The humanitarian and displacement situation in Iraq is one of the world’s most volatile and acute. Large waves of displacement date back to 1968, driven by a combination of factors including internal conflict, external intervention and political, ethnic and religious persecution. The latest wave of displacement began in late 2013, when ISIS began to take over large swaths of territory. At that point, 2.1 million people were already living in internal displacement as a result of previous conflicts. Floods and earthquakes also trigger displacement.
Return movements exceeded new displacements for the third year in a row in 2019. Around 104,000 new displacements and about 462,000 returns were recorded. How sustainable returns have been is questionable, however, given the lack of information on returnees’ conditions, the extent of damage to homes and basic infrastructure and the widespread presence of unexploded ordnance (UXO). Flooding triggered most of the 37,000 new disaster displacements recorded in 2019.
Average expected number of displacements per year – for sudden-onset hazards:
Conflict displacement in Iraq can be divided into four overlapping periods: the rise of ISIS and operations to retake territory from the group which began in late 2013; the years following the US invasion in 2003; the ensuing sectarian violence between 2006 and 2008; and the Saddam Hussein era.
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. ISIS’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 most recent displacement crisis. Following ISIS’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 ISIS 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 the city.
After the fall of Fallujah, ISIS launched a major offensive on Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest urban centre and capital of Ninewa governorate. 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 ISIS in December 2017, the number of new displacements has dropped to lows unseen since the start of the conflict.
Of the 104,000 new conflict displacements recorded in 2019, 88,014 were secondary displacements, primarily the result of insecurity in areas of displacement and attempts to return that failed, whether because of damaged homes, lack of services or both. Military operations against remaining ISIL pockets continued in 2019, in response to attacks against both government and civilian targets. This ongoing insecurity triggered the other 15,750 new displacements. There were 1.5 million people living in displacement as of the end of the year, many of them in the governorates of Dahuk, Erbil and Ninewa.
As many as 462,000 returns were recorded during the year, surpassing the number of new displacements for the third year in a row. Information about returnees’ conditions, however, suggests that only partial progress has been made toward durable solutions. Nor can all returns 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 ISIS. Camp closures and consolidations continued in 2019. Eleven were closed and five consolidated in the first six months of the year.
The pace of returns has not been as quick as previously expected as a number of obstacles exist for IDPs who want to return to towns liberated from ISIS. Many returnees found their homes damaged or destroyed and were exposed to the persistent dangers of UXO and mine contamination. 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 to ISIS.
Some IDPs have decided to remain in their areas of displacement until conditions improve as a result. Refugees returning from abroad are not systematically monitored, so it is unclear how many have come back or where to. Evidence suggests, however, that many return to a life of internal displacement.
With combat operations against ISIS 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 ISIS 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 and 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 governorate 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 riddled with continuous security incidents, and renewed conflict cannot be ruled out. Government efforts to ensure justice and the rule of law and assist to those most in need are vital if the country is to be stabilised. Insecurity and social unrest persist, however, and the pace of returns slowed in 2019 as a result. The government has set a goal of returning all IDPs to their places of origin by the end of 2020, but many home areas are still insecure and lack basic services, rendering returns unsustainable.
In such circumstances, the closure of more than ten camps in 2019 led to the secondary displacement of many IDPs, whether to other camps or urban and peri-urban areas where they live in even more precarious conditions. The loss of civil documentation is also a considerable obstacle to IDPs’ efforts to overcome their vulnerabilities, including their access to legal protection and basic services. Of the 462,000 people reported to have returned in 2019, we estimate that 456,000 achieved partial solutions to their displacement, but 6,000 ended up in displacement again despite their efforts to re-establish their lives in their home areas.
More than three-quarters of the country’s IDPs have been displaced for more than three years, further aggravating their vulnerabilities. Many obstacles remain to their achieving durable solutions and new challenges are emerging, which reinforces the need to step up peacebuilding and reconstruction efforts.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM)’s displacement tracking matrix provides figures for IDPs in Iraq. It publishes bimestrial datasets on IDPs and returnees. IOM also launched a return index in September 2018 to measure the severity of conditions in return areas, and an emergency 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.