News Release

The Internally Displaced People of Iraq: The Political Fault Lines of the Country

Among the legacies Saddam Hussein would leave any successor are the one million or more forcibly displaced persons who remain within the borders of Iraq. Over the past thirty years, the government of Iraq has relied upon a policy of deliberate expulsion of people from their homes in order to punish and subdue recalcitrant populations (i.e., the Kurds and Shiites), secure valuable land and oil-rich areas (i.e., Kirkuk, southern marshes), and stamp out political opposition. As a result, an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 persons are displaced in the North and an estimated 300,000 in the Center/South.

A new 55-page study, The Internally Displaced People of Iraq, published by the Brookings Institution-SAIS Project on Internal Displacement, points out that these forcibly displaced persons represent “the political fault lines of the country.” According to the authors, John Fawcett and Victor Tanner, addressing the problems of these internally displaced people will have to be a priority for any government of Iraq that aspires to stable and democratic rule.

The main victims of state expulsion policies are members of the Kurdish minority in the North and members of the substantial Shiite majority in the Center/South, including the Marsh Arabs. But also affected are the smaller Turkmen and Assyrian minorities.

Although the original homes of most of those displaced in the North are within the confines of the Kurdistan Regional Government, they cannot return to their homes because of the Iraqi army’s widespread destruction of their villages, the planting of landmines, or continued hostility between Kurdish factions. According to the study, an eventual solution for this group will lie in de-mining, rebuilding the countryside, and the effective resettlement of the displaced in cities.

Even more challenging will be finding solutions for those expelled from Kirkuk, both an oil-rich area and Iraq’s breadbasket. Prior to the government’s campaign to “Arabize” the area, Kurds and Turkmen comprised the majority, and Assyrians lived there, too. Among the study’s suggestions are a population census, creation of an official body to put together property records, a compensation fund for those arbitrarily dismissed from oil field positions, and an organized return program.

Other recommendations in the study focus on the Shiites forcibly displaced in the Center/South and the Marsh Arabs of the lower Tigris and Euphrates rivers, most of whose habitat has been deliberately destroyed by Iraqi government campaigns. Recommendations include return and resettlement programs, environmental surveys, and a compensation scheme.

Overall, the study urges the United Nations to devote greater attention to the most vulnerable parts of the Iraqi population, the internally displaced. Although the Oil-for-Food Program generates $6 billion a year, the study finds that UN agencies have insufficiently targeted the displaced. More than 400,000 displaced persons in the North are reported to live in “collective centers,” many in an advanced state of decay with insufficient infrastructure. A further 57,000 live in barracks, including more than 6,000 still in tents. More than 50,000 in the North are without access to health centers. The study calls for more targeted use of Oil-for-Food funds to help the displaced, special visits by UN officials to assess the conditions of the displaced, the publication of data on the displaced, and the designation of a UN focal point for displaced persons in Iraq. It calls upon UN officials to be more “outspoken” in demanding access to and protection of the displaced, especially in the Center/South as well as prevention of new expulsions. It says, “The international community and its institutional embodiment, the United Nations, have an obligation to meet the needs of the internally displaced Iraqis, and to seek to stem further displacement.”

The study is part of a series of publications and activities by the Brookings-SAIS Project on Internal Displacement designed to focus attention on internally displaced persons in areas largely closed off from the view of the international community. The two authors are experts in humanitarian issues. John Fawcett has worked for more than twenty years in the private sector for groups engaged with humanitarian assistance and human rights, including the International Rescue Committee and the International Crisis Group. Victor Tanner is also an experienced aid worker and teaches Humanitarianism, Aid, and Politics at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

About Brookings

The Brookings Institution is a nonprofit organization devoted to independent research and policy solutions. Its mission is to conduct high-quality, independent research and, based on that research, to provide innovative, practical recommendations for policymakers and the public.