Over the last decade or so students of refugee affairs have been increasingly engaged with the question when and why refugees are militarized, “manipulated” for militant causes or otherwise attracted to violent agendas . Therefore, it may be little surprising that appraisals of the Iraqi refugee crisis have, to some extent, been similarly “securitized” as some pointed at the risk of the Iraqi conflicts becoming contagious to the region via the massive influx of Iraqi refugees. These appraisals should be assessed with a great deal of skepticism. After all, both specialists in refugee affairs and aid workers often get it plainly wrong when it comes to understanding and predicting refugee behavior generally. In this respect, the current Iraqi refugee crisis is no exception. When in April 2003 American and British forces invaded Iraq, humanitarian organizations were put on standby in neighboring countries to provide assistance to over 900.000 Iraqis who were expected to become displaced within Iraq in addition to another 1.45 million who were predicted to seek refuge outside Iraq . Such large waves, we now know, failed to materialize. In early 2006, aid organizations again were taken by surprise when due to sharply escalating violence in Iraq thousands of Iraqis fled. When from 2008 onwards the violence in Iraq began to wane, there was an expectation that Iraqis would return in large numbers . Yet all indications are that such expectations will not be realized as Iraqi refugees seem to need much more convincing before they risk returning home . Likewise, and fortunately for that matter, predictions that Iraqi refugees would quickly turn into “refugee warriors,” or become militarized and drag the entire region into Iraq’s violence failed to materialize.
This essay argues that the main reason that some scholars and aid workers erred so dramatically in their assessments is the penchant to generalize on the basis of a handful of spectacular cases that had occurred elsewhere, without taking much effort to get to know the Iraqi refugee population itself. As a result, many have focused on the presumed but illusive phenomenon of the “refugee warrior.” Meanwhile, the real and complex security implications of the refugee crisis ? within Iraq, not in the neighboring host countries — have failed to attract much needed attention.
Initial inflated estimates of massive numbers of Iraqi refugees pouring into Iraq’s neighboring countries, particularly since the February 2006 Samarra mosque bombing, are likely to have contributed to the impression that the Iraqi refugee crisis was spinning out of control. Estimates of the scope of Iraqi forced migration have been downsized, even when from a humanitarian perspective the magnitude of the crisis remains daunting. In the spring of 2010, the Syrian government still claimed to be hosting 1.2 million Iraqi refugees; Jordan says it hosts about 450-500.000, and Lebanon is believed to give refuge to between 14 and 21.000 Iraqis . Notably, by May 2010 the UNHCR had registered far less Iraqi refugees; 165.493 in Syria, 32.169 in Jordan and 8.035 in Lebanon . Therefore, the exact magnitude of the refugee crisis is hard to establish, but it is likely to be somewhere in between the estimates mentioned above and the number of refugees registered by the UNHCR. In addition, since 2006 1.3 million Iraqis are believed to have become internally displaced .
Even before Iraqis started to abandon their homes, alarmist assessments of their negative impact on regional stability began to make their way into the prism through which the refugee stream was perceived. Yet, starting from 2006, broadly-phrased warnings against the security- and stability implications of the Iraqi refugee crisis became common as an increasing number of Iraqis sought refuge in neighboring countries . Some observers suggested distressing scenarios by describing Iraqi refugees as “carriers of conflict” or by pointing at the “possibility that [Iraqi] refugees will be recruited into armed militias .” The host governments similarly emphasized the harmful collateral they would suffer in terms of domestic stability and security. For instance, the Syrian government stressed that the risks emanating from the Iraqi refugee crisis “will not only threaten security and stability in Iraq, but will definitely spread to the whole region and beyond .” Given such concerns, it is little surprising that the Syrian authorities and ordinary Syrians alike have tended to suspect the involvement of Iraqis in major security incidents, as happened when in December 2008 a car bomb went off at an intersection leading to Sayyida Zeinab, Damascus, where many Iraqi refugees reside . For their part, Jordanian officials justified their increasingly restrictive entry policy towards Iraqi refugees principally by invoking perceived security risks . In addition, Jordanian officials openly resented the influx of Iraqi Shi`ites in particular, whom they suspected of being sympathetic to Iran’s presumed designs to control the region. Iraq’s government expressed its own related concerns. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has accused Syria of harboring Baathist groups, which he held responsible for bloody attacks against government targets in Baghdad in August and December of 2009. Western nations followed suit as their unprecedented and cumbersome procedures to vet Iraqi asylum-seekers implied that, in their view, Iraqi refugees could at least potentially be motivated by terrorist or militant agendas . Highlighting the presence of former Baathist leaders among Syria’s large Iraqi refugee population, US Defense officials alleged that the country was serving as an “important organizational and coordination hub” for insurgency groups in Iraq .
Based on established wisdoms derived from earlier refugee crises throughout the 1990s, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa, and “lessons learned” from these crises, such pessimistic assessments of the security fallout of the Iraqi exodus appeared to make good sense. After all, so-called “refugee warriors had reared their ugly heads before, exemplified by the dramatic militarization of Rwandan Hutu refugees in Zaire (Congo) in the mid-1990s. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), after being heavily criticized for unwillingly aiding Rwandan génocidaires in staging violent attacks from their refugee camps, responded in 1998 by designing a “ladder of options” (i.e. a set of instructions for its employees on how to deal with refugees who resort to armed violence . Subsequently, the UNHCR repeatedly called for urgent attention to the challenges refugee warriors purportedly pose to humanitarianism . Looking at cases wherein refugees became militarized or were drawn into militancy, a growing number of scholars of refugee studies emphasized the security risks of refugee crises and analyzed the conditions under which they believed refugees had expanded the conflicts from which they had fled. Kenyon Lischer meticulously mapped out the many ways in which refugees are radicalized and take up arms, and what conditions drive and allow them to do so . Most of the factors that she regards as being conducive to refugee violence appeared applicable to the case of the Iraqi refugees . Indeed, in a subsequent journal article, Kenyon Lischer applied her model to the Iraqi refugees, prompting her to conclude that “the magnitude and nature of the Iraqi displacement crisis increases the risks of manipulation and militarization of the refugees and IDPs [Internally Displaced Persons].” 
Yet next to nothing of these alarmist assessments has been matched by facts. Iraqi refugees emphatically did not bring “their” conflicts, however intractable and violent at home, to neighboring host countries. There is no evidence of significant combat or terrorist activity involving Iraqi refugees; no massive recruitment of refugee warriors; and no spill-over of the political violence in Iraq via refugees fulfilling their presumed role as “carriers of conflict.” Even if it would be accepted that the refugee warrior phenomenon occurs periodically elsewhere, those who set off all alarms on the Iraqi refugee crisis could have seen why Iraqis do not fit the bill. They could have arrived at this conclusion simply by trying to understand who, in fact, was fleeing from Iraq. From this profile, it would have been clear from the start that Iraqis in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon were highly unlikely to engage in militancy, let alone in political violence. Firstly, a disproportionate number of Iraqi refugees (with the exception of those in Lebanon) were women, children and the elderly . More recently this trait seems to have been amplified as many young Iraqi males reportedly have left their families in Syria and Jordan and moved to third countries, often illegally, in search of employment . Christians are also disproportionately represented among Iraqi refugees relative to their share of Iraq’s population ; this community has not formed significant armed groups in Iraq itself. Yet most importantly and irrespective of sect or ethnicity, academics, medical doctors, and other highly educated professionals - all of whom have been targeted by armed groups in Iraq - predominate among the refugees . Iraqi businessmen, too, joined the ranks of the Iraqi exodus as, for example, they became a significant source of foreign investment in Syria . Indeed, as will be highlighted further below, available data suggests that Iraq’s middle classes, in whom so much hope had been vested during Iraq’s botched democratization after 2003, now reside abroad. In sum, an overwhelming majority of Iraqi refugees have been victims rather than active participants of the violence in Iraq. They are extremely unlikely to resort to violence and militancy in their places of refuge if only because they already had been outgunned by sectarian warlords at home for the simple reason that they do not trade in violence. As a result, while Iraqi politics was getting more violent and ruthless by the day, they were rapidly marginalized and persecuted ? key factors that pushed them into exile. Encounters with Iraqi refugees only confirm that virtually none of them plan to resort to aggressive means or somehow aspire to join the violence- and corruption-ridden politics of Iraq. Indeed, Iraqi refugees interviewed by this author almost unanimously expressed disgust over the conflicts in Iraq, stating their disappointment with virtually all Iraqi parties and political leaders and deploring the sectarian and ethnic strife engulfing their country .
When this author made the above assessment, first as contributing author to a report of the International Crisis Group in July 2008 and then in various academic articles, three factors were considered that somewhat qualified the conclusion that Iraqi refugee warriors were unlikely to emerge . First, unlike in Syria and Jordan, single males form the bulk of the Iraqi refugee population in Lebanon. Second, and given a steep escalation of conflicts between Lebanese political elites, the Lebanese state had virtually no capacity to quell or control potential refugee militancy. Third, sectarian sentiments among refugees could not entirely be discounted as Iraqis clustered in distinct neighbourhoods in their host countries Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. These reservations can now be largely dismissed: the Iraqi refugee population in Lebanon turned out to be drastically smaller than initially thought; the steady disintegration of Lebanon’s state and security institutions has been halted as Lebanese political elites brokered a deal to at least manage their differences; and what appeared as Iraqi refugees’ “sectarianism” can be better interpreted as pragmatic, non-political strategies whereby newcomers navigate in the host countries by relying on their relatives and friends who are already abroad .
Often when theorists do not see their models corroborated immediately, they claim that they will be right in the more distant future. Accordingly, speculation that Iraqi refugees will clash with host communities when the refugee crisis enters a protracted phase has been common. For good measure such claims also accompanied now discredited assessments that a security backlash would result sooner rather than later. Four years into the post-Samarra refugee crisis there is a realization that many Iraqi refugees will not be returning en masse soon . This in itself appears to make dire predictions about a long-term security fallout sound plausible, at least at first glance. So, too, does the precedent set by other protracted refugee situations that such humanitarian crises cause instability (e.g. Rwandese Tutsi refugees in Uganda, and, especially, Palestinians in Jordan and Lebanon). Impoverishment, a high secondary school dropout rate, lack of access to higher education, and heavy restrictions on employment certainly feed grievances among Iraqi refugees, especially adolescent Iraqis who grow up under such disparaging conditions. In turn, at least some host communities — especially in Syria and Jordan — already look at Iraqi refugees with growing dismay. Members of these communities perceive the refugees as being responsible for their higher cost of living, benefiting from declining state subsidies of basic commodities and aid, and worsening crime rates . In short, extreme refugee deprivation combined with growing resentment within some host communities may be viewed as producing the background against which future clashes and conflict, possibly taking on sectarian overtones, can be expected.
A conclusive appraisal of such a distressing forecast, of course, is next to impossible. However, it should be noted that the instability predicted in this instance is of a very different quality than that of the immediate and purported dangers attributed to refugee warriors infecting host countries with Iraq’s violent conflicts. Now instability is argued to be caused by conflicts originating within the host countries as refugee grievances and host communities’ resentments fail to be properly addressed, irrespective of the violent conflicts in Iraq and refugees’ presumed ties to them. In this sense the expectation of refugee violence takes on a very different form and, if corroborated, cannot reasonably be viewed as the long-term vindication of the original argument on conflict contagion via refugees. Furthermore, an opposite and much less conflictive scenario may sound equally if not more compelling. First, most examples of protracted refugee militarization and violence, including the Palestinian refugee crisis, were predicated on an active and militant leadership who explicitly viewed refugee camps and other concentrations of refugees as bastions of militancy and as staging grounds for armed struggle; none of this applies to Iraq’s militants and its political elites, even those who are residing or frequently travelling abroad. In fact, Iraq’s political elites, warlords, and militant leaders may be, and are, accused of abandoning Iraqi refugees altogether and of showing little interest in their fate — an unlikely attitude if they had hoped to recruit and “manipulate” refugees for their cause . Once again, this may have a lot to do with the fact that Iraqi refugees do not form a significant part of their constituencies, for the reasons cited earlier. More probable, in this context, is that Iraqi middle class refugees will insist on staying out of any further violent and sectarian conflicts that may ensue in Iraq, feel vindicated in their views that the violence in Iraq has discredited Iraq’s political class, and avoid being associated by their hosts with any form of subversive let alone violent behavior. Indeed, exactly because of their vulnerable situation Iraqi refugees can be expected to operate extra carefully. They will not want to risk losing the few sources of livelihood they carved out for themselves (e.g. finding some sort of employment in Syria’s bulging informal sector), or being forcefully expelled to Iraq. For their part, some host communities may balk at the large Iraqi presence in their midst. However, many Syrians’ and Lebanese’s sympathy and compassion for Iraqi refugees appears to persist . Also, the initial emphasis on alleged Iraqi involvement in mounting crime has waned, not in the least because such allegations failed to be backed up by facts suggesting real increases of crime levels involving Iraqis . In Jordan, initial apprehensions about Iraqi refugees riding the waves of a region-wide “Shi‘ite crescent” have similarly faded, perhaps because realization has set in that about three-quarter of them are non-Shi‘ites , while those who are have not engaged in any form of political activity, let alone militancy. Yet perhaps most importantly, clashes between Iraqi communities and host communities thus far have been virtually non-existent, even if the dismal humanitarian conditions already are reaching unbearable proportions. The only reported significant disturbance in this respect involved angry Syrian residents of the Jaramana neighborhood in Damascus who in June 2006 rioted against Iraqi refugees as one of them was accused of murdering a Syrian . If the past is to be regarded as a guide to the future, it should also be noted that neither were earlier generations of Iraqi refugees, those predating the 2006 violence in Iraq and indeed those before 2003, involved in any major disturbances or in clashes with host communities . In conclusion, host country instability triggered by a protracted Iraqi refugee crisis cannot be ruled out, but for now seems highly improbable.
While the expected security fallout of the Iraqi refugee crisis in the host countries failed to materialize, the repercussions for Iraq’s security and political future are and will be severe. As primarily Iraq’s middle classes and highly-educated professionals have been pushed out by the violence engulfing their country, the widely-held view that such middle classes could form the only moderating force and hold the potential to lift Iraq out of its zero-sum game and sectarian conflicts gains additional significance . Indeed, as Samir Shankir Mahmud Sumaida’iye, Iraq’s ambassador to the U.S., put it succinctly: Iraq’s refugee crisis constitutes a “flight of moderation.” 
The socio-economic spaces left behind by Iraq’s exiled middle classes have been filled by Iraq’s entrepreneurs in violence who, in the fog of war, grabbed the country’s resources by systematically resorting to bloodshed, extortion and corruption and by instigating sectarian conflict. Thanks especially to the orgy of violence since 2003, which peaked between 2006 and 2008, Iraq’s successful entrepreneurs currently consist predominantly of ruthless war profiteers and mafias who accumulated their wealth at gun point . They also have come to form the backbone of Iraq’s new political class, where even the few more respected Iraqi politicians have to take them into account as Iraqi politics degenerated into a game of dividing the spoils (muhasassa) of public resources, public office, and positions of influence. While unwittingly having helped to prepare the rise of Iraq’s crooked new establishment by their very departure, Iraqi refugees indirectly and inadvertently confirm its grip on power every time elections are held. Absentee balloting occurred in 2005 and 2010. In both elections voter turnout among expatriates was excruciatingly small, largely due to refugees feeling increasingly detached from Iraq’s politics and abandoned by their government . Accordingly, the Iraqi refugee crisis also exacerbated the underrepresentation of — and resulting disenchantment among — Iraq’s (Arab) Sunni community due to its disproportionate high numbers among the refugees. In Iraq’s municipal elections, held in 2005 and 2009, Iraq’s expatriate middle classes were excluded from elections altogether and thus failed to exert any moderating influence. Furthermore, even if Iraq’s exiled middle classes would in a distant future decide to return and regain some of their influence, they are, as relative “outsiders,” likely to add yet another layer to Iraq’s many fault lines of conflict. A similar scenario eventuated between 2003 and 2005, when the US’ heavy reliance on Iraqi expatriates in the “transitional” and “interim” governments helped to discredit the political process.
Meanwhile, and if reconstruction, institution-building and economic recovery can indeed be regarded as at least having the potential of mitigating militancy and radicalization, the very exodus of Iraq’s skilled labor and professionals obstructs, if not completely rules out Iraq’s sustained recovery. Evidently, this also bars the positive effects expected from reconstruction on the country’s political stability. Iraq’s refugee crisis first and foremost constitutes a massive brain-drain affecting the entire country except, perhaps, the Kurdish north that, in contrast, benefited from highly-educated Arabs leaving their posts in Baghdad and the south in order to staff newly-established universities in the more stable north . At least partially as a result of lacking manpower and expertise, Iraqi state budgets designated for reconstruction and related capital investments have been spent only sparsely . The few funds that were made available were squandered by corruption and incompetence, ironically to the benefit of Iraq’s nouveaux riches (al-hawasib) and crooked politicians who reap the fruits of favoritism in dodgy contracting, flawed tender procedures and a general lack of oversight . Likewise, efforts to counter corruption and hold fraudulent public servants and politicians to account have been hampered by, among other factors, lack of qualified personnel. Indeed, also senior staff at Iraq’s anti-corruption agencies joined the Iraqi exodus after being intimidated and threatened in the course of their work. 
While lessening the prospects for restoring even a modicum of sustained normalcy of life and security in Iraq, the Iraqi exodus also has opened up a Pandora’s Box of illegal or contested property transfers and related disputes that could linger on for years to come and worsen sectarian tensions . Although no reliable, comprehensive and detailed documentation exists on the homogenization of Iraq’s neighborhoods, towns and villages in sectarian and/or ethnic terms, the forced expulsion of perceived sectarian opponents from residential areas is certain to have carved up much of Iraq’s territory into sectarian enclaves, thereby physically reinforcing the rapidly escalating prominence of sectarian identities and politics . In this context any large-scale return of Iraqi refugees is bound to ignite conflicts and exacerbate sectarian tensions: property disputes will center on the illegal occupation of once abandoned properties, including by other IDPs, and the forced nature of property transfers and their re-sale to others . Largely unsuccessful attempts thus far to resolve similar disputes dating from before 2003 give little cause for optimism that Iraqi state institutions will be more successful in managing and addressing the even larger scale and more intricate property transfers associated with the current Iraqi refugee crisis . Indeed, unwillingness to return to Iraq can at least partially be viewed as a vote of no confidence in the Iraqi authorities’ efforts and capacity to handle this extremely controversial case file. 
Since the end of 2007, security in Iraq has improved. According to most available data, the number of attacks and casualties in Iraq has declined significantly; one source put the number of deaths in Iraq at 3.000 in 2009 compared to 23.600 in 2007 . Yet at best Iraq may currently be enjoying a precarious and inadequate truce, partly sustained by the stalemate of forces within Iraq and by conflicts having lost their intensity as most of the country’s politically relevant resources, assets and territories have already been doled out. The potential for large-scale violence and conflict is still there, especially given the scheduled drawdown of US troops until the end of 2011. The departure of all US troops may upset the current equilibrium to the extent that Iraq’s current truce may break down . More specifically, intra-sectarian competition between Iraq’s political leaders ? aggravated by the March 2010 election results that failed to produce clear winners ? may produce a protracted stalemate; insurgents may gratefully seize on the resulting immobilism to escalate their violence. Tellingly, even the fiercest critics of the US occupation of Iraq, such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, recognize and dread the risks of a US withdrawal, apparently for the same reasons . Combined with low expectations that they will recover their properties, Iraqi refugees are likely to remain reluctant to face up to so much uncertainty and to return to Iraq. In turn, as argued above, this in itself is depriving the country from much opportunity and human resources to help moderate its politics and initiate meaningful reconstruction.
When considering the security implications of the Iraqi refugee crisis, it is necessary to disaggregate the real and possible fallout in terms of the immediate risks of refugees turning into “refugee warriors,” of a protracted crisis fuelling conflicts based on refugee deprivation or resentment within host communities, and of the exodus mortgaging stability in the country of origin. Thus far, regional “contagion” of the Iraqi conflict via Iraqi refugees and the presumed fallout of a protracted refugee crisis on the host countries have received most emphasis, even though such effects have failed to materialize and seem unlikely to occur.
Many aid professionals and scholars of refugee studies have emphasized the importance of listening to the voices of refugees. Had this advice been heeded, the misunderstandings of the security impact of the Iraqi refugee crisis could have been avoided. By giving refugees a voice and better understanding their background and reasons for flight it would have been clear from the start that Iraqi refugees are unlikely candidates to become “refugee warriors.” Neither are Iraqi refugees served by alarmist assessments pointing at regional instability, even when these inform heartfelt calls for more humanitarian assistance purportedly to prevent regional instability . In the end, such appraisals are not only intellectually disingenuous and factually wrong; they also are likely to backfire as soon as donors realize that security conditions in the host countries have not been significantly affected. Meanwhile, such appraisals risk stigmatizing vulnerable Iraqi refugees, which can provide a convenient context for host countries to further restrict their rights, including their right to stay. For all the talk about humanitarianism being outdated and failing to acknowledge the politics and security dimensions of refugee crises, much needed assistance for Iraqi refugees should be organized and financed on humanitarian grounds. For all its flaws, humanitarianism still provides the only solid normative framework for refugee assistance.
In contrast, the security impact of the Iraqi refugee crisis on Iraq has been dramatic and is likely to form a lasting liability for any future Iraqi government’s reconstruction — and recovery policies, and hamper any effort toward reconciliation. In this context it is essential that the Iraqi government, supported and pressed by outside powers and aid professionals, steps up its efforts to prepare for a peaceful reintegration of refugees and IDPs alike, primarily by establishing an effective and feasible framework to renegotiate property rights and to provide compensation to those who will never be able to retrieve their properties. Iraqi NGOs assisting returning refugees and IDPs should be given generous funding and support, especially when Iraq’s fledging Ministry of the Displaced and Migrants continues to disappoint. Also in this context, the UNHCR should urgently develop a “ladder of options” for these problems rather than at a general level keep emphasizing the dangers of refugee militarization, whether pertaining to Iraq or beyond . After all, the thesis about “refugee warriors” and the militarization of refugees in their host countries is based on a mere handful of cases. Furthermore, and congruent with Iraqi experiences, the phenomenon appears to be far less common than all the attention to it would suggest . In order to address the much higher probability of refugee crises negatively affecting stability and security in the country of origin, Iraq can still become the first important case to get this right.