In April 2009 the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) released its latest statistics on displaced and refugee returns to Iraq. Currently Iraq has one of the largest refugee problems in the world. The common figure quoted is that 4.8 million Iraqis have lost their homes. Around two million are believed to have left the country, while the rest are internally displaced. The UNHCR counts fewer with 2 million refugees and 1.6 million displaced. From the U.S. invasion to March 2009 the U.N. estimates that just over 1 million Iraqis have returned. This includes displaced from both before and after 2003. The UNHCR report shows that this process has happened in fits and spurts.
The process of returning began just after the invasion ended. In 2003 9,237 refugee families, or 55,429 people, came back to the country. In 2004 internally displaced families began returning, and twice as many refugees. From 2005 to the present however the number of refugees coming back has seen a sharp decline that is only just starting to come back up this year. Returning refugees went from 193,997 in 2004 to 56,155 in 2005 to 20,235 in 2006, a slight increase to 45,420 in 2007, and then down to 25,370 in 2008, and 8,790 through the first three months of 2009. The same pattern happened with the displaced going from 150,000 in 2006, down to 36,000 in 2007, and then back up to 195,890 in 2008. So far 22,940 have come back from January to March 2009 according to the U.N. The numbers show two divergent trends. For the displaced, returns went up from 2004 to 2006, but then took a dramatic drop in 2007 probably because of the sectarian war where thousands were losing their homes. In 2008 a record number came back as the security situation improved. In 2009 each month saw more displaced come back as well. Refugees however saw the largest number coming back in 2004 and then going down until 2007. Perhaps they were testing the waters after the Surge improved security, but then their numbers went back down in 2008. Like the displaced however, each month in 2009 has seen an increase in returns. A possible explanation is that living in another country gives them relative safety, which they are not willing to give up right now to return to a country that still sees violence. Another reason could be that most of the Iraqis living abroad are Sunnis, and don’t feel comfortable yet returning to a country that is run by Shiites and Kurds, and where their neighborhoods may have been taken over by another sect.
Estimated Returns of Displaced Iraqis
Jan. to March 2009 22,940
TOTAL: 600,830, 60% of all returns
Estimated Returns of Iraqi Refugees
Jan. to March 2009 8,790
TOTAL: 405,396, 40% of all returns
Jan. to March 2009 31,730
Total Returns From October 2008 to March 2009
Oct. 08 14,840
Nov. 08 11,260
Dec. 08 11,910
Jan. 09 4,600
Feb. 09 10,170
March 09 16,960
Total Returns of Refugees October 2008 to March 2009
Oct. 08 2,540
Nov. 08 3,640
Dec. 08 2,090
Jan. 09 1,010
Feb. 09 2,630
March 09 5,150
Total Returns of Displaced October 2008 to March 2009
Oct. 08 12,300
Nov. 08 7,620
Dec. 08 9,820
Jan. 09 3,590
Feb. 09 7,540
March 09 11,810
At the provincial level the U.N.’s figures show that Baghdad, Diyala and Ninewa have had the most returns, while Kurdistan and half of the south have had the least. Baghdad remains the center of violence in the country. For that reason it has seen both the most displaced and the greatest number of those coming back. In 2008 118,330 Iraqis went back to that province, 53% of the total. Next was Diyala with 67,150 returns, 30% of the total, and Ninewa with 15,960 coming back, or 7% of the total. That compared to Qadisiyah with 30 people, Muthann with 50, Dhi Qar with 100, and Sulaymaniya with 180. In 2009 70% of returns have gone to Baghdad, followed by Ninewa 8%, and Diyala 5%. For refugees, Tamim, Najaf and Baghdad were the three main destinations in 2008 in that ascending order. The next year that slightly changed to Babil, Najaf and Baghdad. For the first three months of this year, there have also been three provinces, Anbar, Ninewa, and Sulaymaniya that have seen absolutely no refugees coming back. Displaced returnees were concentrated in Ninewa, Diyala, and Baghdad, and similarly few went back to the south or far north.
Total Returns By Province 2008
Dhi Qar 100
Total Returns By Province 2009
Dhi Qar 230
Refugee Returns 2008 By Province
Dhi Qar 80
Refugee Returns 2009 By Province
Dhi Qar 220
Displaced Returns 2008 By Province
Dhi Qar 20
Displaced Returns 2009 By Province
Dhi Qar 10
Baghdad has been at the center of the fighting in Iraq since 2003, so it has seen the most displacement and returns. The numbers coming back have gone up and down like the rest of the country. From October 2008 to January 2009 the numbers followed a downward trend, but then hit a high in March. Around 50% of the returnees have gone back to the Western district of Karkh along the Tigris River. That use to be a largely mixed Sunni-Shiite area of the capital.
Total Returns To Baghdad October 2008 to March 2009
Oct. 08 6,940
Nov. 08 4,970
Dec. 08 3,830
Jan. 09 2,000
Feb. 09 7,550
March 09 12,670
2008 48% went to Karkh, 36% went to unknown, 8% went to Resafa
2009 57% went to Karkh, 14% went to Khadimiya, 9% went to unknown
The UNHCR is one of the most comprehensive reports on returns to Iraq. Other organizations such as the International Organization for Migration concentrate on the displaced since the U.S. invasion, and specifically those that left after the February 2006 Samarra bombing that set off the sectarian war. Other groups like Refugees International, in their latest papers have just written about those coming back in the last 1-2 years. The U.N. provides a much more comprehensive view of the situation, showing that not only have Iraqis been coming back since the U.S. invasion, but that there were displaced before and after the war. It’s often overlooked that Saddam created large displacements especially in the south amongst Shiites and in the north with Kurds. Many of those returned in the immediate months after the invasion. The sectarian war then set off another wave of mass evacuations that have created much of the current crisis. The UNHCR also shows that these returns have gone up and down, and that refugees and internally displaced have followed different patterns. While the process appears to be increasing in recent months, the government and international organizations still lack the resources and in Baghdad’s case, the will, do deal with them.
International Organization for Migration, “IOM Emergency Needs Assessments; Post February 2006 Displacement In Iraq, Monthly Report,” 4/1/09
Refugees International, “Iraq: Preventing the Point of No Return,” 4/9/09
United States Government Accountability Office, “Iraqi Refugee Assistance Improvements Needed in Measuring Progress, Assessing Needs, Tracking Funds, and Developing an International Strategic Plan,” April 2009
United Nations High Commission for Refugees, “UNHCR Iraq Operation Monthly Statistical Update on Return – March 2009,” UNHCR, March 2009
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