The Humanitarian Crisis in Iraq: Internal Displacement

2015-10-14 13.40


Map of Iraq’s Provinces

This post will focus on Internally Displaced Persons, or IDPs. Understanding the significance of the IDP problem is crucial to understanding the humanitarian crisis occurring in Iraq today. There are currently roughly 3.9 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) in Iraq, 3.2 million of those being displaced since January 2014. Unlike refugees, Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) have not crossed an international border to seek refuge but have instead fled, for many of the same reasons as refugees, to areas within their home country. This mass forced displacement has cost many their livelihoods, their resources, their homes, their health, and their education. It has impoverished millions of people, both those who were forced to leave everything behind and those struggling to adapt to the millions of families and individuals flooding into their provinces and cities. Iraq’s support systems, which were just beginning to truly recover after the American withdrawal, are on the verge of collapse.

The IDP situation, despite its severity and urgency, is currently being overlooked by both the media and the public at large.

Who are the IDPs?

(Source: IOM DTM Round XXVIII)

IDP Overview - Governate of Displacement

The vast majority of IDPs (3.2 out of 3.9 million) began fleeing January 2014. Approximately 87% of IDPs are from three provinces: Anbar (1.33 million people), Ninewa (1.01 million people), and Salah al-Din (407,000 people) – the three provinces that make up the majority of ISIS’ “caliphate” in Iraq. in addition to the regular incentive for civilians to flee war and violence, a significant portion of these IDPs are groups that would suffer enormously under ISIS rule. Yezidis, Christians, Shia, single women, and families with young children are all notable groups who have fled. Check out our upcoming blog post to learn more about these at-risk groups.

Timeline of the Current IDP Crisis

(Source: IOM DTM Round XXVIII)

January – May 2014: (526,000 new IDPs)
IDPs who fled in this period came almost exclusively (95%+) from Anbar, as the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah in the Anbar province saw significant fighting between ISIS forces and the government. Major events include: Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) storming a protest camp outside of Ramadi; the deliberate flooding of the Euphrates River by ISIS, displacing tens of thousands;and the government indiscriminately shelling and bombing Fallujah, which caused massive public outcry handing ISIS significant propaganda material. While many of IDPs stayed within Anbar (267,000 IDPs), a significant portion began to move into the perceived safety of the Kurdistan region (150,000+ IDPs) and Baghdad (95,000 IDPs).

June-July 2014: (695,000 new IDPs)
With the fall of Mosul, the total collapse of Iraqi forces in much of the north, and ISIS’ resulting rapid expansion, refugees begin moving far across the country –with 74,300 IDPs, many Shia, fleeing to southern Iraq. and app.350,000, fleeing into areas controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). At the time, the KRG was the only effective fighting force opposed to ISIS in the north.

August 2014: (827,000 new IDPs)
August was the single worst month for Iraq in terms of IDPs, with those displaced during this period totaling 27% of the current IDP population. IDPs flooded into the mountainous Dahuk province (338,000 IDPs) and northern Ninewa (130,000 IDPs), mainly from ISIS-held Ninewa and the Sinjar region. It was here that the mass migration of the Yezidi people, originally based in the Sinjar region of Ninewa, occurred. A large portion of the Yezidi population sought refuge in Dahuk, where they remain to this day. Kurdistan received app.650,000 IDPs. International Coalition airstrikes also began during this period.

September 2014 – April 2015:(568,000 new IDPs)
While ISIS advancements slowed, the organization still made small gains in Anbar, Salah ad-Din, and Kirkuk. The most notable of these was the fall of the city of Hit in Anbar. However, with the retaking of Tikrit by ISF and Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), the only force effectively fighting ISIS in the region, we see the first significant wave of voluntary returnees.

April-September 2015: (564,000 new IDPs)
The fall of Ramadi, the largest city in the Anbar province, from April to mid- May caused 500,000+ people to flee. The majority of these IDPs (90% of the new IDP total) fled into other parts of Anbar (226,000 IDPs) or Baghdad (137,000 IDPs). Other notable displacement occurred in Kirkuk, as Peshmerga forces advanced across the south of the province, displacing app. 60,000 IDPs. The fall of Ramadi, arguably the most significant city to fall to ISIS since Mosul, shifted the focus of the ISF away from retaking the north of the country and towards Anbar.


(Source: IOM DTM Round XXVIII, various IOM Governorate Profiles)

There are three types of shelters available to displaced populations. The first, and most popular, is to stay in a private residence. This can range from staying with extended family or distant relatives to renting out space in private residences. Almost 70% of IDPs are currently using this method. The second most popular option, among 21% of IDPs, is “critical shelter arrangements.” This shelter type can range from abandoned buildings to schools/religious buildings to informal shelter arrangements..Displacement camps, the third option, are the least common form of shelter, as only 8% of the IDP population currently reside in one.

Private Residences: There are two (main) types of private residences available to IDPs: host families (hosting 29% of all IDPs) and rented private housing (hosting 40% of all IDPs). Seeking refuge in a hotel/motel, the third option, is utilized by only 1% of the population. Typically, host families are already familiar with, or related to, the family they host. This option is most popular in Anbar, where nearly 70% of IDPs live with a host family, and in Baghdad, where 51% do. These two provinces hold almost 3/4 of all IDPs who are staying with a host family.

For those who do not have enough ties in the region they are displaced to find a host family, rented private housing is the most popular option. This is by far the most popular option in the Kurdistan region and surrounding provinces, as a great deal of IDPs from Ninewa and Salah ad-Din had to flee into areas where they differed linguistically and culturally. While the majority of IDP renters reside in the Kurdistan region, Baghdad also has a significant population However, this number is slowly decreasing as IDPs are running out of resources, often leading them to turn to the next option for shelter.

Critical Shelter Arrangements:There are three main types of “critical shelter arrangements,” – living in an abandoned building, an informal settlement, or staying in a religious building. The most common type of “critical shelter arrangement” is living in abandoned or unfinished buildings – this is common in Dahuk and Ninewa, where abandoned buildings are being used by about a quarter of their IDP populations. This arrangement is concentrated in the Kurdistan region, both because of a lack of alternatives and because an interrupted real estate boom has created an unusually high number of half-finished buildings and abandoned construction projects.
IDP Overview - Type of Shelter

The second most common kind of critical arrangement is living in an “informal settlement.” This is also known by its pejorative names “shantytown,” or “slum.” The United Nations (UN) and other aid agencies have set up shop in many of these informal settlements. There is a growing number of IDPs utilizing this form of shelter in Anbar particularly, as the IDP population there has been displaced the longest and is running out of resources.

The third most common type of critical shelter is staying in a religious building. This option is most common in the south, where roughly 40% of the IDPs utilize this form of arrangement and represents over 90% of IDPs using this arrangement nationwide.

Displacement Camps: IDP camps are the final shelter choice, and are utilized by only 8% of IDPs. Nearly ¾ of camp residents in Iraq are located in northern Ninewa and Dahuk. This is because these geographically isolated and sparsely populated areas were unable to cope with the large number of IDPs entering their provinces. It is no coincidence that the two provinces with the greatest percentage of IDPs populations in camps – Ninewa and Dahuk – also have the number of IDPs residing in unfinished buildings. The international attention gained by the plight of the Yezidi people, a religious minority, also helped bring renewed attention to displacement camps.

Where are they now?

(Source: IOM DTM Round XXVIII, Source for regional reports: IOM Governorate Profiles, IOM DTM Round XXVIII)

Anbar: Current Hosted IDP Population: 584,748

Of the 1.33 million IDPs who come from Anbar, 71%, or nearly a million, have chosen to stay in either Anbar or neighboring Baghdad, where a very active ISIS insurgency is ongoing.It is theorized this is due to the close ties many tribes in Anbar have to the region and the importance of these connections. However, Anbar, which has seen the longest period of displacement, is facing an increasing number of IDPs turning to critical shelter arrangements as they and their host communities run out of funds. The use of host families reflects the utilization of tribal relationships of IDPs from Anbar, and the close connection of populations between the Sunni parts of Baghdad, which host the majority of the IDPs, and Anbar province.

Baghdad: Current Hosted IDP Population: 567,186

Over ¾ of IDPs in Baghdad come from Anbar or Baghdad. A plurality of these IDPs already had some form of connection in the city, as staying with a host family is the living situation for around 46% of IDPs in the city. Baghdad is currently suffering from an unstable security situation and rising costs of living, particularly rent, as renting a private dwelling is utilized by 42% of all IDPs.
Where are the IDPs Now-
Central Northern Iraq (parts of Salah ad-Din, parts of Diyala): Current Hosted IDP Population: ~200,000

Salah ad-Din and ISF-controlled areas of Diyala represent the majority of returnees throughout Iraq, mainly due to the ISF’s retaking of Kirkuk in early 2015. However, there has been evidence that many returnees have been forced to return from other provinces, likely on the grounds that their home province is secure.

KRG held territories (Dahuk, Erbil, Sulaimania, Kirkuk, Ninewa, parts of Salah ad-Din, parts of Diyala): Current Hosted IDP Population: ~1.5 million

Kurdistan is undoubtedly the region hit hardest by the wave of IDPs, taking in almost half of the total IDP population within its borders. For a government and an area that had at most 7.5 million people before this crisis, taking on an additional 1.5-2 million has been a hard challenge, particularly on top of the 250,000 Syrian refugees they were already sheltering. Kurdistan is beset by skyrocketing rent and fuel prices, depressed wages, a poverty level that has almost tripled, growing sectarian tensions, and an unclear political situation, as Prime Minister Barzani’s term has ended without him stepping down.

Southern Iraq (Basra, Maysan, Najaf, Dhi Qar, Qadisiya, Muthanna, Babil, Wasit, Karbala): Current Hosted IDP Population: ~300,000

Southern Iraq has taken relatively few IDPs, for the south is relatively far away from all fighting and thus the home location of IDPs. The majority of the IDPs that traveled to the southern provinces did so in June-July 2014, after the fall of Mosul. Evidence points to many of the IDPs being Shia – one of the last real remaining Shia communities in the north was spread across the Ninewa province, which is the source of over 85% of the IDPs who are now in the south. There were numerous reports of Shia IDPs being funnelled to airports in Kurdistan, where they were flown south. Their forced displacement has only exacerbated the geographic sectarian division of Iraq.

Returning home?

A Ray of Hope

Over 90% of IDPs wish to return to their homes. As ISF and Kurdish forces have begun to reclaim land from ISIS, a steady number of IDPs have begun returning to their homes, villages, and towns. That number has reached just around 360,000 at the time of this post. The returnees are located in five provinces: Anbar, Salah ad-Din, Diyala Ninewa, and Kirkuk. Of these five, Salah ad-Din represents the destination of just over half of all returnees, with those going back to Tikrit in particular making up 36% of the entire total. This represents the significant gains made by the ISF and PMUs in the province and the beginning of a trend that will hopefully continue as the ISF and Peshmerga retake more land.

A Darker Twist

There are, however, darker sides to this trend. Not all returns are voluntary. An unknown, but significant portion of these returnees are forced out of their displacement because the area they fled to is no longer safe, they are no longer welcome, or continued residence there is economically unfeasible. For example, in late August of 2015, Kirkuk province reportedly asked all IDPs from Diyala to return to their province. Many return to their homes not because the danger has passed, but simply because they have nowhere else to go. Nearly 15% of those who are returning are returning with no home to go to – 11% of all returnees end up living in abandoned buildings, in situations that are little different than their displacement. Primarily, just because IDPs are counted as returning to their province and community, it does not mean that they can simply walk back into their lives.

Furthermore, IDPs are also facing serious restrictions on fleeing- IDPs from Anbar are barred at this point from entering Baghdad, Kirkuk, Babil, and Diyala. Any IDPs who are looking to currently enter Kurdistan proper must have a local sponsor.


Almost every problem that Iraq faces has been multiplied a hundredfold due to this mass migration of people. The enormous number of IDPs inside Iraq has put strain on social services, educational systems, healthcare, and security services – areas that will be further explored in future posts. This is a crisis that cannot be ignored. The cost of displacement is incalculable – to families, lives, education, health, and mental well-being.

Given the protracted war against ISIS and the challenge of restoring security in areas cleared of ISIS, it could be years before a majority of Iraq’s displaced families feel safe enough to return to their homes. Meanwhile, a concentrated effort needs to be made to help maintain a basic standard of living for these IDPs.

Next Week’s Post: Vulnerable Populations, including Religious Minorities, Women, and Children

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