Minorities, Displacement and Iraq’s Future

Elizabeth Ferris and
Elizabeth Ferris
Elizabeth Ferris Former Brookings Expert, Research Professor, Institute for the Study of International Migration - Georgetown University
Kimberly Stoltz

December 23, 2008


It is no coincidence that many internally displaced persons and refugees are members of minority groups. In every region of the world, minorities have been repressed, killed and displaced by governments and other armed actors seeking to take over their territory, command their loyalty, and control their actions. Sometimes this has occurred in the context of nation-building as governments try to assert national control over areas traditionally ruled by minorities. Sometimes this has taken the form of expelling minorities from a given territory or transferring populations from one region to another to ensure that they do not threaten the regime. [1] Sometimes it has taken the form of ethnic cleansing, defined by some as “rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove from a given area persons of another ethnic or religious group.”[2] Sometimes minorities are displaced by state-sponsored attacks, as in the forced relocation of Kurds by the Saddam Hussein regime. Sometimes they are displaced by other ethnic groups seeking to reclaim land they once occupied, as in Kenya. Sometimes they are displaced by conflicts between minority groups seeking autonomy and government forces, as in Sri Lanka.

The 1951 Convention on Refugees recognizes persecution on the basis of five characteristics — race, ethnicity or nationality, religion, membership in a social group, or political opinion – as grounds for refugee status. All of these may be directly related to being an ethnic, religious, or other minority. Moreover, persecution because of political opinion often includes persecution because of opposition to the government in defense of one’s minority status. The definition of internally displaced person (IDP) as spelled out in the Guiding Principles is broader than that of refugees, referring to “persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border.”[3]

In 2001, the UN’s Commission on Human Rights expressed concern over “the growing frequency and severity of disputes and conflicts regarding minorities in many countries and their often tragic consequences, and that persons belonging to minorities are particularly vulnerable to displacement through, inter alia, population transfers, refugee flows and forced relocation.”[4]

This presentation analyzes the relationship between minorities and displacement, with a particular emphasis on the case of Iraq’s smaller minorities.

*An earlier version of this paper was presented to the “Dialogue on Iraqi Minorities,” conference organized by George Washington University,18 November 2008

[1] See Monica Duffy Toft. The Geography of Ethnic Violence: Identity, Interests, and the Indivisibility of Territory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003 for an interesting discussion of the relationship between territory and ethnic conflict.

[2] Hayden, Robert M. “Schindler’s Fate: Genocide, Ethnic Cleansing and Population Transfers. Slavic Review 55 (4) 1996, pp. 727-48.

[3] Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), February 1998.

[4] Commission on Human Rights concerning persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities, 2001.