The humanitarian and displacement situation in Iraq is one of the world’s most volatile and acute. Large waves of displacement have been tracked dating back to 1968, driven by a combination of factors, including internal armed conflict, external intervention and political, ethnic and religious persecution. The latest wave of displacement began in late 2013, when ISIL began to take over large swaths of territory. At that point, 2.1 million people were already living in internal displacement due to previous conflicts. Floods and earthquakes also cause displacement in Iraq.
For the second year in a row, return movements exceeded new displacements in 2018, with 150,000 new displacements recorded and about 1.1 million returns estimated. However, the lack of information on returnee conditions, damage to homes and basic infrastructure and the widespread presence of unexploded ordnances puts into question the sustainability of those returns. Flooding and drought triggered most of the 69,000 new displacements associated with disasters in 2018.
Average expected number of displacements per year – for sudden-onset hazards:
What causes displacement?
Internal displacement associated with conflict in Iraq can be divided into four overlapping periods: the current crisis triggered by the rise of ISIL and retaking operations which began in late 2013; protracted displacement following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003; displacement caused by ensuing sectarian violence in 2006-2008; and earlier protracted displacement related primarily to government policies under Saddam Hussein.
Iraq's fragmentation began under Hussein's rule, which weakened national institutions such as the army and led to the rise of militias. The US intervention aggravated and accelerated the process, the rise of armed groups resulting in part from years of political marginalisation of the country's Sunni minority. ISIL’s rapid expansion was also a result of the Sunni insurgency and the power vacuum left by the collapse of the Iraqi security forces.
There were already 2.1 million IDPs in Iraq as of the end of 2013, before the start of the current displacement crisis. Following ISIL’s rapid expansion and intense fighting with the security forces, new displacements peaked in 2014 at 2.2 million, the highest figure worldwide for that year. The battle for control of the city of Fallujah in April 2014, which ISIL had captured three months earlier, in itself triggered 520,000 new displacements. Daily ground battles and airstrikes restricted IDPs’ movement and aggravated the security situation in Fallujah.
After the fall of Fallujah, ISIL launched a major offensive on Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and capital of Ninewa province. It captured the city in June 2014 and held it until government forces launched an offensive to retake it in October 2016. The operation lasted nine months, and by the time it ended in July 2017 more than a million people, almost the entire population of Mosul, had been displaced and the city’s basic infrastructure all but destroyed.
Since the official end of the war against ISIL in December 2017, new displacement numbers have dropped to lows unseen since the start of the war, with 150,000 new displacements recorded in 2018. However, as of the end of 2018, almost 2 million people remain displaced.
Where and how do people move?
Of 150,000 new displacements recorded in 2018, 122,000 of them were secondary displacements, primarily due to insecurity in areas of displacement or as a result of a failed return attempt, lack of services and damaged houses. The remaining 28,000 IDPs were displaced for the first time due to ongoing insecurity. There were 2 million people living in displacement as of the end of the year, many of them concentrated in the provinces of Ninewa, Dahuk, and Erbil.
As many as 1.1 million returns were recorded during the year, surpassing the number of new displacements for the second year in a row. However, information about the conditions of return indicates that only partial progress has been made towards durable solutions. Additionally, not all returns can be considered voluntary. The government evicted thousands of people from camps in Anbar and Salah al-Din between October 2017 and January 2018 and forced them to return under deadlines imposed on people from territories previously held by ISIL.
The pace of returns has not been as quick as previously expected. Many returnees found their homes partially or totally destroyed and were exposed to the persistent dangers of unexploded ordinance and mine contamination. Given these conditions, some IDPs have decided to remain in areas of displacement until conditions improve. 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.
A number of obstacles exist for IDPs wanting to return to towns liberated from ISIL more generally. They include the damage and destruction of homes and infrastructure, lack of livelihood opportunities, fear of reprisal attacks, discrimination and violence from armed groups and the presence of UXO and landmines. Some IDPs have tried to return but were delayed or blocked by local authorities because they did not have the correct documentation. An IOM study on the issue shows that Sunni men were the most likely to be blocked from returning because of fears about their potential affiliation with ISIL.
What is life like for IDPs and communities hosting them?
With combat operations against ISIL officially over, attention turned to post-conflict recovery and reconstruction in 2018 and 2019. The Iraqi Ministry of Planning and the World Bank estimate that reconstruction will take ten years and cost more than $88 billion. Given that many of the battles against ISIL were fought in cities, rebuilding urban systems and reviving markets will be vital to ensuring that returns are sustainable.
The first steps, however, will be the clearance of rubble, landmines and UXO, and the restoration of water, electricity, sewage infrastructure. Schools and health centres have also been severely damaged. Only half of the health facilities in Ninewa are fully functional and 150 schools in the province were damaged or destroyed in 2017. Around 3.2 million children nationwide do not attend school regularly.
The current situation in Iraq can best be described as one of fragile peace, and renewed conflict cannot be ruled out. Government efforts to ensure justice and the rule of law and assist those most in need will be vital in stabilising the country.
Where does data on displacement come from and what are the main challenges?
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM)’s displacement tracking matrix provides figures for IDPs in Iraq. It publishes bi-weekly updates and also provides an emergency tracking dashboard to monitor sudden population movements triggered by specific crises such as major offensives, which is updated almost daily. We have high confidence in our estimates for Iraq.
IDMC’s estimate of the total number of IDPs in Iraq is based primarily on an analysis of data from IOM DTM assessments. This figure includes nearly two million people displaced by the country’s armed conflict since 2014 and 9,000 IDPs who returned in 2018 and are living with host families, in informal settlements or collective shelters.
IDMC’s estimate of the number of new displacements in 2018 includes 28,000 people displaced for the first time and 122,000 who were already displaced and were displaced again during the year. Based on its analysis of IOM DTM data, IDMC categorised more than a million reported returns as partial solutions because the returnees were living in hotels, rented accommodation or their former homes and still faced vulnerabilities related to their displacement.