Iraq + 1 more

Population displacement scenarios of northern Iraq

Originally published
The international community's experience of humanitarian crises in northern Iraq has centered on the Kurdish refugee emergency of 1991, i.e., a sudden, massive population displacement. This experience continues to shape current humanitarian planning for Iraq, despite that the situation in 2002-2003 is very different from 1991. Moreover, the key lesson of 1991 -- the successful effort to rapidly enable people to return home before they became an entrenched refugee population -- is being overlooked by relief planners.
The primary strategy of a response to sudden large-scale displacement in Iraq should be to get people safely home in the shortest time possible. This requires security and information measures, rather than traditional relief inputs.

This paper focuses on three elements (i) scenarios for large-scale population displacement in Iraq, (ii) the roles of the Iraqi Kurdish authorities, Coalition forces and aid agencies, and (iii) recommended preparations for the Iraqi Kurdish authorities, Coalition forces and aid agencies.

Scenarios for large-scale population displacement:

1) Refugee flow from northern Iraq to neighbor states. Despite the past history (1988 and 1991) and the publicly and forcefully articulated fears of Turkey and Iran, this is an unlikely scenario. The reasons for this are the following:

The Kurds are far better organized than in the 1980s or 1991. Administrative structures that can channel assistance and defuse popular panic exist both at the government and at local levels.

Most Kurdish households, from prime minister to taxi-driver, have several weeks / months worth of food stocks in the house.

Since 1991, circa 3000 villages have been at least partially rebuilt. They will provide a protective buffer between the towns and the mountainous borders, with access to food and water. (In 1991 there was nothing between the towns and the mountains.)

Indications are that a key trigger to large-scale displacement -- a prolonged Iraqi military attack -- will be met with an overwhelming US-led military response.

2) Flight from the northern cities to surrounding areas. As noted above, any large-scale Iraqi military action against cities such as Erbil, Sulaimaniah, or Dohuk is expected to be met with a prompt coalition response. Therefore it is only the use of or rumor of the use of WMD that might generate sufficient panic to instigate large scale flight.

3) New IDPs coming into northern Iraq from the South. This could be any of a number of populations including non-Arabs expelled from Kirkuk, Mosul or even Baghdad, as well as the general population of the first two cities. These are likely to be people that are expelled by the Iraqi regime, as part of its strategy of fighting the war with 'population bombs.'1 Weapons of mass destruction (WMD) may be used to instigate large-scale displacement.

4) Rapid population movements from and to Mosul and Kirkuk. Upon the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from the northern cities, which could happen even prior to the outbreak of hostilities, there are likely to be two types of population movements: Arab populations will flee south, and the former non-Arab residents will flood home. These movements will happen spontaneously and will be largely uncontrollable.

Role of the Iraqi Kurds

The reserves, assets and organization of the population of the North, the Kurdistan Regional Government, and city administrations will absorb the brunt of any large scale displacement, whether in current KRG-controlled territories or in newly liberated towns like Kirkuk, Mosul and others. They will be the primary conduit through which any displaced population receives assistance.

Role of the Coalition Forces

Aside from local reserves and local authorities, the US-led military force will have the largest impact on the humanitarian condition of people in northern Iraq. This is due to the following:

A key 'humanitarian' issue in terms of population displacement will be fear. Therefore critical 'humanitarian' measures will be those that address this perception, and will include the deployment of coalition forces to forestall displacement or encourage prompt return and the collection, analysis and dissemination of information that addresses perceptions of insecurity. These measure can only be taken by Coalition forces in conjunction with local authorities.

The international aid agencies do not have a large-scale emergency presence in northern Iraq. The conflict is expected to be of short duration, therefore there will not be time to ramp-up the aid agencies emergency assistance.

The Kurdish authorities do not have the capacity to assess the extent or existence of WMD attacks.

Role of the Aid Agencies

As of December 2002, international aid agencies (UN and NGOs) have little emergency capacity in Turkey and northern Iraq. Those agencies which are present in the North will likely withdraw international staff and suspend programs as war begins. In Turkey, the government has restricted the establishment of international aid agencies. In Iran, the situation is better due to the willingness of the government to facilitate access as well as the recent experience gained from the Afghanistan war. In all countries, aid agencies lack funding to make substantive preparations. 2

Primary Strategy: Turning large-scale displacement into large-scale return

Beyond prevention, the foremost priority should be to turn large-scale displacement into large-scale return within days if not hours. To achieve this, the development of cooperation between the Kurdish authorities and the Coalition forces is an absolute pre-requisite. Priority measures will be to:

Secure the neighborhoods and cities from which the people fled, including addressing security concerns through the deployment of troops (numbers are less important than visibility).

Identify logistical support for the movements of commodities needed to assist displaced people and their host community.

Accurately assess the extent of WMD use and contamination.

Disseminate through senior local leaders the accurate information as to extent of WMD use.

Establish longer-term support infrastructure only for those people whose communities show WMD contamination.

Influence local leadership (Kurdish, Turkmen) to prohibit violence during the spontaneous flight from or return to Mosul and Kirkuk.

Recommended Preparations for the Iraqi Kurds

Identify emergency personnel in each district. Disseminate this list to key international interlocutors.

Establish joint emergency logistics cell between PUK and KDP. Establish plans to react to withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kirkuk, Mosul. Announce them publicly.

Establish security plan for non-Kurds in northern Iraq. Announce this publicly.

Identify community leaders among current Kurdish and non-Kurdish displaced populations in the North. Publicly include them in planning.

Prepare operational plan for the temporary take-over of the Oil-for-Food distribution mechanism.

Identify and contact potential interlocutors in coalition military structures.

Recommended Preparations for the Coalition Forces

Deepen the knowledge of northern Iraq. These should include identifying location, status and management of key infrastructure.

Develop the relationship between senior US/Coalition military and senior Kurdish civilian leaders.

Develop the relationship between US/Coalition military and Kurdish authorities at operational level.

Have the capacity to accurately assess the extent of any WMD use. This capacity must be available for assessing the hazard to the civilian population as well as to the coalition's own forces.

Create a population movement logistics unit with strong links to the Kurdish authorities and liaison to international humanitarian agencies.

Assess policing options for Mosul and Kirkuk after the withdrawal of Iraqi security forces.

Recommended Preparations for the Aid Agencies.

The agencies should recognize that the key relationship on the ground for addressing the humanitarian situation during the early stages is that between the US-led Coalition and local Iraqi officials. Of international agencies, likely only the ICRC will have significant operational capacity. With the likelihood that there will not be large-scale refugees from northern Iraq, the NGOs and UN agencies should structure the preparations for emergency assistance in order to make targeted and effective interventions in the immediate post-conflict environment, that do not marginalize or destroy local structures. With this in mind they could take the following actions:

Aid agencies should be actively deepening their knowledge relating to issues of northern Iraq. In particular, they need to gain an understanding of Iraqi structures that exist and will continue to function.

Aid agencies should substantively engage with potential Coalition forces in order to deepen their knowledge of humanitarian issues and their potential applicability in northern Iraq.

NGOs should establish flexible rapid response mechanisms that are based upon local purchase of relief supplies in neighbor states, in order to meet unexpected needs that arise inside northern Iraq.

The UN should establish a Joint Logistics Cell, as in Afghanistan, and form a working relationship with Coalition forces. While a JLC may be of more emergency use in Center/South, where the potential for IDPs and refugees may warrant more active involvement by international aid agencies, it may also be needed for targeted interventions in northern Iraq. There should be a mechanism for NGO access to the JLC.

The UN should appoint a special coordinator for humanitarian affairs with a field office structure to serve as an interface for agencies who will not deal with Coalition forces.

Aid agencies should continue to agitate for access to the border regions and northern Iraq. Their presence provides for independent observation and analysis as to the validity of any Turkish justification for security operations based upon a dramatically deteriorating humanitarian situation.

The existing UN and NGO operations in the North should not be suspended. Each agency should prepare an operational plan which delegates responsibility to national staff and KRG authorities upon the withdrawal of international staff.

In the event that people do flee across a border, a key need of refugees will be protection.


1 A population bomb is the forced displacement of large numbers of people in the direction of an enemy. The intention is to degrade the enemy's war fighting capacity, by forcing them to deal with large-scale civilian populations on the move. This is accomplished by (i) forcing the enemy to allocate assets and time to meeting the humanitarian needs of the population, (ii) complicating the enemy's logistics with the sheer weight of numbers of displaced people and vehicles, (iii) undermining the enemy's political position by putting pressure on host communities, and (iv) by undermining, via the threat of refugees, the political support provided to the enemy by neighbor states.

2 The exception is the ICRC. They have some resources, extensive local knowledge, and the will and capacity to maintain operations during conflict.