As of the end of May 2018 over 3.8 million Iraqis had returned home, while another 2 million remained displaced. Around 90% of those still without their homes said they want to go back. There are a number of issues that are making that difficult. The Sinjar district in western Ninewa is a perfect example. Many Yazidis have returned, but the southern half of the district still has unexploded ordinance, there are no jobs, and the majority of Arabs are afraid to go back.
A recent report by the REACH initiative documented the situation in Sinjar. In August 2014, the Islamic State swept through Sinjar leading to a horrendous period of mass executions, displacement, and slavery of the Yazidi community. Almost 300,000 people fled the area. 130,000 went to Mount Sinjar, 125,000 went to Dohuk, 13,000 headed for Syria, and 12,000 for Turkey.
In November 2015, the northern part of the district was freed by the Peshmerga, with the south cleared in October 2017 by the Iraqi forces. From November 2015 to February 2018, 6,000 families had returned. Almost all of those that have gone back were Yazidis. They have headed for the northern section where there was less damage from fighting, IEDs have been cleared, there are humanitarian aid groups, there is electricity, water is being trucked in, and there are two schools and a hospital. The south is mostly empty. The area is less accessible, most of the towns were heavily damaged, there are no services, and there are still explosive devices. Another problem is the lack of jobs. Most people farmed for a living before the Islamic State came, and that economy has not been revived due to IEDs, low rainfall, and the lack of equipment.
The majority of Sinjar’s population is still displaced. This population is broken up into two distinct groups. One are the Yazidis. Those that have not gone back are concerned about the IEDs, lack of jobs, destroyed property, and have little money. The other group is Arabs. They said they would not return because they fear retribution by the security forces. Many Yazidis believe their Arab neighbors supported the Islamic State. In 2014, when Sinjar was first being liberated Yazidis attacked three villages, killed 21, wounded 40, and burned and destroyed most of the buildings. The Peshmerga and PKK did the same in several other towns. This was done in revenge for the crimes of the Islamic State, which the local Arabs were blamed for. Most of the Yazidis will likely return once the explosives are removed from Sinjar. The Arabs however, may have to settle where they currently reside. The hatred and deep divisions the Islamic State bred in the country are still raw, and will not be overcome any time soon.
Similar issues are affecting the two million others that fled their homes in Iraq. Expelling the Islamic State was a major accomplishment, but is only part of the process to get people to go back to their original areas. Some things like left over explosives are a short term problem that can be overcome. Rebuilding towns may take longer as the government has no specific plan, and this year’s budget only appropriated a small amount of money for the task. Trying to reconcile communities after the insurgency may never happen as there is little impetus to do so. These are all reasons why the number of returns has slowed and a large number of people may never make the trip back.
International Organization for Migration, “Integrated Location Assessment II, Part I Thematic Overview,” 12/10/17
- “Integrated Location Assessment II, Part II Governorate Profiles,” 12/10/17
OCHA, “Iraq: Internally displaced people by governorate (as of 31 May 2018),” 5/31/18
REACH Initiative, “Rapid Overview of Areas of Return (ROAR): Sinjar and Surrounding Areas Ninewa Governorate, Iraq – May 2018,” 5/31/18