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Access to Durable Solutions Among IDPs in Iraq: Six Years in Displacement

Georgetown Univ.
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This report was authored by Salma Al-Shami, Rochelle Davis, and Jeffrey Woodham.


What happens to households experiencing protracted displacement during a global pandemic? This is not a question that Access to Durable Solutions Among IDPs in Iraq, a panel study conducted by IOM and Georgetown University, initially anticipated answering at its inception six years ago. Yet this question is one the study is uniquely positioned to answer. The mixed-method project collects data from surveys and interviews to understand how the same Iraqi IDP households displaced by the conflict with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) try to access a “durable solution” to their displacement as defined by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s Framework on Durable Solutions.

Conducted among the non-camp population of IDPs displaced between 2014 and 2015, the study operationalized the eight criteria that collectively measure a durable solution: safety and security, standard of living, livelihood, housing, access to documentation, family reunification, participation in public affairs, and access to justice. Using each of these criteria over six rounds of data collection, the study has tracked changes in what challenges IDP households face and the solutions they engineer as they search for a durable solution to their displacement.

Based on findings from the newest, sixth round of data collection, this report details not only how COVID-19 affects IDPs, but specifically, and in keeping with the purpose of the study, how the COVID-19 pandemic affected IDP households’ abilities to achieve a durable solution. This latter endeavor entails two tasks: first, to identify what challenges persist because they existed pre-COVID-19 (and are thus primarily displacement-related), and second, to identify what challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has created or made worse. The longitudinal nature of the Access to Durable Solutions study and its ability to compare current findings with past trends using the same indicators facilitated disentangling and completing these two tasks.

As of September 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) has recorded almost 2 million cases of COVID-19 (5% of the population) and 22,000 deaths in Iraq out of a population of 41 million. Over 6.6 million vaccine doses have been administered. Although the pandemic struck Iraq in March 2020, the periods with the highest reported illness were in 2021, with a smaller peak in mid-April (during the survey fielding) and its largest peak in July (after fielding was completed). The early curfews, lockdowns, and online education of 2020 likely kept people more at home early in the pandemic and thus lessened the early spread of the disease, although there was a smaller wave of illness that peaked in September 2020.

This timeline provides the contextual background for understanding IDP households’ key COVID-19-related concerns and which of the eight criteria were most impacted by the pandemic. One of the key findings from previous reports in this series was that over time, IDPs’ progress towards attaining a durable solution had at worst stagnated; as of Round 5 (October 2019-January 2020), IDP households’ overall circumstances had not gotten worse. In Round 6, this finding changes slightly. This report finds that the COVID-19 pandemic did not affect the majority of trends previously observed in each of the eight criteria for reaching a durable solution, with the exception of two: standard of living and access to justice—specifically, compensation for housing that was damaged or destroyed during the ISIL crisis.

Longitudinal trends suggest that COVID-19 has had a particularly negative effect on the overall need to change food consumption patterns and lower expenses. Commensurately, the economic strain COVID-19 has caused and ensuing effects on daily living expenses appears to have heightened the urgency for IDP households to receive compensation. While the number of IDP households applying to compensation has stagnated for the first time, there is a noticeable shift and an emergent, coherent narrative regarding IDPs’ vision of justice with compensation at its core.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic affected the same sectors— healthcare, the economy, and education—as it did in many other countries, the accompanying oil crisis in Iraq exacerbated its effects. The oil economy weakened due to less oil demand globally and “adherence to OPEC+ production cuts agreement which led to a 17.6 per cent contraction in oil GDP”. Furthermore, the pandemic-related curfews and closures resulted in a nine per cent contraction of the non-oil economy, hardest hit being the religious tourism and service sectors. Combined with the fall of the Iraqi dinar in relation to the US dollar, prices for basic goods in Iraq rose dramatically. According to the World Bank, in 2020 the Iraqi economy experienced the largest contraction since 2003.

Lockdowns and curfews stifling economic activity affected the poor and IDPs more than others due to their reliance on informal and day labor as their primary source of income. As of April 2021, unemployment was more than “10 percentage points higher than the pre-pandemic level.” Little was offered by the government in assistance, other than food baskets and other in-kind goods. The southern and northern parts of Iraq remain the part of the country with the highest levels of poverty; in the north, “the poverty rate among displaced households was more than two times higher than non-displaced households” while the southern parts are the areas with the lowest numbers of IDPs but with slightly higher levels of poverty overall.

After highlighting key findings from Round 6, this report proceeds with four additional sections. Part II focuses specifically on trends among IDPs who remain displaced in the same location to which they were first displaced at the inception of the study in 2016. Across each of the eight criteria, this section of the report presents findings over six rounds of data collection in progress made—or stalled—in IDP households’ achieving a durable solution with particular attention given to the trends that were most likely to be adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Part III then provides a summary of progress towards achieving a durable solution among sampled returnee households who returned to their districts of origin in Round 6. Given that not all households returned at the same time, and that some criteria are time-dependent, this chapter summarizes where things stand among each of the eight criteria in Round 6 only. Once again, looking only at IDPs who have remained in their initial places of displacement, Part IV focuses on the effects of COVID-19 and delves more deeply into IDPs’ perceptions of how the pandemic has affected the economy, healthcare access, and children’s education. The report concludes in Part V with overall recommendations that follow six years’ worth of data collection and reports from Access to Durable Solutions Among IDPs in Iraq.


  • Of the eight criteria, three have never posed a central challenge to the non-camp population the study tracks. Since Round 1 (March-May 2016), a very small minority of IDP families have lost documentation (less than 7%), been separated from family (less than 5%), or participated in public affairs (less than 8%).

  • Nearly all households in this IDP population satisfied a fourth criterion—safety and security—upon their initial displacement. By Round 6 (February- June 2021), 99 per cent of IDPs report feeling completely or moderately safe since their first year in displacement. That non-camp IDPs feel safe, have not lost or have been able to replace documentation, and are not separated from their families is a significant accomplishment of IDPs, of the host community, and of and for Iraq.

  • The share of IDP households reporting they have faced discrimination in accessing employment, housing, civil status services, health services, and education has decreased considerably since Round 3 (July-September 2017) and reached an all-time low in Round 6 (February-June 2021). This suggests that IDPs are experiencing more acceptance in their communities over time.

  • Challenges remain for IDPs in meeting their basic needs as well as for their standard of living. Though the majority (70%) are able to provide for their basic needs, households have had to adopt at least one negative coping strategy, particularly as it relates to food consumption. This change in food behavior appears largely linked to the pandemic-related economic fallout.

  • In light of the challenges with providing for basic needs, IDPs’ overall assessment of their standard of living has fallen for the first time since the beginning of the study. In Round 6 (February-June 2021), more IDPs say they are worse off than they were prior to displacement than the share that said the same in Round 2 (February-April 2017).

  • As previously reported in Access to Durable Solutions Among IDPs in Iraq: Three Years in Displacement, fields of employment and labor for households living in displacement continue to be dynamic. In Round 6 most households are employed in a sector different from those in which they were employed in Round 1. Despite this fluidity at the household level, informal labor continues to be the dominant sector in which most IDPs acquire employment.

  • While receiving aid was critical to IDP households in the first several years of displacement, just under 10 per cent report getting aid in Round 6. The type of aid received has also changed in later rounds, with more households reporting getting food and water rather than cash and nonfood items. This shift is in keeping with the source of the aid: local charities and individuals, rather than the government or NGOs.

  • Borrowing money remains critical to IDP households’ survival, and those closest to displaced households continue to bear the burden of support. Nearly two thirds of all households in Rounds 3 through 6 (July-September 2017 through February-June 2021) report having borrowed money in the previous calendar year. While overwhelming majorities are able to borrow the money, in Round 6, more than 80 per cent do so from relatives or friends.

  • Displacement outside of camps means additional costs for housing, which represents one of the greatest financial burdens for IDP households. In Rounds 4, 5, and 6 (August-November 2018 and February-June 2021), rent consistently represented approximately 25 per cent of their monthly expenses and was second only to the amount spent on food.

  • The more time that passes with IDPs absent from their homes in their places of origin, the worse the conditions of their homes become, making return considerably more challenging. As more IDP households have gained access to their homes and learned of their condition, IDPs increasingly report that their homes are heavily damaged or destroyed, peaking at 77 per cent in Round 6 (February-June 2021), up from 64 per cent who said the same Round 5 (October 2019-January 2020).

  • IDP households’ ideas about justice changed radically over time. The concern with the prosecution of criminals as key to achieving justice expressed in earlier rounds of the study has instead shifted to two elements related to IDPs’ losses: compensation for violations and restoration of livelihoods. Over time, the share of households suggesting compensation is the most important aspect of achieving justice has risen from just two per cent in Round 2 (February-April 2017) to 33 per cent in Round 6 (February-June 2021).

  • The compensation that IDP households define as a key element of achieving justice, however, has been slow to come from the government. While 58 per cent of IDP households in Round 6 had applied for compensation, four out of five households (79%) that did apply say their claim is still pending. Just three per cent of those who applied have received money