Time to Rethink Approach to Iraq’s Displacement Crisis

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Editor’s Note: This opinion on the the humanitarian crisis affecting millions of Iraqis following fighting between ISIS and the Iraqi army was originally published on CNN’s Global Public Square.

In a scene reminiscent of Iraq’s 2006-2008 displacement crisis, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are again fleeing violent conflict for perceived safer areas. Indeed, more than 1.2 million Iraqis have been displaced since fighting erupted in Anbar Province between Sunni insurgents and the Iraqi army at the start of this year, a situation dramatically worsened by the lightning advances of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Sadly, this mass displacement looks like it will be even more complicated than the previous one.

For a start, ISIS fighters have quickly and brutally taken over large swathes of territory in order to establish an Islamic Caliphate straddling Syria and Iraq. Taking advantage of widespread discontent among the local Sunni population, the group is fighting an open sectarian war against the Shia-led government in Baghdad. As it consolidates its powerbase, ISIS is demanding that Muslims pledge allegiance to its movement, live according to its harsh interpretation of Islam, and wage international jihad.

Iraqi security forces are responding with a fierce military offensive aimed both at defending Baghdad and regaining control of Mosul and Tikrit. But the escalation in violence – open fighting, insecurity, and numerous road blockades – means that national and international humanitarian agencies can’t reach those in need. 

With key land routes to the south now controlled by militants, more than 300,000 Iraqis from Ninewa, Diyala, and Salah al-Din Provinces have sought refuge in neighboring Kurdistan. While this number includes many Sunni Arabs – usually government loyalists – a large portion of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the Kurdish region belong to the various ethnic and religious minorities of northern Iraq: Christians, Shia Turkmen, Shabak, Yazidis.

Most minorities are now dreading returning to their communities now that ISIS has launched what amounts to an ethnic cleansing campaign. In the towns of Tal Afar and Bashir, for example, the group is reported to have executed minorities, destroyed Shi’ite places of worship, looted homes, as well as raped and imposed forced marriages on women.

More than one million Iraqis displaced by violence in 2006-08 have yet to find lasting solutions. Repeated crises have created layers of displacement within Iraq.

The reality is that the present crisis simply compounds earlier waves of displacement, both within Iraq and in the region. More than one million Iraqis displaced by violence in 2006-08 have yet to find lasting solutions. Repeated crises have created layers of displacement within Iraq: the concerns of 220,000 Syrian refugees are compounded by the tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees in Syria who have recently returned home. Even among more recent IDPs, over 80 percent of recently internally displaced persons surveyed recently said they have been forced to flee more than once.

These layers of displacement complicate solutions in the wider region. The Middle East has a long history of displacement, but although hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have in the past managed to flee to neighboring countries, few Iraqis are now likely to seek safety in war-shattered Syria, while Jordan is overwhelmed with refugees.

Even within Iraqi Kurdistan, authorities have started to impose tight security restrictions at checkpoints with the Iraqi central state. Only families, or those with a resident sponsor, are allowed to cross into Kurdish territory – usually with a seven-day residency permit. Many single men are being turned away or even struggling to enter the region in order to fly south to Basra out of Erbil airport.

A final difference with earlier displacement is simply that the domestic and international situations have changed. In mid-June, following the withdrawal of the Iraqi army, Kurdish Peshmerga forces took control over the disputed city of Kirkuk and wide areas in Diyala and Mosul, expanding Kurdish territory by as much as 40 percent, and Kurdish President Massoud Barzani is now calling for a referendum on the independence of these regions from Baghdad.

While the Peshmerga are doing what they can to protect civilians from jihadi attacks, the populations in these contested areas are often cut off from basic services and assistance. The central government has pledged to provide 300,000 Iraqi dinars ($250) for displaced families for the next six months. But with Kurdistan and Iraq’s central government at a political standoff – over oil exports, the payment of salaries, and now the future of Kirkuk – it’s unlikely that this support will materialize anytime soon.

At the international level, the displacement of a million people in a few months would normally trigger an all-hands-on deck emergency response. But with the ongoing situations in Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, to name a few, the international humanitarian system is reeling. Even as the United Nations was appealing for $312 million to support the newly displaced in Iraq, it was issuing a new appeal for $3.24 billion for the Syria regional response, despite only a fraction of the original Iraq request having been raised.

All this suggests that it is time to look for new solutions. 

Saudi Arabia’s recent pledge of $500 million should enable the United Nations to do much more to address the present humanitarian crisis and assist the Iraqi government with experienced personnel. But while the Iraqi people are to be commended for their generosity and hospitality, it is clear that even this has limits. Practical support, not just words, is needed to help the country cope with this crisis.