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Figures and causes
The number of IDPs in the Middle East continued to rise in 2012 to stand at more than six million at the end of year, an increase of 40 per cent as compared to 2011, and the highest figure ever recorded. Over the last ten years, this regional upward trend has been constant with two notable jumps and no dips - evidence that the vast majority have failed to achieve durable solutions and are living in protracted displacement.
The first jump, between 2006 and 2008, was caused by the escalation of sectarian conflict in Iraq, which displaced as many as 2.8 million people. The number of IDPs in Yemen also started to rise exponentially in 2008, when the figure jumped from 250,000 to more than 380,000. The second spike began in 2011 as social unrest associated with the Arab Spring degenerated into internal conflict in Libya, Syria and Yemen.
Despite the popular clamour for greater transparency and socio-economic justice, elections held in 2012 did not always herald a new era of democracy. Yemen’s elections in February confirmed former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s deputy, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, as his Saudi-backed replacement. Parliamentary elections held in Syria in May led to the cosmetic loss of one seat by President Bashar al-Assad’s Ba’ath party as the country descended into civil war.
The Middle East was generally marked by instability in 2012, as new and inexperienced governments emerged following the downfall of decades-old repressive regimes. They all sought their legitimacy in political Islam rather than the secular Arab nationalism which had dominated the region since the end of the colonial period. From Tunisia to Iraq, this transition is reshaping both internal and regional dynamics and alliances. Some non-Arab Muslim minorities such as the Kurds, who have suffered discrimination and displacement in both Iraq and Syria, may come to benefit from the shift.
The most dramatic increase in the number of IDPs was in Syria, where the figure rose more than five-fold. With at least three million IDPs, Syria is one of the world’s largest internal displacement crises. New displacements also took place in Yemen, where the internal conflict forced another 132,000 people to flee their homes. In addition, 1,200 people were newly displaced by flood disaster in Occupied Palestinian Territory (oPT).
Libya was the only country where the number of IDPs dropped substantially. Only 50,000 people were still displaced as of the end of 2012, compared with 243,000 the year before. Most IDPs have managed to return since the fall of Muammar Qadhafi, but those alleged to have supported his regime are unable to for fear of reprisals.
Where people from different ethnic and religious groups once co-existed, conflict and displacement have created more homogenous sectarian enclaves. This happened in Lebanon during the 1975 to 1990 civil war, and the process is visible in Iraq and increasingly so in Syria. Non-Muslim minorities are finding less space to flee internally, and many have eventually sought refuge abroad.
The UN’s independent commission of inquiry on Syria released an update on 20 December 2012 that highlighted a deepening sectarian divide. The commission found that of 80,000 Christians in Homs, only a few hundred remained in the country.
As in Iraq, Christians, Turkmen and members of other minorities are increasingly the target of criminal activities in a lawless environment, with kidnapping for ransom on the rise. The Syrian conflict is taking place in urban centres, leading to massive displacement. Once displaced, minorities face continued insecurity which renders return to their places of origin virtually impossible.
Most IDPs in the region, particularly those newly displaced, live in precarious conditions. Very few live in camp-like situations, with the vast majority preferring to stay with host communities, in rented accommodation, overcrowded housing and makeshift shelters. Libya is a notable exception, where the majority of the remaining 50,000 IDPs live in 132 camps. In Syria, a few camps have been established and are hosting thousands of IDPs in opposition-controlled areas along the Turkish border. The region’s IDPs have generally fled to urban centres, where they have better employment opportunities. This makes it harder to identify them, assess their needs and determine the scale of displacement.
Palestinians have also borne the brunt of recent conflict in the Middle East and UNRWA, the UN agency mandated to assist Palestinian refugees in oPt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, has been underfunded in recent years. In Gaza, Israel’s largest military operation in the territory for nearly four years displaced 12,000 people in November, of whom 3,000 remained so as of the end of 2012. Of the 27,000 Palestinians forced to flee the destruction of the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp in Lebanon in 2007, 23,000 remained in displacement. In Syria, UNRWA has assisted 400,000 out of an estimated 500,000 Palestinian refugees in the country. Government forces have attacked UNRWA camps in pursuit of Syrian IDPs who had sought refuge there.
Lack of humanitarian access has increased IDPs’ vulnerabilities across the region, leaving many unable to benefit from assistance and protection, and jeopardising prospects for durable solutions. In Libya, Yemen and most of Iraq and Syria, Lack of humanitarian access has been restricted by insecurity, leaving organisations struggling to reach four million people in need. In Syria it has been further complicated by bureaucratic restrictions, and in Iraq the granting of visas for NGOs has also become more time-consuming. Finding interlocutors with whom to negotiate access to opposition-controlled areas also remains a major challenge, whether in northern Syria, disputed areas of Iraq or some parts of Yemen. Lack of humanitarian access has become the greatest obstacle to IDPs’ protection in the region, leading some organisations to consider cross-border activities.
Prospects for durable solutions
Though some returns have taken place, durable solutions remain a distant prospect for most IDPs in the region. In Yemen more than 130,000 went back to their places or origin during 2012, and in Lebanon around 4,000 Palestinians returned to Nahr elBared. Governments, however, have generally failed to respond to IDPs’ needs in ways that would facilitate durable solutions, and the overwhelming majority find themselves living in protracted displacement. Significant numbers have expressed a desire to integrate locally, but authorities tend not to be supportive of this settlement option.
Most governments would prefer IDPs to go back to their places of origin, but have done very little to create the right conditions for returns. On the political level, they have failed to address social and ethnic tensions caused by conflict, while on the logistical level IDPs have struggled to obtain documentation and to access livelihood support and basic services. Many IDPs live in urban areas, which places a heavy burden on infrastructure and social services, and increases competition for scarce employment.
National responses need to be improved if they are to effectively address both the scale and nature of internal displacement in the region, and the international response too has been hampered by political deadlock. That said, Qatar and other Gulf countries have become more responsive to humanitarian situations in the region. In October 2012, the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, became the first Arab leader to visit Gaza since Hamas came to power, ending the group’s isolation. The emirate’s pledge of $400 million for housing projects dwarfed the contribution made through humanitarian aid, which continues to face security and political obstacles. The new involvement of regional states was all the more welcome given the destruction of around 300 homes during Israel’s military operation in Gaza in November.
Of the eight countries IDMC monitored in 2012, only Lebanon and Iraq have national institutions dedicated to internal displacement issues. Lebanon’s Ministry of Displaced set up a fund for IDPs from the civil war, but political stalemate and a lack of national reconciliation has limited its effectiveness. Similarly, Iraq’s Ministry of Migration and Displacement revised its national plan to end displacement in 2011, but the priorities of other ministries and local authorities have made it virtually impossible to implement.
Governments in the region continue to face challenges related to the conflicts in Libya, Yemen and Syria, and to a lesser extent those in Iraq and OPT. Ongoing insecurity and instability in these countries has obstructed efforts towards national reconciliation and the implementation of durable solutions. It has also threatened to spill over into neighbouring countries, many of which face the same underlying tensions.
New donors in the region such as Qatar and Kuwait have provided welcome additional support, but the general capacity to respond to crises continues to be hampered by limited access, funding shortfalls and a lack of political will. In oPt, for example, the flouting of international humanitarian law that has led to the repeated displacement of Palestinians can only be addressed once the Israeli government respects its legal obligations. The international response in Syria, which remains woefully inadequate given the scale of the crisis, has been severely curtailed by political deadlock. In Iraq, and to a certain extent in Libya, there are concerns that IDPs and their plight may fall off the agenda as the international response switches from the humanitarian to the development phase, with fewer funds available for projects targeting communities living in protracted displacement and in dire need of assistance.