Since reaching the official end of the crisis with ISIL in December 2017, the humanitarian context in Iraq entered a new stage: post‑conflict status has allowed for the return of over 4.3 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) to their areas of origin. Refugees from abroad have also started returning from neighbouring Turkey and Syrian Arab Republic as well as from more distant countries, such as Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands.
However, since the second half of 2018 the pace of return – the percentage change in the number of returns – has greatly slowed, dropping from 133 per cent, recorded between May 2017 and May 2018, to 10 per cent observed between May 2018 and June 2019. In the three governorates of Anbar, Diyala and Erbil, returns increased by only five per cent or less between May 2018 and June 2019. At district level, the return process is nearly stalled in both Al-Ba’aj and Ramadi – respectively the fourth and fifth districts of origin for IDPs.2 There are also important variations in terms of rates of return – the ratio of returnees in a specific governorate/ district to the sum of returnees and IDPs originally from the same governorate/district. Around 90 per cent of IDPs originally from Anbar have come back to their location of origin versus 64 per cent and 75 per cent respectively of those originally from Ninewa and Salah al-Din. “Critical” districts – those with no returns – include Al-Musayab and Hilla in Babylon Governorate, Adhamia, Al-Resafa, Karkh and Mada’in in Baghdad Governorate, Baladrooz and Ba’quba in Diyala Governorate, and Al-Thetar in Salah al-Din Governorate.
As of June 2019, about 1.61 million people are still living in displacement. The long time spent away from home (70% fled before October 2016) coupled with unresolved intergroup dynamics and new sources of instability (such as concerns over the resurgence of ISIL) impacts their ability to return and in some cases triggers secondary displacement. At the end of 2018, at least 120,000 individuals were secondarily displaced either in new locations of displacement or following a failed attempt to return to their location of origin.3 Long-term intentions are largely consistent with May 2018 findings – suggesting an upward trend towards permanent relocation, which now stands at 25 per cent. Short-term intentions to remain in displacement have also risen from 68 per cent to 75 per cent – pointing in the direction of deferring returns.
When looking at obstacles to return, trends indicate that security and safety concerns have decreased in severity from 81 per cent in 2016 to 36 per cent in 2019, due to the general improvement in security conditions. Fear of changed ethno-religious composition at origin has also decreased to 9 per cent after peaking at 27 per cent in 2018. The obstacle “lack of means to return and restart” dropped from 32 per cent to 17 per cent, with a higher prevalence among IDPs in Sulaymaniyah (56%). This change is similar to the obstacle of blocked returns (from 26% to 5% in 2019), with a higher prevalence among IDPs settled in Salah al-Din (26%).
The three key push factors hindering returns appear to be the lack of job opportunities (73%), services (68%) and shelter (62%) at location of origin. Although housing destruction/ damage improved slightly compared to last year (-9%), it is still the main obstacle to return for households settled in Babylon, Baghdad, Diyala, Qadissiya, Salah al-Din and Wassit.
Evidence of unstable/temporary returns – i.e. households who returned to the location of displacement after first returning to their locations of origin – was also recorded in six per cent of the locations of displacement. This instability seems primarily linked with negative push factors, such as lack of means to remain in displacement (18% of returnee locations across Iraq accounting for around 130,000 returnee households) as well as pressures to return from authorities, either in the location of displacement, origin or both (9% of locations in 2019).
It would also appear that the lack of means to remain in displacement (reported by 42% in 2016 and 47% in 2017) and the issue of ‘pushed’ returns (26% in 2017) triggered many returns at early stages. Incentives/support by government authorities/humanitarian actors (22%) and encouragement by community/religious leaders (28%), were also relatively strong pull factors in 2017. These returns may have been premature, as evidenced by the high number of returnees still living in high severity conditions as per Return Index data (472,350 individuals across 279 locations).4 In addition, these returns did not necessarily meet security conditions: only 67 per cent and 75 per cent of returnees in 2016 and 2017 respectively chose to return because they deemed the location of origin to be safe.
Access to employment/livelihoods continues to be the main need of returnees, mentioned in around 70 per cent of locations. Over 80 per cent of returnees live in locations where the availability of jobs is ‘insufficient’ and over half live in locations where most individuals “are not economically active”. The lack of training or vocational centres and programmes to support business start-ups is an issue in around 15 per cent of returnee locations – and more so in Anbar (27% of locations).
Return dynamics can be further complicated by security issues, tensions between different population groups and unequal access to resources. While there has been a widespread improvement in security conditions since May 2018, in around 10 per cent of locations (mostly in the eight governorates of origin of IDPs) there is evidence of security incidents associated with the resurgence of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) asymmetric warfare. Specifically, 55 per cent of returnees live in locations where ‘fear about the resurgence of ISIL’ was reported.
In general, the relationship between different population groups (IDPs, returnees and stayers) appears to be positive and stable – overall, the presence of incidents involving physical violence, threats and mistrust in general was reported only occasionally in fewer than five per cent of locations across Iraq. The issue of biased access to resources has also largely improved: overall between 8 per cent and 14 per cent of returnees and between 25 per cent and 34 per cent of IDPs live in locations where favouritism regarding employment and political representation was reported (versus 45% of returnees and 50% of IDPs in 2018).
As for practices that could facilitate the reconciliation process, the situation regarding housing, land and property (HLP) issues appears to have improved. Ownership issues were only mentioned in around one per cent of returnee locations (vs. around 10% last year), mostly in Ninewa and Salah al-Din and a few in Diyala and Anbar. Nevertheless, nearly 70 per cent of returnees (and 51% of IDPs) live in districts where legal services are not available, over one third in districts where there are no courts , and 6 per cent of returnees (and 27% of IDPs) live in districts where there are no offices for the replacement of civil documentation.