Iraq's Endless Humanitarian Crisis

October 9, 2012 Topic: DefenseHumanitarian InterventionPost-Conflict Region: Iraq

Iraq's Endless Humanitarian Crisis

The war is over, but the hardships are just beginning.

Insurgencies and civil wars often gain attention in the United States only when waves of violence batter urban frontlines abroad. But once the combat ends and the cameras go home, interest here swiftly recedes. Yet, the lingering effects of the fighting—particularly on human capital—have profound strategic implications for the stability, democracy and prosperity of a state emerging from war.


A case in point is Iraq, a country that has experienced three major wars over the past three decades: the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988), the Gulf War (1990–1991) and the Iraq War (2003–2011). Each conflict not only devastated the country's economy and infrastructure but also triggered waves of emigration and internal displacement. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, almost 1.5 million (or 10 percent) of the world's refugees are from Iraq. An additional 1.3 million Iraqis are classified as internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Even though major fighting has ceased, a variety of factors—including a lack of economic and educational opportunities, social discrimination and inadequate access to public services, exacerbated by religious violence, ethnic nationalism and recurrent political crises—continue to force Iraqis to flee their homeland. Many who leave are young individuals, members of religious or ethnic minority groups as well as professionals such as scientists, engineers, lawyers, doctors and teachers. Such people are the backbone of any healthy civil society and pluralistic democracy, and their exodus imperils Iraq's future.

The ranks of Iraqi professionals are attenuated also by targeted assassinations. More than two thousand doctors and nurses and over four hundred Iraqi academics were murdered between 2003 and 2012. Thousands more have fled due to death threats and retaliatory acts of revenge, often carried out because of their actual or alleged ties to the former Baath regime. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, more than half of the thirty-four thousand doctors registered in Iraq in 1990 had left the country by 2008. Because of the rise in assassinations of Iraqi journalists, the country slid from the 130th to the 152nd among the nations categorized in the 2011–2012 World Press Freedom Index.

Democracy without a Demos?

While the precarious security environment continues to force many Iraqis to emigrate, others leave because of the country's ailing economy, which is marked by high unemployment and lack of opportunity for citizens—even those with professional and entrepreneurial skills.

Desperation is palpable, particularly among the hundreds of thousands who have been uprooted and ostracized. "I love my country, but it doesn't have a future," Uruba, a fifty-year-old Sunni IDP from Baghdad, who now lives in Erbil, told me this summer. "I want my children to have a future, receive a college degree like I did. But they have no future in Iraq," she said, suppressing her anger. Uruba's family has been waiting for five years to receive a visa to emigrate. She continued:

I want my children to obtain a new nationality, any but Iraqi. . . . Many Iraqis wish they could get back the stability that we once enjoyed. We didn't have mobile phones, but we had education and jobs. Mobile phones, and toys like these, are not an adequate compensation for what we have been suffering since 2003. . . . IDPs are like orphans. Nobody wants to own us, nobody takes care of us. Erbil says we are Baghdad's problem; Baghdad says we are Erbil's problem. I want to leave Iraq to regain my dignity.

The steady departure of people such as Uruba has detrimental consequences for vital sectors of the country's economy—health, education and oil, for example—and for Iraq's democratic development. Because well-educated and highly skilled individuals make up a large proportion of emigrants, Iraq has fallen behind other low- and middle-income countries with respect to the availability of quality health care and education. According to the most recent World Development Indicators, infant mortality in Iraq remains above the average in the Middle East and North Africa, while Iraqis' life expectancy has declined by three years over the past three decades. Many civilian fatalities that can be avoided ensue from simple medical procedures that are incompetently performed or unavailable due to a shortage of specialists. Although the government has invested in the construction of hospitals and medical schools since 2004, buildings alone cannot make up for the loss in human productivity and expertise.

The declining enrollment in educational institutions from primary schools through universities is another serious problem. The World Bank reports that although Iraq's enrollment rates were the highest in the region a generation ago, they are now among the lowest. The organization stresses that the deteriorating quality of education, not the lack of security or facilities, accounts for the plummeting level of educational attainment in Iraq.

The dearth of experts in petrochemistry, mechanics and physics entails repercussions for Iraq's pivotal oil and gas industry. Iraqi economists forecast that without local specialists and adept administrators, the country's oil and gas sector cannot progress to realize its full potential.

The consequences of Iraq's brain drain go beyond the spheres of economy. The flight of educated minds, energetic youth and members of minority groups over the past few decades has been eroding the country's social fabric, its multicultural heritage and the foundation of what could have been a vibrant civil society—the precursor of a democracy that many Iraqis anticipated after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Sorely lacking in the political will to foster a peaceful and prosperous society and to enforce civil liberties and human rights, the Iraqi government has done little to cauterize the hemorrhage of citizens fleeing repression and marginalization.

By neglecting its human capital, Iraq risks losing the ability to transform a war-torn society into a stable democracy, together with the experience and skill required to run state institutions and the economy effectively. Hence, democracy and economic prosperity seem ever more remote in Iraq.

Strangers in Their Homeland

The urgency to leave Iraq behind is felt acutely by many of the country's religious and ethnic minorities. Christians are among the most vulnerable. Persecuted by extremists for their religion, unprotected by the government and lacking a militia to defend their communities, more than half of Iraq's approximately one million Christians have left the country since 2003.

In Ankawa, a Christian suburb on Erbil's outskirts, on a suffocating July evening, with remnants of a sandstorm lingering in the air, an Assyrian Christian named Ean shared his experience. Now in his mid-twenties, Ean had been kidnapped by Shia militiamen in Baghdad during the sectarian war that broke out in 2006. Shortly after he was freed, Ean had to leave school when the ethnic and sectarian cleansing forced his family out of Baghdad. A bright young man who hopes to become a reconstructive surgeon, he is determined to pursue his studies in the United States. Invoking the ordeal of the persecution he has experienced firsthand, Ean said:

I can never return to Baghdad. The Shia militias have wiped out entire Christian neighborhoods like Ghadir and Dora. Nowadays it's dangerous for a Christian to be anywhere in Iraq. Sunni and Shia extremists continue targeting us. Nor are we welcome in Kurdistan. I try not to leave Ankawa. It's not safe out there.

In August, I received a note from Ean: "I have good news. I have received a visa. I am moving to the United States now."

Another Christian shared her plans to emigrate, feeling she can never be safe in Iraq. Lena, a statuesque, soft-mannered Armenian, had fled Baghdad with her parents and found temporary sanctuary in Erbil. "I will be leaving for Jordan soon," she said in the lobby of a hotel where she worked as an administrator. "The war has changed our lives irreversibly. Baghdad will never be the same." She reminisced nostalgically:

On weekends, my relatives and friends from Basra and Mosul used to visit my family. We would cook dinner together, sing, and dance until late at night. Those carefree days are gone. The Islamists have taken over Baghdad. And they have no tolerance for other cultures and traditions.

Their Future Is Not in Iraq

Perhaps the most damaging aspect of Iraq's humanitarian crisis is that many Iraqis have become demoralized, unable to envision an Iraq that will restore the lives they once held. Ean, Lena, Uruba and other Iraqis who were willing to share their experiences were all determined to pursue paths that would allow them to achieve their professional aims and preserve their religious and ethnic identities. But for each, this meant leaving their motherland. The possibility of Iraq did not exist.

Beset by political disorder, economic dysfunction and social ills, Iraq is unfortunately not unique. It epitomizes numerous fragile countries around the globe where civilian suffering and humanitarian crises simmer long after the formal conclusion of war—where the state that remains does not protect its people, let alone enable them to pursue their goals and dreams.

Irena L. Sargsyan is a research analyst at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at The Brookings Institution.

Image: United States Forces—Iraq (Inactive)