Iraq hosted more than 130,000 refugees in 2003 – including 100,000 Palestinians, some 14,500 Iranians, 13,000 Kurds from Turkey, and about 4,000 Syrians. Despite the on-going war, an estimated 55,000 Iraqi refugees repatriated during the year, leaving more than 600,000 Iraqi refugees still outside Iraq. Some 40,000 Iraqis applied for asylum during the year – mostly in Europe – as the war and its fallout caused a new displacement of tens of thousands of Iraqis and long-term refugee residents in the country.

New Developments

The March 2003 overthrow of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and the occupation of Iraq by United States military forces and coalition partners was the catalyst for displacement throughout the Middle East in 2003, but none so great as within Iraq itself. At the start of the war, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) braced itself for a near repeat of the 1991 Gulf War in which two million refugees fled Iraq, and prepared to assist up to 600,000 people expected to leave the country. Instead, the fall of the government and resulting power vacuum released long-standing hostilities kept in check by the regime.

Palestinians – up to 100,000 residing mostly in Baghdad – found themselves displaced anew when their Iraqi landlords demanded exorbitant rents or evicted them outright, resenting the subsidized housing and special privileges that Saddam Hussein had extended to Palestinians. About 1,500 turned Baghdad's Haifa Sports Club into a makeshift refugee camp in April, pitching hundreds of tents on the soccer field, where many remained throughout the year. UNHCR relocated about 100 families to subsidized apartments, but the UN pullback following the bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad in August, which killed 23 people including the UN Special Representative for Iraq Sergio Vieira de Mello, forced many refugees to return to the camp. With the UN departure, aid organizations also scaled back their operations in the country, relocating many international staff to Amman.

Syrian refugees who settled in Baghdad in the 1960s and 1970s also lost their homes and belongings in the widespread looting and lawlessness that followed the collapse of the government. As with the Palestinians, many Iraqis resented the privileges the Syrian exiles enjoyed from the former regime, including apartments and monthly stipends. In its first registration week in Baghdad, UNHCR recorded more than 600 Syrian refugees seeking immediate protection and assistance. At least 22,000 Palestinians also registered for UNHCR assistance by year's end, plus some 4,700 Iranian refugees.

The invasion of Iraq and fall of the old regime left the country without an army, police force, or administration. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) assumed the role of interim government and started to rebuild the country and retrain Iraqis, amidst on-going fighting and increasing opposition. CPA Administrator L. Paul Bremer announced the formation of an Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration (MDM) in August, but the Ministry was not formally established until January 2004. Once operational and independent, the MDM will assume authority over all Iraqi returnees, internally displaced, and non-Iraqi refugees in the country.

In preparation for an urban war, U.S. military commanders studied the urban warfare strategies used by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and applied them in Iraq – imposing curfews, demolishing the homes of suspected insurgents and imprisoning their relatives, sealing off villages with barbed-wire fences and military checkpoints, and requiring all men between 18 and 65 to carry U.S.-issued, English-only identification cards. The absence of a centralized government and occupation by the CPA sparked irregular but rising episodes of violence across the country, specifically targeting those seen as collaborators with the U.S. coalition or loyalists to the old regime. Bombings killed as many as 650 new Iraqi police officers trained by U.S. forces, and armed local militia singled out refugees across the country in a wide swath of intimidation.

With the fall of the regime in 2003, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis displaced in Saddam Hussein's forced Arabization campaigns – population transfers intended to decentralize and repress the power of ethnic minorities – attempted to return finally to their homes and villages. Although the anticipated movement of people was limited by rising insecurity, oil-rich Kirkuk became one of the most hotly contested locations – with Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs, and the CPA vying for control. On the last day of 2003, some 2,000 Iraqi Turkmen and Arabs protested the inclusion of Kirkuk into plans for a Kurdish federal state.

At least 600,000 of the estimated 800,000 to 1 million internally displaced were in the north. However, the evacuation of UN and other humanitarian assistance organizations has made precise figures and subsequent movement difficult to assess. The CPA estimated a 1.4 million unit housing shortage in the country, not including places for those Iraqis expected to return from abroad. Internally displaced Iraqis returning to the north set up temporary shelters in sports arenas and empty public buildings – with some returnees unable to reclaim their former property, and others determined to establish new homesteads. . A property claims commission is scheduled to begin in September 2004, but the lack of documents and complexity of the claims may draw out arbitration for years.

Refugee Displacement and Repatriation

Prior to the invasion, the al-Tash camp near Baghdad housed some 12,000 Iranian Kurd refugees from the Iran-Iraq war. Caught in the crossfire between CPA forces and Saddam Hussein loyalists, however, observers believe that half the population may have fled the camp during the year. Several hundred fled north to the Kurdish Kalar district. One group of 1,200 became stranded in the no-man's land between the Iraqi and Jordanian borders in April 2003, when Jordanian officials refused to let the refugees enter the country. They remained there into the new year, living in inhospitable conditions through the scorching summer and freezing winter. Many are believed to be members of the People's Mojahedin (MEK), a group once on the U.S. government's list of terrorists but currently being considered for resettlement by Washington.

Turkish officials, UNHCR, and U.S. representatives discussed repatriating 12,700 Kurds of Turkey out of northern Iraq. The third-largest refugee group in Iraq, these refugees fled fighting between the Turkish army and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Some 9,200 – mostly women, children and elderly refugees – have been living in Mahmour camp since 1997; another 3,700 live in seven smaller camps and cities in Kurdish northern Iraq.

In Southern Iraq, Iraqi militia forced some 1,000 of the estimated 6,000 Iranian Arab refugees from homes where they had lived for nearly 20 years. UNHCR helped 3,800 Iranian refugees repatriate during the year, but appealed to Iraq's neighboring states to postpone the repatriation of Iraqi refugees, expressing concern for their safety and the lack of international representatives inside the country.

By November, officials estimated that some 50,000 Iraqi refugees had left Iran on their own, prompting UNHCR to facilitate and safeguard repatriation with organized convoys that helped an additional 520 refugees return by year's end. Once across the border, CPA soldiers escorted the returnees to Basra, 20 km from the border, and provided them with tents, heating and cooking equipment, bedding, and $20 for transport fare to assist their return to their villages.

After nearly 13 years in Saudi Arabia, some 4,500 Iraqi refugees repatriated from the Rafha camp in 2003, leaving fewer than 700 who planned to return after the new year. UNHCR began facilitating return convoys in July. By the end of the year, the 14th convoy departed Rafha, transiting through Kuwait. The CPA met the convoys at the Kuwaiti border and escorted them to Basra, where UN workers provided repatriation supplies similar to those given to returnees from Iran.

Iraqis Abroad

During the year, some 40,000 Iraqis applied for asylum in other countries, with 25,000 applying in Europe where Iraqis comprised the third leading country of origin. The largest number, 5,300, applied in the United Kingdom, followed by Germany (3,900), the Netherlands (3,500), Switzerland (3,000), and Sweden (2,700).

Despite intermittent returns throughout 2003, at least 150,000 UNHCR-registered Iraqis remained in Iran at year's end, plus an estimated 80,000 unregistered. Iraqi refugees in the rest of the Middle East totaled more than 170,000 – with approximately 7,500 in Jordan, 7,000 in Syria, and 5,000 in Lebanon. There were also some 300,000 Iraqis in refugee-like situations in Jordan and about 45,000 in Syria.


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