Too Much Too Soon: Displaced Iraqis and the Push to Return Home

The battle against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq is in its late stages, but in the aftermath of the conflict new challenges arise. There are 11 million people in Iraq who need humanitarian assistance. The original causes of their vulnerability — conflict and displacement – may be lessening, but their unmet daily needs remain.

The various elements of rebuilding Iraq are still developing, but there is general agreement among the numerous parties interested in Iraq’s reconstruction that solutions to the plight of the country’s 3.2 million internally displaced persons will be a critical component of Iraq’s future development.

With so many internally displaced people (IDPs) in Iraq, IDP returns are a subject of much discussion. Internal displacement is a long-standing issue in Iraq: between 2006 and 2008, as many as 2.5 million people were displaced as a result of sectarian violence that followed the U.S.-led invasion, and while many returned to their homes in subsequent years, some three million have been newly displaced as a result of ISIS activity since 2014. They live in camps, in informal settlements, in rented accommodation and in host communities throughout the country.

The ten-year reconstruction plan for Iraq announced by the Prime Minister in late June includes a goal “to return all displaced persons to their places of origin,” and in some locations, local authorities have shown themselves eager to start that process. However, there are serious concerns about how, when, and where these returns can or should take place.

“All returns [in Iraq] are premature. No areas are ready to receive people.”

NGO staff member in Iraq
IDP Family in Anbar Governorate


The events of the past several years in Iraq are not the country’s first major displacement crisis but may well be its largest and most complex. When the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq began in 2003, roughly one million IDPs were already living across the country. Following the invasion, and the sectarian strife and generalized violence that ensued, those numbers increased by a million and a half over the course of five years. In addition, two million people fled the country entirely. With greater stability around 2008, some IDPs did return home, but more than one million people remained displaced during the ensuing six years, many of them heavily dependent upon humanitarian aid that could not cover all of their needs.

Since January 2014, when the Islamic State (ISIS) began taking over significant amounts of territory in Iraq, millions more people have been forced to flee, millions have returned home, and millions are currently stalled in internal displacement with no certainty of what the future might bring. Today, there are 3.2 million IDPs in Iraq, most of whom have been displaced since mid-2014. More than two million more people have now been classified as returnees –IDPs who have gone back to their area of origin. Eleven million people – including IDPs – need humanitarian assistance of some kind. 


  • The international donor community must ensure that funds for humanitarian aid to Iraqi IDPs – including returnees still in need of assistance – continue to flow even as the transition to stabilization activities happens. This will require full financial and coordination support for the UN plan for early recovery – the support phase that comes between emergency humanitarian assistance and long-term development – as this includes continuing attention to humanitarian needs.
  • The government of Iraq – including the Ministry of Displacement and Migration, the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, and the Ministry of Trade – should put more resources into creating acceptable conditions for IDP returns. The government should also increase resources for reconciliation programs implemented in partnership with local and international groups, and donors must make funding such programs a priority.
  • The international community, particularly the United States and United Nations, must continue to support the government of Iraq in its response to IDPs to ensure that returns are safe, voluntary, and dignified, and that humanitarian assistance before and after return remains an integral part of the response, even as more donors and aid groups shift focus to development activities.
  • The 2018 Humanitarian Response Plan, being developed by officials of the UN, international agencies, and NGOs in coordination with the government of Iraq, should include IDP returns as an area of focus, with an emphasis on avoiding premature returns in all areas. This would build on the 2017 Humanitarian Response Plan’s recognition of IDP returns as an essential element of humanitarian response. Assistance in obtaining civil documentation for IDPs and returnees, and in resolving housing, land, and property issues, must also be high priorities.
  • Given current overall circumstances in Iraq, the government of Iraq and provincial and local authorities should not force or pressure IDPs to return. Any de facto incentives must be coupled with accurate information to potential returnees on conditions in their home areas.

Daryl Grisgraber and Francisca Vigaud-Walsh traveled to Iraq in July 2017. RI extends special thanks to the displaced people who shared their stories with us.