The World In Numbers November 2006

Carriers of Conflict

For a preview of future instability and war in the Middle East, watch where Iraqi refugees are going
Related graphic:

"An Iraqi Exodus"
Iraqi refugees residing in neighboring countries as of September 2006. [PDF format.]

Refugees from Iraq are on the move. More than 1.2 million of them have already fled the country, and recent anecdotal reports—a many-fold increase in the buses traveling daily from Baghdad to Jordan this summer, for example—suggest that the tempo of the exodus is increasing. If the violence in Iraq spreads, the number of Iraqis who flee to neighboring states may well triple. And if the nascent civil war in Iraq unfolds the way most other recent civil wars have, the refugees will remain outside Iraq for years.

All too often, where large numbers of refugees go, instability and war closely follow—as Middle Eastern history attests. Palestinian refugees, who with their descendants number in the millions, have been a source of regional violence and regime change for decades. They helped provoke the 1956 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars by conducting cross-border attacks against Israel and inviting Israeli retaliation against the Arab states that hosted them. Later they turned against their hosts and catalyzed a civil war in Jordan (1970–71) and in Lebanon (1975–90). The “Palestinian question”—and the paltry Arab-state reaction to it—has also contributed to coups by militant Arab nationalists in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria.

The Palestinian experience in this regard is not unique. The fall of the Zairean ruler Mobutu Sese Seko, for instance, and the subsequent civil war in Zaire, which claimed roughly 4 million lives, can be traced directly to the arrival of Rwandan refugees in 1994. Refugees have a knack for upsetting the status quo.

The iconic image of the refugee is a bedraggled woman clutching her child as she stumbles into a blighted aid camp. But this picture is incomplete. Refugee camps, which are often under international protection but do not have international policing, can become sanctuaries for militia groups. Host governments often find it hard to stop these militias, even when they want to, either because they lack the military strength to do so or because fighters hide among innocent civilians. In fact, militia leaders sometimes become the leaders of the refugee community, offering protection, imposing their will on any rivals, and recruiting new fighters from among the camp’s many traumatized, jobless young men. Tribal elders and other leaders who might oppose violence may find themselves enfeebled by both the trauma of flight and the loss of their traditional basis of power (typically, control of land). As a result, refugee camps can become deeply radicalized communities, dangerous to their host countries in several ways. The mere presence of militias among the refugees tends to embroil the host country in war by making it a target.

Most Iraqi refugees are not in camps, but dispersed among local populations. But refugees, whether in camps or not, can also corrode state power from the inside, fomenting the radicalization of domestic populations and encouraging rebellion against host governments. The burden of caring for hundreds of thousands of refugees is heavy, straining government administrative capacity and possibly eroding public support for regimes shown to be weak, unresponsive, or callous. And the sudden presence of armed fighters with revolutionary aspirations can lead disaffected local clans or co‑ religionists to ally with the refugees against their own government, especially when an influx of one ethnic or religious group upsets a delicate demographic balance, as would likely be the case in some of Iraq’s neighbors.

To date, Jordan and Syria have taken in the vast majority of fleeing Iraqis—in large part because those countries have been the most welcoming. But in the worst-case scenario of an all-out civil war, Iraq’s other neighbors would not find it easy to resist the influx of refugees. This map shows some of the places that might be most affected.

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