A tidal wave of misery is engulfing
The victims of this human tsunami are called refugees if they wash ashore outside the country or IDPs ("internally displaced persons") if their landing place is within
Overlapping Waves of the Dispossessed
In its first four years, the
It all began with the Coalition Provisional Authority, which the Bush administration set up inside
As the post-war chaos continued, kidnapping became the country’s growth industry, targeting any prosperous family with the means to pay ransom. This only accelerated the rate of departure, particularly among those who had already had their careers disrupted. A flood of professional, technical, and managerial workers fled their homes and
The spirit of this initial exodus was eloquently expressed by an Iraqi blogger with the online handle of AnaRki13:
"Not so much a migration as a forced exodus. Scientists, engineers, doctors, architects, writers, poets, you name it—everybody is getting out of town.
"Why? Simple: 1. There is no real job market in
"One of my friends keeps berating me about how I should love this country, the land of my ancestors, where I was born and raised; how I should be grateful and return to the place that gave me everything. I always tell him the same thing: ‘
"The most famous doctors and university professors have already left the country because many of them, including ones I knew personally, were assassinated or killed, and the rest got the message—and got themselves jobs in the west, where they were received warmly and given high positions. Other millions of Iraqis, just ordinary Iraqis, left and are leaving—without plans and with much hope."
In 2004, the Americans triggered a second wave of refugees when they began to attack and invade insurgent strongholds, as they did the Sunni city of
"Among those who flee, the most fortunate are able to seek refuge with out-of-town relatives, but many flee into the countryside where they face extremely difficult conditions, including shortages of food and water. Eventually the Red Crescent, the UN or relief organizations set up camps. In Falluja, a city of about 300,000, over 216,000 displaced persons had to seek shelter in overcrowded camps during the winter months, inadequately supplied with food, water, and medical care. An estimated 100,000 fled al-Qaim, a city of 150,000, according to the Iraqi Red Crescent Society (IRCS). In Ramadi, about 70 percent of the city’s 400,000 people left in advance of the
"These moments mark the beginning of
While most of these refugees returned after the fighting, a significant minority did not, either because their homes (or livelihoods) had been destroyed, or because they were afraid of continuing violence. Like the economically displaced of the previous wave, these refugees sought out new areas that were less dangerous or more prosperous, including neighboring countries. And, as with that first wave, it was the professionals as well as the technical and managerial workers who were most likely to have the resources to leave
In early 2005 the third wave began, developing by the next year into the veritable tsunami of ethnic cleansing and civil war that pushed vast numbers of Iraqis from their homes. The precipitating incidents, according to Ali Allawi—the Iraqi finance minister when this third wave began—were initially triggered by the second-wave-refugees pushed out of the Sunni city of Falluja in the winter of 2004:
"Refugees leaving Falluja had converged on the western Sunni suburbs of
"In turn, the Shi’a were becoming incensed by the daily attacks on policemen and soldiers, who were mostly poor Shi’a men. The targeting of Sunnis in majority Shi’a neighbourhoods began in early 2005. In the Shaab district of Baghdad, for instance, the assassination of a popular Sadrist cleric, Sheikh Haitham al-Ansari, led to the formation of one of the first Shi’a death squads… The cycle of killings, assassinations, bombings and expulsions fed into each other, quickly turning to a full-scale ethnic cleansing of city neighbourhoods and towns."
The process only accelerated in early 2006, after the bombing of the Golden Dome in
As minority groups in mixed neighborhoods and cities were driven out, they too joined the army of displaced persons, often settling into vacated homes in newly purified neighborhoods dominated by their own sect. But many, like those in the previous waves of refugees, found they had to move to new locales far away from the violence, including a large number who, once again, simply left
Among those who departed in this third wave was Riverbend, the pseudonymous "Girl Blogger from
"The last few hours in the house were a blur. It was time to go and I went from room to room saying goodbye to everything. I said goodbye to my desk—the one I’d used all through high school and college. I said goodbye to the curtains and the bed and the couch. I said goodbye to the armchair E. and I broke when we were younger. I said goodbye to the big table over which we’d gathered for meals and to do homework. I said goodbye to the ghosts of the framed pictures that once hung on the walls, because the pictures have long since been taken down and stored away—but I knew just what hung where. I said goodbye to the silly board games we inevitably fought over—the Arabic Monopoly with the missing cards and money that no one had the heart to throw away…
"The trip was long and uneventful, other than two checkpoints being run by masked men. They asked to see identification, took a cursory glance at the passports and asked where we were going. The same was done for the car behind us. Those checkpoints are terrifying but I’ve learned that the best technique is to avoid eye contact, answer questions politely and pray under your breath. My mother and I had been careful not to wear any apparent jewelry, just in case, and we were both in long skirts and head scarves…
"How is it that a border no one can see or touch stands between car bombs, militias, death squads and… peace, safety? It’s difficult to believe—even now. I sit here and write this and wonder why I can’t hear the explosions…"
The Human Toll
The number of Iraqis who flooded neighboring lands, not to speak of even approximate estimates of the number of internal refugees, remains notoriously difficult to determine, but the most circumspect of observers have reported constantly accelerating rates of displacement since the Bush administration’s March 2003 invasion. These numbers quickly outstripped the flood of expatriates who had fled the country during Saddam Hussein’s brutal era.
By early 2006, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was already estimating that 1.7 million Iraqis had left the country and that perhaps an equal number of internal refugees had been created in the same three-year period. The rate rose dramatically yet again as sectarian violence and ethnic expulsions took hold; the International Organization for Migration estimated the displacement rate during 2006 and 2007 at about 60,000 per month. In mid 2007,
President Bush’s "surge" strategy, begun in January 2007, amplified the flood, especially of the internally displaced, still further. According to James Glanz and Stephen Farrell of the New York Times, "American-led operations have brought new fighting, driving fearful Iraqis from their homes at much higher rates than before the tens of thousands of additional troops arrived." The combined effect of the American offensive and accelerated ethnic expulsions generated an estimated displacement rate of 100,000 per month in
During 2007, according to UN estimates,
In the same years, the weight of displaced persons inside
The burden was crushing. By 2007,
Whether inside or outside the country, even prosperous families before the war faced grim conditions. In
Food was a major issue for many families; according to the United Nations, nearly half needed "urgent food assistance." A substantial proportion of adults reported skipping at least one meal a day in order to feed their children. Many others endured foodless days "in order to keep up with rent and utilities." One refugee mother told McClatchy reporter Hannah Allam, "We buy just enough meat to flavor the food — we buy it with pennies… I can’t even buy a kilo of sweets for Eid [a major annual celebration]."
According to a rigorous McClatchy Newspaper survey, most Iraqi refugees in
Like the expatriate refugees, internally displaced Iraqis faced severe and constantly declining conditions. The almost powerless Iraqi central government, largely trapped inside
To make matters worse, almost three-quarters of the displaced were women or children and very few of the intact families had working fathers. Unemployment rates in most cities to which they were forced to move were already at or above 50%, so prostitution and child labor increasingly became necessary options. UNICEF reported that a large proportion of children in such families were hungry, clinically underweight, and short for their age. "In some areas, up to 90 per cent of the [displaced] children are not in school," the UN agency reported.
Losing Precious Resources
The job backgrounds of an extraordinary proportion of Iraqi refugees in
The reasons for this remarkable brain drain are not hard to find. Even the desperate process of fleeing your home turns out to require resources, and so refugees from most disasters who travel great distances tend to be disproportionately prosperous, as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in
The exodus into the Iraqi Diaspora has severely depleted the country’s human capital. In early 2006, the United States Committee on Refugees and Immigrants estimated that a full 40% of Iraqi’s professional class had left the country, taking with them their irreplaceable expertise. Universities and medical facilities were particularly hard hit, with some reporting less than 20% of needed staff on hand. The oil industry suffered from what the Wall Street Journal called a "petroleum exodus" that included the departure of two-thirds of its top 100 managers, as well as significant numbers of managerial and professional workers.
Even before the huge 2007 exodus from
By mid-2007, the loss of these resources was visible in the everyday functioning of Iraqi society. By then, medical facilities commonly required patients’ families to act as nurses and technicians and were still unable to perform many services. Schools were often closed, or opened only sporadically, because of an absence of qualified teachers. Universities postponed or canceled required courses or qualifying examinations because of inadequate staff. At the height of an incipient cholera epidemic in the summer of 2007, water purification plants were idled because needed technicians could not be found.
The most devastating impact of the Iraqi refugee crisis, however, has probably been on the very capacity of the national government (which de-Baathification and privatization had already left in a fragile state) to administer anything. In every area that such a government might touch, the missing managerial, technical, and professional talent and expertise has had a devastating effect, with post-war "reconstruction" particularly hard hit. Even the ability of the government to disperse its income (mostly from oil revenues) has been crippled by what cabinet ministers have termed "a shortage of employees trained to write contracts" and "the flight of scientific and engineering expertise from the country."
The depths of the problem (as well as the massive levels of corruption that went with it) could be measured by the fact that the electrical ministry spent only 26% of its capital budget in 2006; the remaining three-quarters went unspent. Yet, at that level of disbursement, it still outperformed most government agencies and ministries in a major way. Under pressure from American occupation officials to improve its performance in 2007, the government made concerted efforts to increase both its budget and its disbursements for reconstruction. Despite initially optimistic reports, the news was grim by year’s end. Actual expenditures on electrical infrastructure might, for example, have slipped to as low as 1% of the budgeted amount.
Even more symptomatic were the few successes in infrastructural rebuilding found by New York Times reporter James Glanz in a survey of capital construction throughout the country. Most of the successful programs he reviewed were initiated and managed by officials connected to local and provincial governments. They discovered that success actually depended on avoiding any interaction with the ineffective and corrupt central government. The provincial governor of
The government’s staggering institutional incapacity is, in fact, a complex phenomenon with many sources beyond the drain of human capital. The flood of managers, professionals, and technicians out of the country, however, has been a critical obstacle to any productive reconstruction. Worse yet, the departure of so many crucial figures is probably to a considerable extent irreversible, ensuring a grim near-future for the country. After all, this has been a "brain drain" on a scale seldom seen in our era.
Many exiles still intend to, even long to, return when (or if) the situation improves, but time is always the enemy of such intentions. The moment an individual arrives in a new country, he or she begins creating social ties that become ever more significant as a new life takes hold—and this is even truer for those who leave with their families, as so many Iraqis have done. Unless this network-building process is disrupted, for many the probability of return fades with each passing month.
Those with marketable skills, even in the dire circumstances facing most Iraqi refugees, have little choice but to keep seeking work that exploits their training. The most marketable are the most likely to succeed and so to begin building new careers. As time slips by, the best, the brightest, and the most important carriers of precious human capital are lost.
The Displacement Tsunami
The degradation of Iraq under the American occupation regime was what initially set in motion the forces that led to the exile of much of the country’s most precious human resources—absolutely crucial capital, even if of a kind not usually considered when talk turns to investing in "nation building." How, after all, can you "reconstruct" the ravaged foundations of a bombed-out nation without the necessary professional, technical, and managerial personnel? Without them,
The orgy of failure and corruption in 2007 was an unmitigated disaster for Iraqi society, as well as an embarrassment for the American occupation. From the point of view of long-term American goals in
This neoliberal reality was brought into focus in late 2007, as the last of the money allocated by the U.S. Congress for Iraqi reconstruction was being spent. A "petroleum exodus" (first identified by the Wall Street Journal) had long ago meant that most of the engineers needed for maintaining the decrepit oil business were already foreigners, mostly "imported from
These American-funded projects, though, have been merely "stopgaps." When the money runs out, vast new moneys will be needed just to sustain Rumaila’s production at its present level.
According to Harper’s Magazine Senior Editor Luke Mitchell, who visited the field in the summer of 2007, Iraqi engineers and technicians are "smart enough and ambitious enough" to sustain and "upgrade" the system once the American contracts expire, but such a project would take upwards of two decades because of the compromised condition of the government and the lack of skilled local engineers and technicians. The likely outcome, when the American money departs, therefore is either an inadequate effort in which work proceeds "only in fits and starts;" or, more likely, new contracts in which the foreign companies would "continue their work," paid for by the Iraqi government.
With regard to the petroleum industry, therefore, what the refugee crisis guaranteed was long-term Iraqi dependence on outsiders. In every other key infrastructural area, a similar dependence was developing: electrical power, the water system, medicine, and food were, de facto, being "integrated" into the global system, leaving oil-rich Iraq dependent on outside investment and largesse for the foreseeable future. Now, that’s a twenty-year plan for you, one that at least 4.5 million Iraqis, out of their homes and, in many cases, out of the country as well, will be in no position to participate in.
Most horror stories come to an end, but the most horrible part of this horror story is its never-ending quality. Those refugees who have left
From the vast out-migration and internal migrations of its desperate citizens comes damage to society as a whole that is almost impossible to estimate. The displacement of people carries with it the destruction of human capital. The destruction of human capital deprives
As long as the
Michael Schwartz, professor of sociology at