In late-2007, as the security situation improved, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was attempting to bolster his reputation for having improved the country before the 2009 provincial elections, the government began a concerted effort to encourage Iraq's estimated 2.9 million internally displaced and 1.7 million refugees to come home. The authorities offered money, plane rides, and bus trips to those that would take up their offer. By 2008, a large number of Iraqis were coming back, but the majority has still not returned.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released its latest report on Iraq at the end of January 2010 that gave rough estimates for the number of Iraqis that have moved back. It shows that there was a huge increase from 2007 to 2008, but that has leveled off in 2009. In 2007, the sectarian war was still going on, with militias and insurgents using forced displacement as a weapon to control Baghdad and other areas of central Iraq. In that year 81,420 Iraqis returned, compared to 170,235 the year before. By mid-2008, fighting was in the decline, and the government stepped up its efforts to get Iraqis to move back to their homes. The result was 221,260 came back, the second largest amount since the U.S. invasion. Roughly 195,890 of those were displaced, compared to just 25,370 refugees. In 2009, 204,830 returned, and again, displaced made up the majority at 167,740 compared to 37,090 refugees.
In total, the United Nations has estimated 1,179,326 Iraqis have come back since 2003. Since the war began, most of these people were internally displaced at 745,630, compared to 433,696 refugees. Of those, at least 249,426 were refugees from Saddam's time that returned in the two years after his overthrow. That would mean of the 4.6 million Iraqis who have lost their homes since the U.S. invasion, around 929,900 have returned, or approximately 20%.
The UNHCR's numbers also show that the majority of those that lost their homes came from Baghdad, the center of power and conflict in post-Saddam Iraq. In 2009 for example, 60% of those that came back, around 123,700 people, went to the capital. Diyala was second with 58,280, or 28% of the total. Ninewa province was a distant third at 3,570.
2009 Returns By Province
Last year also saw a constant flux in returns. In January 2009 7,520 came back, compared to 26,540 in March. That dipped to 14,910 the next month, only to go back up to 21,010 by August, followed by 12,020 in September. By December, 15,050 journeyed home.
Returns by Month 2009
Despite the large number of returns since 2007, 80% of Iraq's displaced and refugees have still not come back. Those people face increasing difficulties as they have been without their homes for several years now. In mid-January 2010 for example, Syria complained that Baghdad was not taking care of the thousands of refugees that resided there. There are also anecdotal stories of Iraqis coming back, and then leaving again because they couldn't find work or assistance. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) for example, one of the largest aid agencies that works with Iraq's displaced, reported that 55.5% of heads of households of internal refugees were either unemployed or unable to work. Security is greatly improved in Iraq from the heyday of the sectarian war that caused so many Iraqis to be displaced. That has encouraged many to make the effort to go back home. The UNHCR report however, shows that this process has only just begun, and may take years more for all the issues to be settled. That means Iraq's displaced and refugees still need lots of support, which they unfortunately have not found an abundance of.
Bigio, Jamille and Scott, Jen, "Internal Displacement in Iraq: The Process of Working Toward Durable Solutions," Brookings Institution and University of Bern, June 2009
International Organization for Migration, "Assessment of Return to Iraq," 11/3/09
Oweis, Khaled Yacoub, "Syria says Iraq evading responsibility to refugees," Reuters, 1/18/10
Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, "Quarterly Report and Semiannual Report to the United States Congress," 1/30/10
UNHCR, "Monthly Statistical Update on Return – December 2009," 1/27/10
- "Poor conditions in Iraq drive returned refugees back to Syria," 12/21/09