The humanitarian and displacement situation in Iraq is one of the most severe and volatile in the world. Large waves of displacement in the country have been tracked dating back to 1968. Historically, displacement in Iraq has been driven by a combination of internal armed conflict, external intervention, and political, ethnic or religious affiliation persecution. Following the defeat of ISIL in Iraq, 2017 was a year in which the number of returns exceeded new displacements in the country for the first time.
Internal displacement caused by conflict in Iraq can be divided into four periods: the current displacement crisis with the rise of ISIL and retaking operations which began in late 2013, displacement prompted by the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, displacement caused by ensuing sectarian violence in 2006-2008 and earlier protracted displacement caused by conflict related primarily to government policies under Saddam Hussein.
The fragmentation of Iraq began during Hussein’s rule, which weakened national governmental institutions such as the army and led to the rise of militias. The US intervention further increased fragmentation within the country. The growth of armed groups resulted in part from years of political marginalisation of Sunnis. In particular, the rapid expansion of ISIL was a result of the Sunni insurgency and the power vacuum left by the collapse of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF).
By the end of 2013, before the start of the current displacement crisis caused by the rise of ISIL, 2.1 million people remained displaced. Following the rapid spread of ISIL across major regions in Iraq and intense clashes between the ISF and NSAGs, displacement reached its peak at 2.2 million newly displaced people, the largest number of new displacements recorded worldwide in 2014. An example of large-scale displacement occurred in April 2014 during the battle for control of Fallujah ‒ captured by ISIL in January 2014 ‒ which displaced 520,000 people. Daily battles and clashes, along with airstrikes carried out by the international coalition, restricted the movement of displaced people and worsened the security situation in Fallujah province.
After the fall of Fallujah, ISIL launched a major offensive and captured Mosul, the central city of Ninewa province and the second-largest city in Iraq, on 10 June 2014. ISIL retained control of the city until government forces launched an offensive to retake the eastern part of the city on 17 October 2016. The operation lasted nine months, ending in July 2017 after having led to the displacement of over a million people, almost the entire population of Mosul. The city was heavily damaged during the long battle with a near complete destruction of basic service infrastructure.
The majority of the approximately 2.6 million people living in displacement in Iraq as of the end of 2017 were concentrated in the provinces of Ninewa, Dahuk, Erbil and Salah al-Din. Most new displacements in 2017 were caused by the retaking of Mosul and other areas previously held by ISIL, notably Hawija and Shirqat.
As many as 1.85 million returns were recorded for 2017, surpassing the number of new displacements for the first time. The majority of these returns took place in Ninewa, Anbar and Salah al-Din governorates. However, not all these returns can be considered voluntary. For example, between October 2017 and January 2018, thousands of people were evicted from camps and forced to return by the government which imposed return deadlines for people living in previously ISIL-held territories.
As of August 2018, IOM has recorded over 4 million IDP returns. However, it is unclear what percentage of those returnees have been able to reach durable solutions in their place of origin or elsewhere, partly as a result of widespread damage to housing. Many of these returnees found their homes partially or totally destroyed and were exposed to the persistent dangers of unexploded ordinance and mine contamination. Meanwhile, refugees returning from abroad are not systematically monitored, so it is unclear how many have returned and where they have returned to. However, evidence shows that many are returning to internal displacement.
More generally, despite the high numbers of returns, a number of barriers exist for IDPs and returning refugees wanting to return to their areas of origin. Among them are lack of security, including the presence of explosive hazards, severely disrupted services, destroyed homes and lack of livelihood opportunities. At times, IDPs have tried to go home but were delayed or blocked by local authorities for not having the required documentation. An IOM study on this issue showed that Sunni Arab males were the most likely group to be blocked from returning, due to fears over their potential affiliation with ISIL. Perceived ISIL-affiliation also leads to fear of reprisal attacks, as well as discrimination.
With combat operations against ISIL officially ended, the emphasis now will be on post-conflict recovery and reconstruction, as IDPs return home. As many as two million Iraqis are likely to return home in 2018. Analysis by the Iraqi Ministry of Planning and the World Bank estimates that the reconstruction of Iraq will take ten years and cost over 88 billion USD. Since many of the battles against ISIL were fought in cities, such as Fallujah and Mosul, rebuilding urban systems will be of great importance to ensure sustainable returns.
The first step in securing areas of return is rubble clearance, demining and clearing unexploded ordinance. Then, restoring basic service infrastructure (water, electricity, sewage) and reviving markets will be key to ensuring sustainable returns. Large-scale efforts are underway to restore these services. Schools and health centres have also been severely damaged and need rehabilitation. For example, only half of the health facilities in Ninewa are fully functional and in 2017 alone, 150 schools were damaged or destroyed there. Some 3.2 million children do not attend school regularly.
The current situation in Iraq can be described as one of fragile peace, and renewed conflict cannot be ruled out. Government efforts to ensure the rule of law and justice, as well as assistance to those most in need, will be crucial to ensuring the stabilisation of post-conflict Iraq.
The IOM DTM programme provides IDP estimates for Iraq. It publishes bi-weekly updates and also provides an Emergency Tracking dashboard to monitor sudden displacement or return movements triggered by specific crises such as major offensives, which is updated almost daily. IDMC has high confidence in the data for Iraq.
|Displacement type||New Displacement (Flow)||IDPs (Stock)|
|Geographical disaggregation||Admin 2 or more||Admin 2 or more|
|Geographical coverage||All relevant areas covered||All relevant areas covered|
|Frequency of reporting||More than once a month||More than once a month|
|Disaggregation on sex||No||No|
|Disaggregation on age||No||No|
|Data triangulation||No Triangulation||No Triangulation|
|Data on settlement elsewhere||No||No|
|Data on returns||Yes||Yes|
|Data on local integration||No||No|
|Data on deaths||No||No|
|Data on births||No||No|
IDMC estimates are based on IOM DTM assessments. The new displacements figure was calculated by adding the positive differences between the stock figures as well as by adding movements which occurred between the DTM rounds that were not captured in the stock figures. A large majority of new displacements in 2017 was triggered by the Iraqi army’s advances against ISIL, primarily the Mosul offensive.