Helman: Refugees a Measure of Security Conditions

Ambassador Gerald B. Helman writes:

In current discussions of the situation in Iraq, insufficient attention is being paid to perhaps the most sensitive barometer available, that of refugee flows. To date, of Iraq’s pre-war population of about 30 million, about 13% have either fled their country or are internally displaced–a historically very large proportion of a population. That means that a very large percentage of the Iraqi people have found conditions so dangerous or otherwise unacceptable–constant threats to life, polluted water, uncertain electricity, broken medical facilities, bad sanitation, uncertain educational opportunities and more–that they have left home, family, friends, jobs for the uncertainties and often miseries of the life of a refugee. Think about what that means in personal terms. And, according to reports of refugee organizations such as the IOM, the outward flow continues.

Organizations such as the IOM and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees have learned from decades of experience that refugees flows also constitute a sensitive barometer of when conditions in the home country have improved. Refugees maintain contact with family and friends still in place and typically will be sensitive to their advice on when conditions are safe for return–no one wants to stay a refugee if there is an alternative. Clearly, that’s nowhere near happening in Iraq, a more telling fact then all of the other contradictory statistics of attacks and deaths being bandied about in the current debate. It says that life in Iraq remains dangerous, brutish and, too often, short.

Gerald B. Helman “was United States Ambassador to the European Office of the United Nations from 1979 through 1981.”