Refugees in Iraq: An Overview

Refugees in Iraq: An Overview

In partnership with Institute for Migration Studies, Lebanese American University



Rasha Kaloti, ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies
Dr. Jasmin Lilian Diab, Institute for Migration Studies, Lebanese American University

Overview of the Conflict

Between 2003 to 2011, Iraq endured a protracted armed conflict that began with the invasion of Iraq by the United States-led coalition which overthrew the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein. Also termed the “Second Persian Gulf War,” the conflict endured for much of the next decade as an insurgency emerged to oppose the coalition forces and the post-invasion Iraqi government. United States (US) troops were officially withdrawn in 2011. The US became re-involved in the conflict in 2014 at the head of a new coalition. The invasion occurred as part of the George W. Bush administration’s War on Terror following the 9/11 attacks, despite there being no connection between the attacks and Iraq, and the 9/11 Commission concluding that there was no evidence of any link between Saddam’s regime and al-Qaeda.

The United States based its rationale for the invasion on claims that Iraq had a weapons of mass destruction program that ultimately posed a threat to the US and its allies. The Iraq War began on 20 March 2003. Iraqi forces were quickly overwhelmed as coalition forces swept through the country. An estimated 151,000 to 1,033,000 Iraqis died in the first three to five years of conflict. In total, the war caused at least one hundred thousand civilian deaths, as well as tens of thousands of military deaths. The majority of deaths occurred as an immediate result of the insurgency and civil conflicts that took place between 2004 and 2007. Between 2013 to 2017 the war, which is considered a domino effect of the invasion and occupation, caused at least 155,000 deaths, in addition to the displacement of more than 3.3 million people within the country.

In February 2021, NATO expanded its mission to train Iraqi forces in their fight against ISIL, partially reversing the US-led troop withdrawals. In April 2021, US Central Command stated that there were no plans for a total withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, citing continued threats posed by the ISIL insurgency and Iran-backed militias. In July 2021, President Joe Biden announced that he would end the US combat mission in Iraq by the end of 2021, with remaining US troops serving in advisory and assistance roles. The US combat mission formally concluded in December 2021, with 2,500 US troops remaining in the country. To date, a complete withdrawal of US forces has not been realised, with the humanitarian crisis often taking a backseat to political priorities and other demands.

Displacement in Numbers

The war on Iraq and sectarian violence have caused millions of Iraqis to flee their homes and seek refuge across Iraq, in neighbouring countries and further (e.g. United States and Europe). As of 2021, 9.2 million Iraqis are internally displaced or refugees abroad.. The total number of Iraqi refugees worldwide is difficult to establish, as they are not required to register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). It is estimated that the collapse of the Saddam Hussein government in 2003 displaced 1.2 million Iraqis across the borders. An additional 1.5 million were displaced after the Samarra Mosque bombing in 2006. As of April 2022, it is estimated that there are over 66,000 Iraqi refugees and asylum seekers in neighbouring Jordan who are registered with UNHCR. There is also a significant number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Iraq. By 2017, the UN Migration Agency (IOM) estimated that there were about 1.2 million Iraqis displaced within the country. Recent statistics from UNHCR state that as of 2019 there are 2 million internally displaced refugees within Iraq. As the battle to retake areas from ISIS continues, thousands of Iraqis are being displaced on a daily basis.

The refugee crisis has impacted both Iraqis who fled and the communities that they left behind. The majority of those who remain inside the country have settled in refugee camps or informal settlements in urban areas of the Kurdistan Region of northern Iraq. There are also 280,000 refugees in Iraq from neighbouring countries, the vast majority of which are escaping violence and persecution in Syria. According to UNHCR, despite the fact that a significant number of internally displaced people (IDPs) returned to their homes in Iraq in 2018, they continue to face significant challenges in terms of security, access to essential services and livelihoods.The conflict has additionally affected millions of children. Approximately half of all people displaced inside Iraq are children.

Realities in Host Countries

IDPs continue to face difficult circumstances in Iraq, including accessing basic social and health services, and regaining or establishing livelihoods. Many IDP families, especially in Baghdad live in dire conditions as they lack employment opportunities and stable sources of income. This in turn impedes their ability to afford available services or afford transportation, especially for those living in public buildings in Iraq. Even though Iraqi Kurdistan is one of the country’s safest and most secure regions, IDPs there still face challenges such as language barriers, expensive services, and lack of employment opportunities. Forced and/or early marriage has been used as a coping mechanism for displaced families living in poverty. Moreover, Insecurity levels have been on the rise in Iraq, with sectarian militia’s threatening and persecuting minority families in their own neighbourhoods. Further exacerbating sectarianism and forced displacement levels in Iraq.

Internally displaced children in Iraq have been forced to grow up in exile, often separated from their families, and have been particularly vulnerable to violence, forced early marriage, recruitment as child soldiers, exploitation and psychological distress. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), as of November 2018, an estimated 2.1 million children were at serious risk of not being able to access essential services and of statelessness due to lack of documentation, and close to 2.6 million were not attending school – with no prospects of being enrolled in schools in the near future.

Iraqi refugees are not legally permitted to work in Jordan and Syria. It is estimated that 40% of Iraqi refugees in Jordan work in the informal sector, and the remaining have no source of income and rely entirely on international aid. Host countries do not provide refugees with training or economic opportunities. This situation is further exacerbating the collective trauma faced by Iraqi displaced populations. Psychosocial support is lacking in host countries, especially for women and youth facing sexual exploitation.

Despite the (relatively) improved security conditions in Baghdad, most Iraqi IDPs and refugees still hesitate to voluntarily return due to the dire social and economic situations. Others reported that they fear religious or ethnic persecution if they return. UNHCR estimates that there are only 1,900 refugees who returned to Iraq as of 2021. On the other hand, nearly 5 million Iraqi IDPs returned to their original cities of residence. However, according to UNHCR, these returnees live in poor living conditions and require humanitarian assistance. Some of these families are forcibly returned, often due to closures of IDP camps, or the destruction of sites in which displaced families were living.

International Political, Legal and Humanitarian Efforts

The Iraqi government has taken steps to provide internally displaced families with assistance and services. Yet, few families were able to receive government assistance due to bureaucratic procedures at the service provision level, and the fear of persecution upon registration. The Kurdish regional government has also not provided IDPs with assistance or services. Entry to the local workforce in both areas of Iraq is highly restricted, disabling the majority of IDPs from earning stable income. For example, IDPs in Northern Iraq require a sponsorship by a local citizen in their new residency area in order to acquire residency or a work permit. This policy was created in order to reduce IDP influx into the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

Strict security policies limit the UN’s access and operation in the country. As a result, local and international Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) have more access and provide more assistance to those in need. However, donors’ aid has been decreasing over the years due to loss of international interest in supporting the Iraq crisis. The NGO registration process is becoming lengthy and more difficult, and donations must be approved by the government, oftentimes with no reason clarified for refusals.

The lack of UNHCR registration for Iraqi refugees in other countries creates constraints in accessing services and support. For example, Iraqi refugees are seen as ‘temporary’ by the Jordanian government and are often not legally registered as refugees in Jordan. Additionally, many Iraqi refugees declare that they have no incentives to legally register and purposely avoid registering due to fear of becoming known to authorities and deported or detained. This lack of formal registration is accompanied by an absence of legal frameworks to protect refugees.

This lack of integration within Iraq and in host countries, many refugees find resettlement into a third country their only choice. The United States government-supported U.S. Refugee Admission Program (USRAP) has initiated a resettlement program for Iraqi refugees based in Jordan, Egypt or Iraq to apply to become refugees in the US. However, strict requirements apply for application eligibility, such as working with U.S. government entities, or having a first-degree family member based in the U.S. In addition to restrictions on refugee applications made in Iraq, with priority given to Iraqis in Jordan or Egypt.

Critical needs are required to improve the livelihoods of Iraqi displaced persons within and outside of Iraq. Local, regional, and national authorities must ensure that IDPs and refugees can access safety in camps and non-camp locations. Protection mechanisms and frameworks are urgently required for these settings, whereby psychosocial services and child protection are being prioritised where required. Moreover, Local and international human rights and UN organisations must advocate and push for the end of forced returns, which are ethical and undermine the achievement of a safe reintegration as a durable solution to displacement. Finally, Humanitarian assistance and increased donor funding is essential for covering short-term and urgent needs. Longer-term needs require joint multilateral efforts of key state and non-state actors, to amplify peacebuilding initiatives and community reconciliation, in hope of a peaceful future for Iraq and Iraqis.

Week Five: Iraq (Institute for Migration Studies, Lebanese American University)


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