The U.N. and Iraqi Refugees - Is It Really News?

By Amelia Templeton, Human Rights First, Refugee Policy Analyst

The UN refugee agency recently released a new analysis of the political and security situation in Iraq, and revised its guidelines as to how countries should handle asylum claims from Iraqis fleeing Iraq. The guidelines essentially form a 250-page encyclopedia of Iraq's various forms of ongoing violence and conflict. Somebody should put a copy on Ambassador Chris Hill's desk when he gets back from Iraq, and he ought to read it cover to cover.

The big news in the report - from the media's perspective - has been that UNHCR has determined that security has improved significantly throughout Iraq, and in particular in the south and in the western governorate of Al-Anbar. UNHCR is now saying that general security is good enough in these areas that Iraqis who flee them should not automatically be considered refugees, but instead should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis to determine if they faced individual persecution - changing the practice that's been in place since 2007. But for the most part, in this report UNHCR describes a very fragile situation, where violent and criminal groups operate with impunity throughout the country, militias that are currently laying low still have the ability to pursue and murder their enemies, and the government provides little effective protection. In light of all this, the UN is still arguing for automatic international protection for all Iraqis fleeing Baghdad and the more diverse central parts of the country--the origins of the vast majority of refugees to date.

The guidelines highlight many troubling trends, but one of the most troubling, from the standpoint of human rights protection - and also Iraq's future - is the ongoing murder of educated professionals. According to the UN guidelines, no single profession has been particularly targeted; rather the victims "came from a wide spectrum of disciplines, including medicine, engineering, science, art, education and others."

I remember an interview I conducted with an Iraqi artist in Amman in 2007. The woman described to me her memory of sitting in her dentist's waiting room one day when a gunman walked in the door and shot the dentist to death. I've worked closely with an Iraqi doctor, now a deputy in Al-Maliki's government, who told me that he used to pass medical students who weren't competent to practice because he feared they would have him assassinated if he failed them.

Here's what the new UN guidelines say about the targeting of professionals, by the numbers:

--Doctors and medical personnel killed: in the thousands
--Judges, judicial workers, and their family members killed and kidnapped: at least 230
--Academics: several hundred killed, several in the first few months of 2009.

As for the means of death: "The majority of the victims were shot by gunmen, sometimes after having been kidnapped and tortured. Typically, they were targeted in their classroom/office or on their way to and from work."

The UN refugee agency also describes patterns of violence in Iraq that are increasingly political in nature, as sectarian violence has decreased and elections and a national census approach. A final interesting point: The guidelines suggest that the lines between actors who provide security in Iraq and actors who are involved in violence are "often blurred," noting that the Awakening groups may sometimes align with Al Qaeda in Iraq, and parts of the Iraqi national police still hold militia affiliations. This is particularly problematic for refugees and internally displaced people trying to return to their home neighborhoods. On a recent trip to Washington, Iraqi Human Rights Minister Wigdam Salim noted that several refugee families have informed her Ministry that the people who forced them out of their homes are now officially in charge of security for the area. That's not a good sign - Iraq's ability to provide real security for returning families is questionable at best. The encouraging points in the UN's new report should not obscure the reality that Iraq is still not safe. The guidelines spell it out: "The improvement of the situation in Iraq does not yet constitute fundamental changes sufficient to promote or encourage massive returns to Iraq."

For additional information about Iraqi refugees, read Human Rights First's recent report, "Promises to the Persecuted: The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act of 2008."