Cross-Border Mobility of Iraqi Refugees

By Chatelard, Géraldine | Forced Migration Review, February 2010 | Go to article overview

Cross-Border Mobility of Iraqi Refugees


Chatelard, Géraldine, Forced Migration Review


Far more attention needs to be paid to the circulation of Iraqi refugees across the borders between Iraq and Syria or Jordan. Lack of analysis of this cross-border mobility will be to the detriment of policy planning and the search for durable solutions.

High mobility of refugees out of camps - to look for economic opportunities in urban areas - has often been seen by organisations as a challenge to maintaining accurate data about populations and the delivery of services. However, mobility has also been shown to reduce dependency on assistance especially when regulations in host countries allow refugees to be mobile between different areas and when they can access the labour market, formally or informally.

Another important dimension remains more challenging to take into account. 'Cross-border' mobility is not the one-time crossing of a border from the home country to escape persecution or conflict but the possibility of circulating between country of refuge and country of origin. The difficulty of conceptualising this type of mobility as potentially essential to refugees' security, livelihoods and future stems from the legal ruling that refugees cease to be refugees if they return to their home country, except for short exceptional visits motivated by, for example, family circumstances. However, as has become apparent in a vast number of protracted conflict situations, levels of human insecurity in a conflict-affected country are rarely constant over time and over geographical areas. The result is that some areas of a country in conflict might be temporarily safe enough for refugees in nearby countries to attempt regular visits or re-engage in economic or social activities while maintaining residence in a host country. By circulating across borders, refugees may aim to pursue or diversify livelihoods, to maintain family and other social ties, to check on properties or even to evaluate the possibility of return.

Case study: Iraqi refugees

The vast majority of Iraqi refugees currently in Jordan and Syria have settled in cities, both because they come from urban areas and because this is where they can access social networks, housing and services. Although it is the middle class with, on the whole, a high level of education and expectations in terms of services, livelihoods and futures that has left Iraq, there are sharp economic discrepancies between various categories of middle-class Iraqi refugees, and these impact directly on their access to security, livelihoods and mobility in their host countries. In both countries, those who lack social connections and are denied residence have pressing needs particularly in terms of livelihoods. This is because, as their displacement has continued, the difficulty of obtaining regular and sufficient income in the host country has impoverished many. Many of them survive on remittances sent from Iraq or distant countries of asylum or emigration.

Neither Syria nor Jordan is signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its Protocols, nor do they have a domestic asylum regime. Iraqis are considered as migrants who can access residence rights either as holders of capital (by investing or buying properties) or by securing an employment contract. But a large number of refugees have not been able to claim residency through these channels because the level of investment required is high, and because formal work markets are limited. Provided that they have entered the country legally, these refugees are not viewed as illegal migrants but as 'temporary guests' with no legal residence rights, nor the right to work. This regime of toleration (not unlike the situation of undocumented migrants in a number of liberal countries in the West) provides access to a number of basic health and educational services and offers a relative degree of safety. Only in serious security cases have Syria and Jordan been reported to expel Iraqis back to Iraq. Although this de facto discretionary toleration is not legally binding, inter-Arab politics make it extremely unlikely that it would be revoked unilaterally. …

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