Arid, inhospitable terrain surrounds an encampment of flimsy tents. Frightened children peer, wide-eyed, at strangers. Whispered stories of violence, loss and terror permeate the community. Such images embody the nightmare scenario of civil war in Iraq.
For three years after the U.S. invasion, it seemed that Iraq had escaped one of the most pernicious effects of war - massive population displacement. No longer. The International Organization for Migration, a U.N.-affiliated aid agency, recently reported that more than 150,000 people had been displaced by sectarian violence. Virtually all are "internal refugees," and they are dispersed throughout Iraq.
The destruction in February of a major Shiite shrine sparked escalating reprisals and counterattacks throughout the country. The exiles, both Sunni and Shiite, recount stories of neighbors turning on each other in grim echoes of Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo.
The Iraqi refugees crowded into abandoned buildings and tent cities represent more than a humanitarian disaster. They are the harbingers of full-scale civil war. To ward off the growing threat of violence, the Iraqi government and U.S. forces must return the refugees safely to their homes as quickly as possible.
The violent history of the Palestinians demonstrates the dangers of protracted refugee crises. The United Nations recognizes nearly 4 million Palestinian refugees, some of them the grandchildren of refugees who fled Israel in 1948. Over the decades, the impoverished refugees coalesced into a highly organized and militant "state" in exile. Conflict between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants has led to pitched battles in the crowded, politicized refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. International negotiators agree that the issue of refugees is one of the most intractable barriers to a peace agreement.
There is still time to avoid such an outcome in Iraq, provided that the Iraqi government and U.S. forces recognize the risks posed by the refugee crisis.
The mere presence of refugee camps destabilizes the government. Large numbers of people fleeing their homes show that the government cannot maintain law and order. Even counting the displaced has become a deeply politicized exercise, as evidenced by strenuous American denials of the 150,000 figure.
Refugee camps often provide a willing pool of recruits for militants. The experience of persecution unites the refugees and increases their vulnerability to extremist rhetoric. The refugees have fled, convinced that the government offers insufficient protection from their persecutors. As their exile drags on, many refugee men may consider joining a militia as the only solution to rebuilding their shattered lives.
Even if the refugees do not join militias, they risk sparking more violence. As a concentrated and vulnerable group, the displaced make easy targets for attackers. Although they fled their homes to escape conflict, their new accommodations may prove even more dangerous. Attacks on refugees could provoke a spiral of further displacement and sectarian war.
Refugee flows also increase the risk that conflict will spread across international borders. Iranians no doubt watch with growing concern as fellow Shiites flee their homes, bringing tales of religiously motivated terror. A large movement of Iraqi Shiites across the border to Iran could induce cross-border attacks. In the worst-case scenario, Iran might attempt to carve out a secure zone for Shiite refugees in Iraq. International war could result.
Ignoring the displacement risks a rapid escalation to a de facto partition. During the civil war in Bosnia, the combatants used ethnic cleansing to remake the map of Bosnia into ethnically "pure" mini-states. Once people had been displaced, the peace negotiators found it virtually impossible to re-establish ethnic integration.
In Iraq, the key to avoiding such an outcome is early recognition that displacement is not necessarily just a tragic byproduct of conflict. It may be a central strategy of the combatants. The longer the refugees remain displaced, the less likely they are to return home and reclaim their livelihoods. Instead, the camps will become slums in which desperate and angry young men turn to violence.
A common response to a refugee crisis is to stockpile tents and food supplies. Yet in Iraq, as elsewhere, merely providing humanitarian assistance to the displaced will only entrench the refugees in their new locations. In addition to caring for the refugees, the Iraqi government must quickly return them safely home. Such a solution requires a restoration of political order in the refugees' home communities. In the race to prevent full-scale civil war, ignoring the refugees could prove a fatal misstep.
Sarah Kenyon Lischer is an assistant professor of political science at Wake Forest University and the author of "Dangerous Sanctuaries: Refugee Camps, Civil War, and the Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid." Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.