On the Record

The Real Challenge of Internal Displacement in Iraq: The Future

Elizabeth Ferris

Good afternoon. I’ve been asked to speak about the next challenges of Iraq’s displacement crisis and would like to focus on internal displacement and particularly the security dimensions of internal displacement. I’ll also comment on what is likely to be a huge challenge: the return of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).

While largely absent from mainstream media coverage of the war, the needs of Iraqis displaced by the war have been a major concern to the humanitarian community. As I have argued elsewhere,[1] the security and humanitarian communities have largely talked past one another. Those concerned with humanitarian issues haven’t seriously considered security concerns of host governments and those concerned with security have rarely addressed refugee and displaced issues, except occasionally in terms of the need to ‘contain’ the spillover of Iraq’s problems in the region and to prevent the de-stabilization of host countries by the presence of refugees.[2] Although the security situation in Iraq has improved in recent months, the scale of internal displacement will have implications for future security in the country.

I am acutely aware of the risk in drawing the linkages between security implications and IDPs. There is a very real danger of shifting the focus from seeing IDPs in terms of their human rights and humanitarian needs to seeing them as threats to security. But it is important to recognize that governments have legitimate security concerns and humanitarian/human rights organizations need to be aware of these concerns and to respond in a manner which both holds governments accountable for protecting the rights of those displaced by violence and which minimizes security threats.

Around 1 million Iraqis who had been internally displaced under the Saddam Hussein regime remained displaced after the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Since then another 1.2 or 1.3 million Iraqis have been displaced within Iraq’s borders. People have left their homes because of sectarian violence, coalition military operations, and general insecurity. Since the bombing of the al-Askari mosque in February 2006, sectarian violence has become the leading cause of displacement.[3] Although data are incomplete, let me briefly summarize what we know about this internally displaced population:

  1. It is an urban population. Some 80% of the IDPs in the country are from Baghdad, many of whom have moved to other neighborhoods in the capital city.
  1. It is a national problem. Every one of Iraq’s 18 governorates has registered internally displaced persons. In looking at the central and southern Iraqi governorates, Baghdad hosts by far the greatest number of IDPs – over 360,000 of the one million plus that have become internally displaced since the Samarra bombings of February 2006.[4] This figure more or less parallels an earlier UNHCR Cluster F report which cites over 345,000 as of this past July.[5] This document shows that the bulk of recent IDPs are in the center of the country – not only in Baghdad but also Ninewa, Anbar, Diyala, Kirkuk, and Salah al-Din – they number over 560,000. The southern governates (which includes Babylon, Basrah, Diwaniya, Karbala, Missan, Muthanna, Najaf, Thi-Qar, and Wassit) host over 327,000 and the northern governorates (Dahuk, Erbil, and Sulaymaniyah) host over 157,000 of the post-February 2006 IDPs.[6] [Of course, the majority – around 800,000 – of the pre-war IDPs were (and most still are) residing in the northern governorates.]
  1. As in other IDP situations, some 80% of the IDPs are women and children. One of the consequences of the high Iraqi casualties in the last 4 years – the vast majority of whom have been male — has been the fact that many households are now headed by women in a context where female participation in the labor force has been low.
  1. The overwhelming majority of IDPs are not living in camps. They are renting houses, living with family and friends, or living in abandoned buildings. Only 1- 2 percent of IDPs are living in tented camps, but the pressure to establish more camps is growing – with serious security implications which I’ll discuss in a few minutes. The fact that Iraqi IDPs are living among the urban population and are not concentrated in camps is undoubtedly one of the reasons that they have received so little media attention.
  1. The displacement of Iraqis is taking place in a context of high unemployment, limited access to basic food rations, and standards of living that are lower than before the war. It was reported a few months ago that a majority of Iraqis do not have access to clean water or basic sanitation.[7] Shortages of electricity in some parts of the country cause serious hardships. Transportation within the country has become difficult as a result of the war; it’s dangerous for people to go to work when they have jobs and it’s difficult for businesses to keep going because of the difficulties in getting supplies. Although data are limited, it is thought that IDPs are more likely to be unemployed than those who are not displaced and less likely to be able to access the Public Distribution System (PDS) through which most Iraqis receive food rations. The greatest needs identified by Iraqi IDPs are shelter (for 71%), food (for 70%), and access to work (for 66%). IOM’s December 2007 report notes that with the start of winter, families are struggling with the additional burden of meeting rising fuel costs.[8]
  1. This has clear implications for families and friends who are hosting IDPs. Their resources are stretched by the presence of the displaced in their communities.
  1. Freedom of movement for Iraq’s IDPs, and for Iraqi citizens generally, is becoming limited. According to IOM, 10 of Iraq’s 18 governorates have closed their borders to IDPs, at least to those who do not originate from the governorate. They argue that their infrastructure and social services are stretched. Presently only eight out of eighteen governorates (Anbar, Baghdad, Diyala, Ninewa, Salah al-Din, Missan, Thi-Qar, and Wassit) continue to allow entry of people displaced from other governorates.[9]
  1. In most other large-scale situations of internal displacement, humanitarian NGOs and UN agencies provide assistance to IDPs. But humanitarian assistance inside Iraq is difficult. Most international agencies moved their international staff out of Iraq after the 2003 bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad. Assistance provided by coalition military and civilian forces is often viewed with suspicion. International and local humanitarian workers alike have been targeted by armed militias. Local staff of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are working valiantly, often from their homes, to assist needy Iraqis but their ability to move around the communities they serve is increasingly restricted.[10] The NGO Coordinating Committee in Iraq reports that humanitarian efforts are also hindered by politicized funding and overly bureaucratic distribution systems.[11] Local mosques are reportedly providing assistance to needy people in their communities.[12] There is a very real danger that the vacuum in humanitarian assistance will be filled by armed militias who provide relief as a way of increasing their control over territory.[13] When hospitals or clinics are controlled by a particular sectarian group, it makes it difficult for people from other groups to access medical care there. [14] Some international NGOs have considered returning to humanitarian operations inside Iraq, but it is still seen as simply too risky.[15] And the amount of humanitarian assistance has not been sufficient to meet the needs.[16] In Anbar province, for example, despite improvements in security, serious humanitarian challenges remain. Many IDPs do not have access to clean water, medicines, and in certain areas, food. There is a dire shortage of medical personnel, and a critical need for non-food items such as tents and blankets. The onset of winter has produced new concerns over the lack of available funds for fuel.[17]

Within this context, let me make several general observations about the relationship between internal displacement and security in Iraq.

  1. Internal displacement is both a consequence and a contributing factor to sectarian polarization. Internal displacement, as we have seen in conflicts in other parts of the world, is not an accidental by-product of the fighting, but rather a key strategy between armed groups seeking control of territory. The sectarian geography of Iraq is changing as a result of the displacement, with likely long-term consequences for the country.
  1. While it is easier (though more expensive) to provide public services in camp settings, there are very real security concerns about establishing camps on a large scale. If large camps were to be established, it is likely that they would be organized along sectarian lines, making them clear targets for attack by armed militias of other sectarian groups. Moreover, given the high unemployment and poverty rates in Iraq, large camps could become accessible places for recruitment of young men and children into militias and thus increase the already horrific violence in the country. It is likely that militias would take on the administration of the camps, controlling food distribution and access to services. As we have seen in other camp settings, relief items can be used to support militant groups.[18] The humanitarian community has generally taken the position that camps should be avoided at all costs, but there are increasingly few safe places for the displaced to go.
  1. The vulnerability of IDPs – particularly the need for jobs and money – makes IDPs susceptible to recruitment in militias who provide regular paychecks. Recent reports indicate that Iraqis are joining the insurgency because of a need for money – rather than ideological conviction. An article in the Washington Post ten days ago reported on an interview with a captured al-Qaeda in Iraq leader who said “I was out of work and needed the money. How else could I support my family?”[19] Although there is no evidence that IDPs are being recruited in a greater proportion than other Iraqis, the fact that they have less access to employment and to food rations makes them particularly vulnerable.
  1. The refugee exodus has meant even greater hardship for those who remain. The recent Oxfam/NCCI report, for example, estimates that 40 percent of the country’s professional class has left the country since 2003 and cites the Iraqi Medical Association’s report that 50% of the 34,000 doctors registered in 2003 have left the country.[20] Among the refugees, these are the people who are most likely to have the means, will, and capacities to remain outside their country. As one UNHCR official noted, “the ones who have left Iraq are its 2 million best and brightest.”[21]
  1. There is an obvious connection between internal and external displacement. When people can’t get the services they need internally, they will seek them in other countries. Before the Syrian border was largely closed to Iraqis in October 2007, our research revealed that many left Iraq for Syria because they could not get medical care at home. An Iraqi man reported, for example, that he feared that his pregnant wife would be unable to get to a clinic for the delivery and so they moved to Syria. Another reported that the lack of drugs to treat a family member’s cancer was his motivation for leaving the country.[22] The United States Catholic Conference of Bishops noted after a mission to the region that, “[…] with cancer and other maladies at uncommonly high levels, medical attention is an acute need for the refugee population.”[23] There are other reports as well that – before the Syrian-Iraqi border was effectively closed – increasing numbers of Iraqis were arriving with serious medical conditions,[24] which would seem to be an indication that people left the country because they could not get needed health services.
  1. There is another connection between external and internal displacement which is related to the return of refugees. In the last few months, there have been reports that refugees are voluntarily returning from Syria. There are conflicting reports about how many have returned. While the government indicates that more than 40,000 have returned since October, other estimates are considerably lower.[25]The Iraqi government and the US military forces maintain that people are returning because the security situation has improved dramatically. UNHCR and IOM, on the other hand, argue that most are returning because they face serious financial difficulties in Syria and increasingly restrictive visa policies. A UNHCR survey of 110 returning families found that 46% were returning because they could not afford to stay in Syria and 26% were leaving due to new visa rules. Only 14% were returning because of improved security. [26] Moreover, the Iraqi government has offered the inducement of an $800 grant to those who return.[27] There is a very real danger that the returning refugees will join the ranks of the internally displaced. Reports are fragmentary and anecdotal, but seem to suggest that a number of those returning are not going back to their homes and communities, but rather are living in areas where they feel safe, and particularly where they are not a sectarian minority. There is a danger that the refugee problem will become an internal displacement problem. And around 20% are returning to find that their homes have been destroyed or are occupied by other families.[28]
  1. I am also concerned that the return of a limited number of Iraqi refugees could shift attention away from the on-going needs of Iraqis living in neighboring countries. If donor governments were to perceive that the ‘refugee problem is over’ because people are going back, they might be less likely to fund humanitarian programs for Iraqi refugees. And that in turn, could increase the pressure on refugees to return before conditions are conducive to repatriation.
  1. Finally, although it usually gets little attention in the midst of conflict, property issues are key to both durable solutions for refugees and IDPs and to resolution of the conflict. One of the greatest obstacles to the return of refugees and especially IDPs is the issue of property restitution or compensation. Twelve years after the Dayton peace agreement, there are still 500,000 Bosnian refugees and IDPs for whom return is difficult, primarily because of property disputes and housing. And the research shows that conflicts over property are an important source of renewed conflict. Remember that in over half of all conflicts resolved by some kind of peace agreement, fighting breaks out again.[29] Property issues have turned out to be incredibly complex.

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What can be done to minimize the security risks of large numbers of internally displaced persons?

  • Ensuring that IDPs have livelihoods. This means ensuring that they have the documentation they need in order to work, to enroll their children in school, to access health services, and to receive food rations through the Public Distribution System and pensions to which they are entitled.
  • Urging the Iraqi government to incorporate the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement into national legislation and policies upholding the basic human rights of Iraqi IDPs, including freedom of movement and non-discrimination.
  • Encouraging Iraqi NGOs and international agencies to increase humanitarian assistance to both IDPs and host communities in the places where they are now living.
  • Resisting the temptation to establish IDP camps on a large-scale with the security problems these would bring and considering more creative ways of ensuring that IDPs have adequate shelter.
  • Ensuring that returning refugees are able to go back, whenever possible, to their own homes and that all returnees are supported to resume productive lives. This means that serious planning is needed to ensure that returning refugees do not become internally displaced persons and that returns do not overwhelm social services and infrastructure.
  • Taking measures to protect the property rights of displaced Iraqis. Specifically, the government should stress that all rights to property will be upheld and that those who are currently displaced will not be penalized for being away from their homes. Secondly, the government should implement a mechanism for displaced Iraqis to register their properties now in the expectation of having them returned at some point in the future.


[1]Elizabeth Ferris, “Security, Displacement and Iraq: A Deadly Combination.” The Brookings Institution, 27 August 2007. https://www.brookings.edu/papers/2007/0827humanrights_ferris.aspx 
[2] Daniel L. Byman and Kenneth M. Pollack, “Things Fall Apart: Containing the Spillover from an Iraqi Civil War.” The Brookings Institution, Analysis Paper No. 11, January 2007. https://www.brookings.edu/papers/2007/01iraq_byman.aspx
[3]Ashraf al-Khalidi and Victor Tanner, “Sectarian Violence: Radical Groups Drive Internal Displacement in Iraq,” Occasional Paper, Brookings Institution-University of Bern Project on Internal Displacement, October 2006.
[4] Ministry of Displacement and Migration, “Summary Results IDP Registration – February 2006 to November 2007: Edition 3 – Basic Tables and Statistics for post-February 2006 Internally Displaced Persons,” 21 November 2007. 
[5]Cluster F (UNHCR, IOM, UNICEF, WHO, WFP, UNAMI, UNOPS, UN-Habitat, UNFPA, UNDP, ILO and UNIDO), “Internally Displaced Persons in Iraq – Update,” 19 September 2007. 
[6]Ibid. 
[7]Oxfam, NCCI, “Rising to the Humanitarian Challenge in Iraq,” Briefing paper, July 2007.
[8] IOM Emergency Needs Assessments – Post February 2006 Displacement in Iraq: Biweekly Report, 1 December 2007. 
[9] International Organization for Migration, “Iraq Displacement – 2007 Mid-Year Review.” http://www.iom.int/jahia/webdav/shared/shared/mainsite/published_docs/studies_and_reports/midyear_review_iraq_2007.pdf 
[10]See for example, “Iraq: Aid work becoming more risky in Baghdad,” IRIN, 22 August 2007. http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/IRIN/5d3472e807f9397c54bc4c1978e690d0.htm 
[11] NCCI: Weekly Highlight 26 Apr 2007: Editorial. See also, NCCI officials quoted in UN-IRIN: “Bombs and Bureaucracy Behind Missing Medicines,” 22 May 2007.
[12]Greg Hansen, “Coming to Terms with the Humanitarian Imperative in Iraq,” Humanitarian Agenda 2015 Briefing Paper, Feinstein International Center, Tufts University, January 2007.
[13]Edward Wong and Damien Cave, “Baghdad District Is a Model, but Only for Shiites,” New York Times, 22 May 2007. UN-IRIN, “Iraq: Fighters Fill Humanitarian Vacuum,” 14 February 2007. UN-IRIN, “Iraq: Armed Groups Occupying Hospitals and Kidnapping Doctors,” 13 February 2007.
[14] Damien Cave, “In Baghdad, Sectarian Lines Too Deadly to Cross,” The New York Times, 4 March 2007.
[15] Missy Ryan, “War-weary aid groups weigh risk, need in Iraq,” Reuters, 21 November 2007.  http://www.reuters.com/article/middleeastCrisis/idUSRYA739414
[16] Sam Dagher, “Aid shrinks as Iraq’s internal refugee tally grows,” The Christian Science Monitor, 30 November 2007. 
[17] “More aid needed for the displaced in Anbar Province,” Reuters Alertnet, 3 December 2007. http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/IRIN/c30c649f698ef9507bcc35d9598b5699.htm
[18] See for example, Peter J. Hoffman and Thomas G. Weiss, Sword & Salve: Confronting new Wars and Humanitarian Crises. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, Publishers, 2006, pp. 103-111. For an example of the way in which militants have used distribution of water as a way of extortion, see www.iraqslogger.com/index.php/post/3834/Militants_Use_Water_as_Weapon 
[19] Amit R. Paley, “Iraqis Joining Insurgency Less for Cause than Cash,” Washington Post, 20 November 2007, p. 1.
[20]Oxfam and NGO Coordination Committee in Iraq, Rising to the Humanitarian Challenge in Iraq, July 2007, pps. 15, 12.
[21]Cited in Amira El Ahl, Volkhard Windfuhr, and Bernhard Zand, “Iraq’s Elite Fleeing in Droves,” Der Spiegel, 20 August 2007.
[22] Ashraf al-Khalidi, Sophia Hoffmann and Victor Tanner, “Iraqi Refugees in the Syrian Arab Republic: A Field-Based Snapshot,” Occasional Paper, Brookings Institution-University of Bern Project on Internal Displacement, June 2007.
[23] “Escaping Mayhem and Murder: Iraqi Refugees in the Middle East,” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, July 2007. http://www.usccb.org/mrs/Trip%20Report%20on%20Iraqi.pdf
[24] UNHCR reported that for the first half of 2007, one in six refugees who were interviewed in Syria had a serious medical condition. “Millions in Flight: The Iraqi Refugee Crisis,” Amnesty International, September 2007, p. 16.
[25] According to the Associated Press, “Officials in Iraq and Syria have said more than 46,000 refugees returned in October and the flow has continued this month. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees could not confirm the figures, but said more Iraqis were leaving Syria than arriving with a daily average of 1,500 departures compared with 500 arrivals.” Albert Aji, “Buses bring hundreds of Iraqis home,” The Washington Post, 27 November 2007.
[26]Julien Barnes-Dacey and Sam Dagher, “Returning from Syria, Iraqis question safety,” Christian Science Monitor, 28 November 2007. http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/1128/p06s01-wome.htm
[27] Haider Salahuddin ,“Iraqi refugees return to face uncertainty at home,” Reuters, 1 December 2007 http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/L30246588.htm
[28] Ibid.
[29] “Addressing Internal Displacement in Peace Processes, Peace Agreements and Peace-Building,” Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement, September 2007.

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