There are approximately 2.8 million internally displaced Iraqis and 2 million that have fled to other countries. There were 1.2 million internal refugees in the country before 2006. After the bombing of the Shiite Samarra shrine in February 2006 that started the sectarian war, 1.6 million more were forced into internal exile. Only 1% of that number was displaced in 2008 however, showing the improved security situation. Most of those displaced after Samarra came from Baghdad, 64%, and Diyala, 19%. Central Iraq accounted for 58% of displacement, compared to 15% for the north and 27% for the south, whereas those two regions had the most internal refugees before the U.S. invasion due to Saddam's policies.
Post Feb. 2006
Displacement within and out of Iraq followed certain patterns. Sunnis moved from the Shiite south to central and western provinces, while Shiites left Sunnis areas in central and western Iraq for the south. Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, and Christians have all tried to enter Kurdistan because it offered more stability and less violence. There are also trends in Iraq's refugees. 55% of those registered by the United Nations are Sunnis. Another 18-20% are minority groups such as Christians, Mandeans, Yazidis, Turkmen, and Shabaks, even though they only make up 3-4% of Iraq's population.
Iraq's internal refugees face a number of problems. They lack access to food, shelter, water, sanitation, health, and jobs. The International Organization for Migration has conducted detailed surveys of these needs. Women that have lost their homes have been hit especially hard. Even with the lessoning of violence, many families have not been able to go back to their homes. The government is also threatening Iraqis that are squatting with evictions. The UNHCR believes that there are up to 250,000 Iraqis living illegally in public buildings.
The biggest change in Iraq's refugee crisis is that some have begun to return. This began in the summer of 2007 when it was reported that Iraqi refugees from Syria were coming back. So far only a small percentage of the 4.8 million have made this decision, but the rate is increasing. The government has been encouraging this process, and passed Executive Orders 101 and 262 in 2008 that offered money to return. This process may now be ending however as the Ministry of Displacement and Migration has stopped registering Iraqis that have gone back, which was necessary to receive any payments.
The number of displaced coming back has changed month to month. In 2008, August and September saw the highest rates with around 39,950 and 42,610 returns respectively, but that then dropped off to 11,260 in November and 11,910 in December. Almost eight times as many internally displaced have come back compared to refugees. For all of 2008 195,240 displaced returned, compared to 25,370 refugees, for a total of 220,610. Baghdad and Diyala, which saw the most displacement, has seen the most returnees.
U.N.'s Refugee/Displaced Return Estimates 2008
Iraq is also home to 39,811 refugees from other countries. There are 12,567 Palestinians living in Baghdad and the Al Waleed Refugee Camp, 15,755 Kurds displaced from neighboring countries, 10,904 Iranians, many of which are in Kurdistan and do not want to go back, 580 Syrians that are afraid of being arrested if they return, and five Egyptians who are married to Palestinians. 2,405 have asked for asylum in Iraq, 1,022 Iranians, 1,001 Syrian Kurds, 380 Turkish Kurds, and two Ethiopians.
The bombing of the Samarra shrine in 2006 made a bad refugee problem turn into a crisis. Iraq already had several thousand Shiites and Kurds who were displaced due to Saddam's policies even before the U.S. invaded. The war and subsequent sectarian fighting added another three million displaced. While over 200,000 have returned, that is still a small amount compared to the total. Those that have gone back face further problems as not all have access to their homes, or jobs and basic services, and some have become displaced again. The U.N. and other humanitarian groups have been overwhelmed by this predicament, and the government has appeared more concerned about its image than really helping these people. That means this humanitarian catastrophe is likely to continue for several more years.
Human Rights First, “How to Confront the Iraqi Refugee Crisis,” December 2008
United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Humanitarian Update Iraq February 2009,” 2/28/09
UNHCR, “UNHCR Iraq Operation At A Glance – January 2009,”1/9/09