Remembering Iraq’s Displaced

Looking at the past 10 years of Iraq’s history through the lens of displacement reveals a complex — and sobering — reality. Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, humanitarian agencies prepared for a massive outpouring of Iraqi refugees. But this didn’t happen. Instead a much more dynamic and complex form of displacement occurred. First, some 500,000 Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) who had been displaced by the Saddam Hussein regime returned to their places of origin. Then, in the 2003 to 2006 period, more than a million Iraqis were displaced as sectarian militias battled for control of specific neighborhoods. In February 2006, the bombing of the Al-Askaria Mosque and its violent aftermath ratcheted the numbers of IDPs up to a staggering 2.7 million. In a period of about a year, five percent of Iraq’s total population fled their homes and settled elsewhere in Iraq while an additional 2 million or so fled the country entirely. It is important to underscore that this displacement was not just a by-product of the conflict, but rather the result of deliberate policies of sectarian cleansing by armed militias. 

The internally displaced were the most vulnerable — and perhaps the clearest sign of the success of sectarian cleansing as entire neighborhoods were transformed. Sunnis and Shiites alike moved from mixed communities to ones where their sect was the majority. And while the displacement of Sunnis and Shiites was massive, proportionately the displacement of religious minorities was even more sweeping in effect.

Those who couldn’t find shelter with families or friends, or without the resources to rent lodging, occupied public buildings and built informal settlements (slums) on the outskirts of Baghdad and throughout the country. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi IDPs lived — and continue to live — in these informal settlements where living conditions are harsh and the threat of eviction is constant. This large-scale internal displacement also increased the pressure on the Iraqi government to provide basic services such as health, education, sanitation, electricity, food, and shelter.

As of September 2012, Iraq’s Ministry of Displacement and Migration (MoDM) reported that there were still over 1.3 million IDPs. (However, if the earlier figures of 2.7 million were correct, one wonders what has happened to the other 1.4 million. Have they all truly integrated into their new communities or moved elsewhere in the country, or simply slipped further under the radar screen?) One of the few international agencies still monitoring displacement in Iraq, the International Organization for Migration, reports that few of today’s IDPs expect to ever return to their homes. In fact, the percentage of those expressing a wish to return to their homes has dropped from 45 percent in 2006 to six percent in 2012, mostly because of the lack of security. And the sectarian dimension remains alive and well. Provincial political leaders view potential returns of IDPs through a sectarian lens, seeing returns of particular groups in terms of their impact on the communitarian makeup of their province and the balance of power between different communities.

For those who do want to return to their homes, the complex and extremely bureaucratic question of getting their property back is complicated and will, in the best of cases, take years. The Iraqi MoDM wants to “close the displacement file” by finding solutions for those displaced and has offered cash enticements to encourage people to return to their communities. But finding durable solutions for IDPs isn’t so easy in Iraq, particularly given the difficult economic conditions. As the former Representative of the Secretary-General on the Human Rights of IDPs, Walter Kaelin, said two years ago, resolving displacement in Iraq is a political imperative, a development challenge, and a vital issue for reconciliation and peacebuilding.

While IDPs face difficult and uncertain living conditions inside Iraq, Iraqi refugees seeking safety in neighboring countries have faced their own vulnerabilities. With the exception of Palestinian Iraqis, the Iraqis who fled to neighboring countries have not lived in camps, but are dispersed within communities. This has made it difficult to accurately estimate their numbers, assess their needs, and deliver assistance. The Syrian government estimated that a million Iraqis had crossed into its territory and Jordan reported that it was hosting half a million Iraqis. However, the number registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and receiving assistance was far lower. Host governments have been generous in allowing the Iraqis to enter their countries but those policies have been ambiguous and the Iraqis have never had formal refugee status. (None of the governments hosting large numbers of Iraqis is a signatory to the 1951 U.N. Convention on Refugees.) Some of the Iraqis are legal residents. In some countries, they are registered but not allowed to work. Many Iraqis have gone back and forth to Iraq in circular migration patterns — for example, to check on property or collect pensions.

The latest figures, based on government estimates, are that there are 1,428,308 refugees of Iraqi origin in Jordan and Syria of whom only 135,000 receive assistance from the UNHCR. Since the numbers peaked in 2009, some Iraqis have returned to Iraq. According to the UNHCR, an estimated 550,000 Iraqis returned to the country between 2008 and 2011, but most weren’t able to return to their homes and instead joined the rank of IDPs. And some Iraqis have been resettled outside the region: more than 85,000 Iraqi refugees over the past decade — 72 percent of whom have gone to the United States. Surprisingly, more than 3,000 Iraqis were resettled out of Syria last year — a testament to the courageous UNHCR staff in Damascus and to the desperation of Iraqis wanting to escape the conflict in Syria. Refugee resettlement has worked, but it has been a lengthy and bureaucratic process; in some cases the enhanced security procedures have led to delays stretching for years.

Today Iraqi refugees throughout the region face dwindling donor support, particularly as the needs of Syrian refugees increase. For the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who remain in Syria, the situation is particularly dire. Some have been displaced within Syria. Some Iraqis have moved to other countries in the region (though they have faced an uncertain welcome by governments facing new inflows of Syrians.) Many — perhaps 100,000 — Iraqis have chosen to return to Iraq in the past year (though given the violence in Syria, it is hard to see this as a voluntary decision). Those that have returned to Iraq have either congregated in a hastily-constructed camp along the Iraq-Syrian border (which has often been closed) or have simply become IDPs.

Most of those who fled from their homes in Iraq — whether because of the atrocities of the Hussein regime or the violence of sectarian conflict — left their homes quickly. The journeys to other Iraqi towns or across borders to neighboring countries took hours or days, or in some cases, a few weeks. Many expected that the displacement was temporary and when things settled down, they would return. It’s now been 10 years — six years since the mass displacement triggered by the February 2006 bombing — and solutions, safe and lasting solutions, appear as distant as ever. And there is little international pressure or attention on the Iraqi refugees and IDPs anymore. Perhaps 3 million people — 10 percent of Iraq’s population — remain displaced. And forgotten.