Returns to Iraq: Questions and More Questions

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

December 19, 2008


Displacement in Iraq is massive. According to the latest figures, 2.8 million Iraqis are displaced within their country — most displaced since 2006 — and 2 million Iraqis live in neighboring countries. One in five Iraqis is thus living outside their own communities. Patterns of displacement have corresponded to levels of violence in the country, with the peak of displacement between June and September 2006 while less than 1 percent were displaced in 2008.[1]

As violent incidents have decreased in Iraq and as US combat troops prepare to withdraw (by June 2009 from Iraq’s cities) expectations are growing that Iraqis will return to their communities in growing numbers. In fact, UN officials and political leaders in Iraq, the region, and the US have always expected that return will be the durable solution for Iraqi IDPs and refugees. Little serious consideration has been given to other options.

For example, on 11 November 2008, at a conference in Jordan, the Jordanian Foreign Minister Salah Bashir said “We all, Iraq and neighboring countries as well as the international community, have a top priority to create suitable circumstances for the return of Iraqi refugees to their country.” The conference concluded that the solution to the Iraqi refugees issue lies in their return home. “Any other solution remains temporary and partial. Host countries and international organizations should encourage Iraqi refugees to go home voluntarily.”[2] In late November, EU countries agreed to host “on a voluntary basis” up to 10,000 Iraqi refugees. In reporting this decision, French immigration minister, Brice Hortefeux noted that Iraqi officials had called upon the Europeans not to encourage emigration. “On the contrary, our objective is to get people to come back to Iraq.”[3] High Commissioner Antonio Guterres said the returns thus far are an ‘encouraging sign’ and that it is ‘clear that the security situation has improved.”[4] UNHCR spokesman, Ron Redmond reported that the return of some Iraqis illustrates the “increasing confidence that it is possible to go home” and that “once you get that sort of momentum going, you will see more and more refugees going back.”[5]

Pressure and expectations are thus growing that the displaced will return to their communities soon. By all indicators, overall security in Iraq is improving. For example, the number of civilian casualties has decreased from around 3500 per month in January 2007 to less than 500 per month in September 2008.[6] There seems to be an expectation that security will continue to improve, elections will bring about political stability, that the vast majority of the refugees and internally displaced will return home in large numbers and that the displacement problem will be over.[7]

I’d like to begin my presentation by reviewing a few of the lessons learned from other large-scale displacement situations, then summarize the current state of Iraqi returns and raise some key questions to consider before we rejoice that the war is over, that people can go home, and that we can get back to business as usual.

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[1] Of the 2.8 million IDPs, 1.2 million were displaced before 2006 and almost 1.6 million between 2006 and 2008. Also see: IDP Working Group, ‘Internally Displaced Persons in Iraq – Update,’ June 2008.


[3] Valentina Pop, “EU countries pledge to host 10,000 Iraqi refugees,”

[4] Joe Sterling, “UN gears up for return of displaced Iraqis,”

[5] Joe Sterling, “UN gears up for return of displaced Iraqis,”

[6] Brookings Institution, Iraq Index, 11 December 2008, p. 5.

[7] See however, Kenneth Pollack, “Passing the Baton: An Obama Administration Takes on the Challenge of Iraq,” Right Side News, 12 December 2008,