Iraq has seen a resurgence of large-scale displacement and pressing humanitarian needs in the past twelve months. The civil war in Syria forced hundreds of thousands of people to seek shelter in Iraq, including Iraqi refugees who fled there after the U.S.-led invasion. More recently, over three-quarters of a million internally displaced persons (IDPs) have arrived in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), and an even larger number are displaced throughout the rest of the country.
Current Humanitarian Situation
As Syria’s civil war has dragged on, the direction of forced migration for many Iraqi refugees has reversed. Tens of thousands of Iraqis who sought refuge in Syria between 2003 and 2011 have returned home, joining about a million Iraqis who were already internally displaced. This year, the advance of the Islamic State group in central Iraq forced more than three-quarters of a million people from their homes, bringing the total number of Iraqi IDPs to roughly two million.
Internally displaced Iraqis are extremely vulnerable and live in constant fear, with limited access to shelter, food, and basic services. Although the Iraqi government announced plans in January 2011 to address internal displacement issues, the vast majority of Iraqi IDPs continue to live in temporary shelters. The unemployment rate among IDPs remains high, and women, children, and persons without official identification documents are particularly vulnerable.
Unfortunately, many of the IDPs in central Iraq are beyond the reach of humanitarian agencies, located in areas where armed groups are active and insecurity prevents adequate assistance. In these places, IDPs have often been displaced several times and have extremely limited access to safer areas. Religious and ethnic minorities face an additional fear of discrimination when searching for safety and aid.
At the same time, roughly 250,000 Syrian refugees have sought safety in Iraq – primarily in the KRI – and more continue to arrive as the Syrian conflict continues. Though a number of camps have been established for the refugees, the majority live outside those camps and struggle to get by in the cities and towns of the KRI. Social services structures and programs are underdeveloped and ill-equipped to handle such a heavy load.
The Kurdistan Regional Government has welcomed both the Syrian refugees and the IDPs with a tremendous amount of concern and good will. But its finances are troubled, and its ability to provide humanitarian aid is limited. The situation is further complicated by Iraq’s central government, which is reluctant to take responsibility for the displaced Iraqis and provide them with aid on the scale that they require.