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Tide of Refugees Could Swamp War Effort

November 10, 2002|Arthur C. Helton and Gil Loescher | Arthur C. Helton is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "The Price of Indifference: Refugees and Humanitarian Action in the New Century" (Oxford University Press, 2002). Gil Loescher is a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

In the reams of recent news reports and analyses about Iraq, there has been little discussion or preparation for the possibility of an exodus of Iraqi refugees.

Western policymakers ignore this potential problem at their peril.

Massive cross-border flows of refugees pose a real risk to the security of neighboring states. Left unattended, this would not only create regional instability but also greatly complicate military action against Iraq.

Iraqi government persecution of Kurds, Shiites and other opponents of the regime and U.N. sanctions against Iraq already have left more than 1 million internally displaced in Iraq. These numbers are likely to increase dramatically in the event of war. Neighboring states probably would close their borders to refugees massing at their frontiers.

A prolonged bombing campaign would cause great hardship among an economically weakened and vulnerable population, resulting in mass flight. To hedge against the kind of instability that came with refugee movements after the 1991 Gulf War, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria and other states probably would refuse entry to asylum seekers.

There is also a real risk of internal displacements and refugee outflows occurring in the aftermath of an overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

The possibility of post-conflict retribution, disorder and civil strife among Iraq's various ethnic and religious groups cannot be ruled out. Violent conflicts may break out among Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis, as well as among smaller groups, such as Chaldean and Assyrian Christians.

U.N. relief and humanitarian agencies are working on mitigation and contingency responses, but under considerable constraints. A major problem was that the U.N. prohibited any public discussion of plans to prepare for a refugee crisis in the region during Security Council deliberations on weapons inspections.

This meant that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees could not even appeal to donor governments for emergency planning funds or formally consult with the military regarding contingency planning.

After several years of declining budgets, the agency's funding is precarious, seriously affecting its ability to mobilize for a massive humanitarian emergency.

Lack of surplus capacity and tight staffing will make it difficult to respond quickly and effectively. And security considerations may make it impossible for the U.N. refugees commissioner's office and other aid agencies to operate during a military campaign.

Refugees have constituted one of the central strategic and political challenges of nearly all Western military interventions in recent years. Not only have refugees constituted a major strategic objective, but they also have disrupted military plans as well as local and regional political structures in surprising ways and have become weapons of war, for example in Kosovo.

An invasion of Iraq would require urgent early preparations to deal effectively with the causes and consequences of mass displacements.

Strategic planners for the United Nations and Western governments must begin to plan -- now.

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