Options for a Larger German Role to Help with the Iraqi Displacement Crisis

Magdalena Kirchner

Magdalena Kirchner, Ph.D. is a political scientist and conflict researcher, currently a Transatlantic Postdoctoral Fellow in International Relations and Security (TAPIR) at the RAND Corporation in Arlington, VA. Previously, she held research positions at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) and the German Council of Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Berlin. Since 2009, she has co-edited the Security Policy Reader, published by the Federal Ministry of Defense. Throughout 2014 and 2015, she worked as Senior Project Coordinator at the German Atlantic Association and was a member of the extended board of Women In International Security Germany. Since 2015, she has served as Vice President of the Youth Atlantic Treaty Association, whose German chapter she has headed since 2014. Magdalena studied Political Science and History in Heidelberg and Aarhus, DK, and holds a doctoral degree from the University of Heidelberg. Before relocating to Berlin in 2012, she was a lecturer at the Institute for Political Science at the University of Heidelberg, head of the Working Group “Conflicts in the Middle East and Maghreb” of the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research, and gained international work experience at think tanks and research institutions in Turkey, Israel and Jordan.

She is a 2016-2017 participant in AICGS’ project “A German-American Dialogue of the Next Generation: Global Responsibility, Joint Engagement,” sponsored by the Transatlantik-Programm der Bundesrepublik Deutschland aus Mitteln des European Recovery Program (ERP) des Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi).

Addressing civilians’ needs in Iraq remains a key task of the U.S.-led Global Coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) especially amid ongoing military operations and fears of a post-ISIL vacuum in areas previously held by the group. Encouraging safe return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) is at the core of this task. Two years into Germany’s “Munich Consensus” for taking more international responsibility, could Berlin take on a leading role in tackling it?

From a German perspective, the escalation of violence in Iraq since January 2014 affected not only key partners like Turkey or the KRG—it also caused more than 120,000 Iraqis to seek asylum in Germany. As their return will primarily depend on local security conditions, Berlin does have a strong interest in a stable Iraq that goes beyond its humanitarian and counter-terrorism commitments. With the full adjustment of Germany’s stabilization toolbox being still under review, and combat operations still ongoing, taking the lead in addressing the Iraqi IDP-crisis would be an initial but vital contribution to rebuilding stability in the region.

Some 15,000 people fled Iraq’s Nineweh region in the first two weeks of the Mosul offensive in October 2016 alone. Since early 2014, more than three million civilians have fled their homes. Mass displacement has already led to substantial demographic changes, e.g., by driving thousands of Christians and other non-Sunni minorities out of multi-religious areas like Mosul. Organizations like the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) have warned that this fragmentation could hinder the restoration of a territorial status quo ante and undermine reconciliation. A recent report by the Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights found that Sunni Arab IDPs often faced discrimination and harassment in Shiite and Kurdish areas due to suspicion they supported ISIL. Residents returned to cities liberated from ISIL, such as Makhmur, Jalawla or Tikrit, only hesitantly because security forces, militias, or stayees were occupying their properties, many of which had been looted or even destroyed.

Since March 2015, Germany has held the co-chair of the Counter-ISIL Coalition’s stabilization working group. At the group’s inaugural meeting, it identified the provision of essential services to be of high importance, also when it comes to displacement issues. Services matter not only in themselves, but also because the restoration of health, water, and electricity, as well as the rebuilding of critical infrastructure, which can generate employment and other incentives for return.

Germany has recently established tools to address exactly these types of challenges. It is time to put them to wider use. The Federal Foreign Office (FFO) has set up a new Directorate-General for Crisis Prevention, Stabilization, and Post-Conflict Reconstruction (DGS) with more than 100 employees and a €400 million increase to the FFO’s 2016 budget. Berlin had made use of these additional resources to support local integration of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. They should also be used to take the lead in coalition efforts to facilitate return in liberated areas inside Iraq.

As of today, only a third of Iraq’s IDPs have returned to their cities of origin, according to the IDMC. As the DGS provides a pool of civil crisis management experts, it could also support Iraqi efforts to develop a much-needed strategy for IDP return. In addition, if the security situation obstructs resettlement in some areas, German assistance might be used to ease the burden on communities especially in Anbar, Baghdad, and Dahuk, which host the largest number of IDPs. Germany could also provide technical and financial support and legal advice for transitional justice and property restitution and reparation programs.

Finally, Berlin could make use both of its recently institutionalized conflict mediation expertise provided by the DGS and enhanced political, military, and economic cooperation with Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to increase its diplomatic leverage over local authorities, and thereby strengthen their adherence to international human rights law. In the end, only negotiated and respected agreements on the ground can prevent poor returns on German stabilization investments and create sustainable incentives for untroubled reception or returns.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.