Thursday, February 14, 2013

Pace Of Refugee Returns To Iraq Picked Up In 2012

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
TOTAL: 1,859,966

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
Baghdad 206,530
Diyala 42,940
Anbar 10,590
Ninewa 7,410
Basra 6,730
Karbala 4,840
Najaf 4,710
Babil 4,210
Salahaddin 3,490
Tamim 2,070
Dhi Qar 1,940
Wasit 1,920
Maysan 1,670
Irbil 770
Muthanna 580
Qadisiyah 440
Dohuk 220
Sulaymaniya 0

Total Returns By Month 2012
Jan. 29,680
Feb. 32,950
Mar. 27,540
Apr. 33,940
May 30,590
Jun. 18,560
Jul. 28,420
Aug. 24,220
Sep. 28,820
Oct. 19,090
Nov. 15,360
Dec. 11,890

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
Jan. 7,440
Feb. 7,910
Mar. 6,590
Apr. 8,330
May 6,370
Jun. 3,010
Jul. 4,300
Aug. 8,830
Sep. 10,260
Oct. 7,100
Nov. 6,360
Dec. 5,760

Refugee Return By Country 2012
Syria 56,930
Iran 6,855
Jordan 2,820
Sweden 2,545
Egypt 1,565
UAE 1,495
USA 1,120
Germany 955
England 843
Netherlands 720
Denmark 705
Others 685
Yemen 675
Australia 660
Libya 615
Lebanon 595
Canada 645
Saudi Arabia 350
Norway 325
Oman 255
Turkey 215
Malaysia 150
Sudan 105
Belgium 95
Kuwait 95
Greece 90
Finland 85
Italy 75
Romania 75

Displaced Returns By Month 2012
Jan. 22,240
Feb. 25,040
Mar. 20,950
Apr. 25,610
May 24,220
Jun. 15,550
Jul. 24,120
Aug. 15,390
Sep. 18,560
Oct. 11,990
Nov. 9,000
Dec. 6,130

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


AndrewSshi said...

Random thoughts: I wonder if some of the refugee return is driven by Syria's spiral into chaos and anarchy.

Joel Wing said...


Yes Syria has definitely had an impact on the number of refugee returns shooting up. Read back through the article and there's numbers on the sharp increase in people coming back from that country. The number doubled from 2011 to 2012 for instance.

Anonymous said...

I have been in Jordan since 2007 with our grassroots organization, providing assistance to Iraqi (and now, Syrian) refugees.

Although not in touch with the entire Iraqi refugee population of Amman, I am working and living in one of the most densely populated refugee areas and, as such, have a pretty good pulse on the overall situation here. We have not witnessed any dramatic increase in returns to Iraq - of the hundreds of families we know, only a handful I can think of returned to Iraq - under 10 families. The greatest attrition, by far, has been of those resettled to third nations.

Most Iraqis we know and encounter feel they can never return to Iraq, that the death threats and situations that caused them to flee for safety are still very much current. It appears that many of these may never be resettled: UNHCR has tightened their criteria for those who will get "refugee" status, and those who do not will not be considered for resettlement. Many who have been here for years have their cases stuck in the "protection"(only) unit of UNHCR - meaning that their cases are not considered for resettlement and, in many cases I know, because they worked in some normal capacity (civil servants that every nation employs) - such as in the police, with some rank - or in the military, with rank above private. They are assumed to be criminals or guilty of crimes against humanity, only because they held these positions under Saddam's government (meanwhile those who truly are guilty of any of these crimes have escaped the country with wealth and living quite comfortably).

And you are ignoring those who tried returning to Iraq, hoping that security had improved but finding that the same entities that threatened them before are there, and there are others, too.

But you are ignoring, also, the steady flow of Iraqis still fleeing the "new" repressive government and its sectarian nature - and it's intolerance for those of the opposite sect and political rivals from that sect.

Are you not aware of the massive demonstrations taking place every Friday for months now in Anbar and the permanent demonstrators' tents lining Anbar roads outside of its major cities? The participants are not. overall, "activists" - they are ordinary people fed up with repression and corruption in gov with great wealth in a few pockets while infrastructure is still in shambles and lives are still at great risk.

As things heat up again in Iraq, we see more Iraqis fleeing here as a direct result of gov repression and the violence associated with it.

It seems fairly evident to those of us here that there is great risk that Iraq may become another "Syria" if the gov does not heed the needs of all of the population and end the repression and corruption.

And you were correct in bringing note about the Iraqis who've fled the Syrian violence - many of those have fled because, at least in some cases I know of, the entities that threatened their lives before they initially fled actually entered into Syria and were hunting them down there. Others have returned to Iraq - mostly those whose relatives live near the Syrian border.

The story is not so simple as you've written it - and this displacement crisis is far from over and may even get much worse in the not far off future.

Joel Wing said...

Thank you for your comments on your work with refugees in Jordan.

I obviously realize that there are still thousands of people that are displaced from Iraq. Many of which are never going to return for one reason or another. My question is at some point do those people cease being refugees? If in 30 years they're still living in Jordan or the UAE or Iran, or Sweden or the U.S. are they still refugees? I've talked to plenty of Iraqis who fled during Saddam's time. They are now living across the world, living their lives, going to school, having kids, etc. They have no plans to go back to Iraq. Are they still refugees? I'm not trying to make excuses for the huge displacement that has gone on in Iraq, but like I wrote, people are either going to return to Iraq or decide to settle where they are.

According to the International Organization for Migration for instance, over half of the internally displaced wanted to settle where they were rather than go back to their homes. Most of them have done that, but the other half are now pretty much heading back and in huge numbers each year. Either way they are going to start over. That was the point I was trying to make in the article.

This Day In Iraqi History - Jul 5

1920 Revolt leaders in Shamiya passed demands to British Wanted full independence End to fighting Withdrawal of Briti...