The number of Iraqi refugees returning to their homes saw a large increase in 2012. This was the second straight year that the number of people coming back went up after taking a large dip in 2010. In fact, four of the last five years has seen an annual return rate of over 200,000 people. The United Nations pointed to the improved security situation, and the money offered by the government as the main reasons why so many have decided to move. That ignored the most obvious motivation, which was the conflict next door in Syria, the country with the largest number of Iraqi expatriates in the world. Whatever the reason, the trend is for more and more people to take the path back to Iraq, which could mean in time the nation’s huge refugee problem could one day be resolved.
Iraqi refugees at UNHCR offices in Syria, 2010 (U.N.)
Almost two million displaced Iraqis have made the decision to return since 2003. In 2012, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recorded 301,060 people making the trip back. In 2011, 260,690 came back. That was more than double the rate for 2010 when only 118,890 made the trip due to uncertainty over national elections that occurred that year. Before that 204,830 returned in 2009, 221,260 in 2008, while there was a large drop in 2007 with only 81,420 coming back. That last year was when violence increased in the country due to the American Surge. 2008 saw the end of the civil war, which accounts for why four of the last five years has seen 200,000 plus returnees per annum. In total, from 2003 to 2012, 1,859,966 displaced and refugees have come back to their homes. The most common figures for the total number of Iraqi refugees is 2.5 million, and 2.7 million displaced, although some believe there might be far fewer. If those statistics are accurate, just over one-third have since reversed course and come back. With the current trend there appears little reason to believe that in a decade or so most of the displaced and refugees might return as well. Despite the terrorist attacks, security in Iraq is rather stable, the booming oil industry is pumping in large amounts of money into the economy, both of which mean the majority of people have returned to their normal lives, and are looking for opportunities. That gives ample reasons enough for displacement to eventually end.
Overall Returns 2003-2012
2003: Displaced 0, Refugees 55,429, Total 55,429
2004: Displaced 98,000, Refugees 193,997, Total 291,997
2005: Displaced 98,000, Refugees 56,155, Total 154,155
2006: Displaced 150,000, Refugees 20,235, Total 170,235
2007: Displaced 36,000 Refugees 45,420, Total 81,420
2008: Displaced 195,890, Refugees 25,370, Total 221,260
2009: Displaced 167,740, Refugees 37,090, Total 204,830
2010: Displaced 92,480, Refugees 26,410, Total 118,890
2011: Displaced 193,610, Refugees 67,080, Total 260,690
2012: Displaced 216,160, Refugees 84,900, Total 301,060
During 2012, the rate of return and where people went was not even throughout the year. 206,530 people went back to Baghdad. That was followed by 42,940 going to Diyala, 10,590 to Anbar, and 7,410 to Ninewa. In comparison, no one went back to Sulaymaniya, 220 returned to Dohuk, and 770 went back to Irbil last year. Over the course of 2012, the number of people coming back also went up and down. January to May saw a steady flow of people returning peaking at 33,940 in April. There was a large drop in June to 18,560, before going back up in July to 28,420, which continued until September. In the last three months the numbers went back down to 19,090 in October, 15,350 in November, and 11,890 in December. Baghdad has the largest population out of Iraq’s eighteen governorates, and was also the center of fighting for much of the Iraq War. For those reasons the majority of displaced, refugees, and returns all come from there. Like Baghdad, Diyala, Anbar, and Ninewa also saw major conflicts and displacement. Kurdistan on the other hand, saw very few people forced out after 2003. The reason why the rate of return was inconsistent is far harder to determine since people came from so many different places.
Returns By Province 2012
Dhi Qar 1,940
Total Returns By Month 2012
For seven of the last ten years, more internally displaced have come back compared to refugees, and 2012 was no exception. Last year, 216,160 displaced made the trip back, while 84,900 refugees did so. That was up from 193,610 displaced and 67,080 refugees in 2011. For the latter, 7,440 came back in January 2012, peaking at 8,330 in April, before dropping in June to 3,010. Eventually they went back up to 10,260 in September before seeing a steady decline for the rest of the year. 56,930 came back from Syria in 2012, followed by 6,855 from Iran, and 2,820 from Jordan. The displaced followed almost the exact same pattern with high numbers from January to May with over 20,000 returns each month, before going down in June to 15,550. The figures then went back up to 18,560 in September, and then went down to 6,130 in December. The fighting in Syria was obviously a strong reason for many Iraqis to leave that country, and go back home. From 2009-2010 the UNHCR recorded 29,135 Iraqis returning from Syria. That jumped to 28,230 in 2011, and then 56,930 last year. With the civil war raging there with no end in sight, a growing flow of refugees is likely to come back to Iraq in the near future. There was an increase in people returning from Iran as well going from 11,905 from 2009-2010 to 24,870 from 2011-2012. Those people, along with the internally displaced are most likely making the trip because of the improved security in Iraq. While many internal refugees have settled in their new homes, many still yearn to go back to their home provinces. With the decline in violence, and the offer of aid from the government there have been increasing numbers of people willing to take the chance and start again in their original residences.
Refugee Returns By Month 2012
Refugee Return By Country 2012
Saudi Arabia 350
Displaced Returns By Month 2012
Iraq has one of the largest refugee populations in the world. This started long before the 2003 invasion, and had its origins with the ruthless dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. The toppling of his regime, the ensuing chaos, and then the sectarian war that followed caused thousands more Iraqis to flee their homes. With that conflict now over, tens of thousands of Iraqis have decided to go home, and see if they can rebuild their lives. While there are still a large number of people displaced, it’s not too hard to imagine that within a decade or so most of them will have either decided to settle where they are or make the trip back. That will mean this refugees saga might finally see an end.
International Organization for Migration, “IOM Emergency Needs Assessments Four Years of Post-Samarra Displacement In Iraq,” 4/13/10
IRIN, “MIDDLE EAST: Iraqi refugees – interpreting the statistics,” 12/28/10
UNHCR Iraq Operation, “Monthly Statistical Update on Return – December 2012,” UNHCR Iraq Operation, February 2013