Editorial Essay: Iraqi Refugees, beyond the Urban Refugee Paradigm

Article excerpt


Displacement and exile have been recurrent and durable phenomena affecting Iraqi society for the last 90 years. The process of forming an Iraqi state from the ruins of the Ottoman empire, which Aristide Zolberg has analyzed as a prime factor generating refugee flows, (1) has been ongoing since 1920. Unfinished endeavours to build a state and nation have been characterized by almost incessant antagonistic claims over the nature of the state and national identity, the exercise of and access to political power, control of natural resources and border sovereignty. Political repression, violent regime change, redefinition of national identity, demographic engineering, and domestic or international armed conflicts have resulted in eviction, deportation, denaturalization, political emigration, and flight from violence. A large part of displacement in Iraq has been internal. But vast numbers of refugees and exiles have also formed a regional and global diaspora extending from Iran, Jordan, Israel, Syria, all the way to such distant emigration countries as New Zealand.


La societe irakienne est affectee depuis 90 ans de facon continue et pregnante par des deplacements de population et l'exil. Depuis le demembrement de l'empire ottoman en 1920, un etat irakien a continuellement tente de se constituer, ce qui a ete analyse et identifie par Aristide Zolberg comme etant la source principale des mouvements de refugies. Les efforts pour construire un etat et une nation en Irak ont constamment ete mines par des revendications contradictoires et des luttes portant sur les questions de la nature de l'etat, de l'identite nationale, de l'exercice et de l'accessibilite du pouvoir politique, du controle des ressources naturelles et de la souverainete des frontieres. La reression politique, les changements violents de regimes, les redefinitions de l'identite nationale, les politiques demographiques, et les conflits armes regionaux et internationaux ont entraine des evictions, des deportations, la denaturalisation, l'emigration politique et la fuite devant la violence. Une grande proportion des deplacements de populations irakiennes est interieure au pays. Toutefois, un nombre important de refugies et d'exiles forme une diaspora regionale et internationale qui s'etend a l'Iran, la Jordanie, Israel, la Syrie, et jusqu'a des pays d'immigration aussi eloigne que la Nouvelle-Zelande.

Belated Recognition of Iraqi Displacement

Despite their massive scale, displacement and other forms of involuntary migration from Iraq have so far largely escaped academic interest as topics in their own right. This is in sharp contrast with the large body of research devoted to Palestinian refugees. References to displacement within and from Iraq do exist, but they are scarce and scattered: they generally document displacement in relation to particular ethnicities or sects, episodes of conflicts, or political struggles. (2) So far, there has been little attempt to conceptualize Iraqi displacement as a political and social phenomenon or reflect on its historical depth and global scope. (3)

The displacement that resulted, directly or indirectly, from the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime by a US-led coalition in April 2003 has appeared to most scholars as a crisis of unprecedented scale. Although many Iraqis started leaving the country as early as 2003, it was only in 2007, at the height of sectarian tensions and generalized insecurity, that advocacy and humanitarian organizations started releasing reports on Iraqi refugees in neighbouring countries. They particularly focused on Syria and Jordan, where the majority had fled, generating media coverage, especially in the US and UK, and a new interest from the part of mostly young scholars. The corpus of academic publications focusing on the post-2003 displacement trend has since been growing. (4)

It will come as no surprise that the 2007 surge of interest in Iraqi refugees closely corresponded with the beginning of humanitarian and policy engagement from the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and large donors, particularly the US and the European Union. …