Waiting for Winter: Displaced Iraqis in the KRI

About 850,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) have fled the conflict in central Iraq to seek safety further north in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). They are scattered across the KRI in a variety of temporary housing situations: though a small number of them are in camps, most live informally in local schools, unfinished buildings, and public parks. Half a million of them are in the city of Dohuk alone.

The great majority of these 850,000 internally displaced are members of religious minorities – Christians from the Ninewa Plains and Yazidis from the Sinjar area, in particular. As humanitarian agencies scramble to meet their needs, there must be a plan for longer-term support that reflects the increasingly complex and unpredictable environment in the country as a whole: an environment that is likely to result in more displacement. Iraq’s central government, donor governments, and aid agencies should make providing adequate shelter to IDPs the highest priority over the next several weeks.


Since 2003, Iraq has seen a tremendous amount of forced displacement both across and within its borders. Historically a haven for refugees from Iran and Turkey, the country also became the site of a massive internal displacement crisis during the American-led occupation. That crisis has still not been resolved. Additionally, over the course of the past three years, approximately 215,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in the KRI seeking safety from the conflict. They are mostly – but not exclusively – Syrian Kurds. Many of them traveled great distances across Syria in order to seek refuge in a place where the language and customs would be familiar to them. As in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, the humanitarian response to the Syrian refugees in the KRI has been a challenging one. The host communities and local and regional government officials have been generous and welcoming, but it has been hard to keep up with the sheer numbers of people arriving. Donor funding for the five countries involved in the UN’s Syrian refugee response has lagged far behind needs, and Iraq has consistently had one of the largest shortfalls in support. The current UNHCR appeal to fund work in Iraq is only 33 percent covered. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) nonetheless welcome a steady stream of Syrians fleeing the conflict, and has lately been permitting Syrian refugees from Kobani to enter via Turkey. This year also witnessed several waves of displacement of Iraqis into the KRI after incursions by the group known as the Islamic State (or ISIS). Many, though not all, of those fleeing violence in Anbar in January and the takeover of Mosul in June by the Islamic State group have since returned home. However, hundreds of thousands who fled recent attacks close to the border with Syria remain. 

The onset of winter brings the need for reinforced or alternative shelter. For those living outdoors and in buildings without walls, thin tents – often made of light blankets – are the most common form of shelter and will offer scant protection from the elements when the weather becomes severe and temperatures get close to freezing. Humanitarian needs will consequently increase significantly over the next few months as the weather becomes cold and wet, and the aid system in place is not yet ready to respond on the scale that will be necessary. Besides a proliferation of flimsy living structures, many of the informal outdoor settlements in the cities do not have proper water supplies and sanitation systems, and the health problems that come with winter will be exacerbated by difficult hygiene conditions. There will also be challenges in medical care for communicable diseases like influenza that are spread when people are crowded into close quarters. Without exception, aid agencies and government officials cited winter preparations as their most pressing concern for the IDPs. 


  • The United States government should provide planes to assist in the delivery of humanitarian supplies to Iraq in time for winter.
  • Iraq’s central government should immediately provide the Kurdistan region of Iraq (KRI) with its legally-mandated share of the national budget which has been withheld in 2014.
  • Recognizing the Iraq central government’s responsibility for internally displaced people (IDPs) in the Kurdistan Region, it should continue its food aid support through its Public Distribution System.
  • The Iraqi government, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), donor governments, and aid agencies should put the highest priority on providing adequate shelter to IDPs in the KRI over the next several weeks, as laid out in the Immediate Response Plan (IRP) developed by the KRG and the United Nations.
  • The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) should immediately implement a public education campaign for IDPs on relocation to available camps in order to minimize misinformation and to create a better understanding of available services and shelter options.
  • Iraq’s central government and the KRG should collaborate substantively with aid organizations to ensure continued support for meeting IDPs’ humanitarian needs.
  • Regional leaders and the European Union should provide financial support to the humanitarian response for Iraqi IDPs.
  • Given the likelihood that this displacement crisis will persist beyond the winter, the humanitarian community should make longer-term plans for support to the IDP population.

Daryl Grisgraber and Michel Gabaudan traveled to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq in September 2014 and assessed the humanitarian response to the newly arrived internally displaced population.