Aid groups in Iraq were hoping that with the end of the war against the Islamic State most of the country’s displaced (IDPs) would go home. In fact, the exact opposite happened, people heading home has actually slowed. The crisis may now be shifting to a situation where a sizeable population will remain displaced for the foreseeable future. A by the International Organization for Migration, Returns Working Group, and Social Inquiry attempted to break down the trends in displacement in Iraq since 2014, and to discover what issues were responsible for keeping people in their predicament.
Displacement in Iraq happened in waves and under different circumstances, which has effected the fate of those forced to flee. One difference was how people were displaced. The first wave happened when the Islamic State began seizing control of territory, first in Anbar, and then in Mosul and Tikrit in 2014. Anbar and Ninewa had the most people flee as a result. Most of those went to urban areas like Baghdad, Irbil, Dohuk, etc. The second wave came when the government began liberating areas from IS. The freeing of Mosul for example didn’t begin until 2016. Many of those were directed towards camps. That also meant returns happened over the last four years, again in waves as different areas were freed. Ninewa is a perfect example of these different trends as it had two major waves of displacement, first in 2014 and then in 2016-17, and then people only began going back in 2017-18. There have also been differences in return patterns with most people in Anbar back in their home areas, while very few have done so in Ninewa. Again, because Anbar was freed in 2015 it allowed for early returns, while Ninewa wasn’t cleared of IS until 2017.
Today there are 1.9 million people still displaced, and aid groups are worried that many will remain in that situation. As of September 2018 54% of people have been IDPs for three or more years. The remaining 46% have been displaced for up to three years. There are different reasons for people remaining IDPs. One trend is that people displaced earlier in the war are less likely to return. One reason is that many of them went to Kurdistan, Baghdad and the south and gained a quality of life they are now unwilling to give up.
The latest surveys of IDPs show that few are planning on making the trip home. For those outside of camps, 65% said they wanted to remain where they were, 22% were undecided, 12% said they planned to return, and 1% wanted to move within or out of Iraq. For those in camps, 62% said they would stay where they were, 28% were undecided, 9% wanted to go home, 1% wanted to move without or out of Iraq. The average of the two was 64% wanted to stay put, 24% were undecided, 11% were going to return, and 1% wanted to move within Iraq or out of the country. Those figures also vary depending upon the area. For instance, those in Diyala and Baghdad are less willing to go back than the average. The situation in home areas also plays a large role. Areas with large housing destruction or illegal occupation have lower rates of returns. The reasons for the destruction of property was another issue. Many homes were destroyed on purpose for instance by the security forces while others were damaged during the fighting. Whether there are jobs and services, whether people fear discrimination or conflicts, whether there were demographic changes in home regions, whether people were banned or not for their ties to the insurgency, trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were also major issues.
What the three aid groups found was that IDPs are not a monolithic group. There are all different kinds of trends and circumstances that have affected their situations that are keeping people displaced. Some don’t want to go back because they have started new lives in different parts of the country. Others fear what might happen to them if they go back or have nowhere to return to because their homes are destroyed. Whatever the situation, many of the 1.9 million IDPs do not look like they would be going back to their original areas anytime soon. The same thing happened after the civil war with over one million remaining displaced. While IDP groups are trying their best to help people return and provide them with assistance, it is the Iraqi government that has the most resources and can affect the situation the most. The problem is the state’s policies are uncoordinated, there is a lack of planning, and funding. The reconstruction effort is going through the same dilemma leaving many areas, especially rural ones destroyed, which deters further returns.
International Organization for Migration, Returns Working Group Iraq, Social Inquiry, “Reasons To Remain: Categorizing Protracted Displacement In Iraq,” November 2018