There is a lot of talk these days about the prospects for the large-scale return of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) to Iraq. More than four million Iraqis have been displaced, either internally as IDPs or externally as refugees. Most fled their communities since the US invasion in 2003 and especially in the aftermath of the sectarian violence that erupted after the bombing of the al-Askari mosque in Samarra in February 2006. While the Iraqi and US governments, policymakers in the region, and humanitarian actors assume that most will return to Iraq in the near future, experience with other displacement crises indicates that return will be neither automatic nor straightforward.
Following a brief overview of displacement and current trends in returns to Iraq, this paper suggests a number of lessons learned from other large-scale return movements which may be helpful in thinking about returns to Iraq. The paper then looks at the relationship between the physical return of displaced populations (both refugees and IDPs) and the more difficult question of their reintegration into Iraqi society. The paper argues that the way in which return and reintegration are carried out will have major implications for Iraq’s future political and social development.