflict.